Herzog Boulevard, the road that runs between the ultra- Orthodox neighborhood of
Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the older Kiryat Aryeh Sheinfeld community, resembles
a war zone.
On one side of the tree-lined street black-hatted men and
turban-clad woman stand on the sidewalk and the balconies staring across the
street. Opposite are men donning knitted kippot and women in long skirts,
clearly patrolling their territory.
In the middle sits a flashing police
patrol car. Several officers in deep conversation stand in a cluster. They are
there to make sure things stay calm.
It’s lunchtime on a weekday and the
national-religious Bnot Orot girls school is about to ring its final bell. The
school, which opened amid much controversy on September 1, has brought tensions
between these two communities to the fore in recent weeks and highlights an
on-going battle between the haredim (ultra- Orthodox) and the other sectors
living in Beit Shemesh, a city of 86,000 residents.
Last Tuesday night,
the haredi community, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of the city, held a
mass protest to air their anger over the school’s presence, which is on their
side of the street and which they believe was promised to them for use as boys’
school. They also say that the school’s dress code – the girls wear long skirts
and long sleeves but no stockings – offends their moral standards.
Sunday night, members of the national-religious community and more secular
residents plan to march against what they see as haredi pressure to change the
nature of the town.
“We have nothing against the national-religious
community, the problem is all political,” said Shmuel Pappenheim, an active
member of the haredi Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet community. “We do not
understand why a national-religious girls school would have been built right
next to the haredi community. The land was promised to us for a public
buildings, and now the mayor has given it to them.”
Pappenheim said Mayor
Moshe Abutbul (Shas), himself a member of the haredi community, had agreed to
open the school as part of a political deal.
“We have been trying to
discuss this issue for a few years but we were not successful, so now we will
put up a fight our own way,” he said.
And “fight” is exactly what members
of the haredi community have done, regardless of the fact that their targets
have often been schoolchildren between six and 12 years of age.
to reports from within the national-religious camp, over the past few weeks
since the school opened, ultra- Orthodox men often stand nearby hurling insults
such as “pritza
” (“whore”) and “shiksa
” (“non-Jew”) or throwing eggs and feces
at the girls as they leave school. Last week, two men, members of the extremist
Sikrikim group, were arrested for egg-throwing.
“Look at the kids, look
at their faces, they are visibly scared,” said community activist Dov Lipman, an
immigrant from the US and one of those who has taken up the battle on behalf of
the national religious.
Sure enough, as the children leave the school
they look up cautiously at the balconies overlooking the street.
all quiet today?” one asks Lipman.
The boy reacts excitedly when Lipman
tells him there has been no trouble so far.
“We have a group of adults,
some do not even have children in the school, who come out here each day to
escort the children as they walk home,” said Lipman, who is busily fielding
phone calls inquiring about Sunday night’s demonstration.
demonstrate in exactly the same place they [ultra-Orthodox protesters] did last
Tuesday night, to show that we will not back down,” he said. “They are
determined to make Beit Shemesh a haredi city and, I think, in other places they
successfully intimidated local residents, but we will not run away.”
planned demonstration and the daily escorts from school, however, have been only
part of the response. Others, acknowledged Lipman, have taken matters into their
own hands, posting photos of the men seen egging the schoolgirls and calling
“It is not nice but it worked, those men did not show up
again,” Lipman said. He believes that part of the determination to “stand up to
the extremists” stems from the fact that many in Beit Shemesh’s
national-religious community are immigrants.
“We are all relatively new
and I think that makes us more determined to not let them destroy our
dream,” he said, adding that the school is only part of the
Indeed, a little less than two years ago tensions grew high when
the ultra-Orthodox demanded responsibility for a local mikve ritual bath and,
more recently, there have been several violent incidents on public buses that
have been declared “mehedrin
” or gender-segregated. The national-religious
camp has already started to address the latter issue and will soon launch a
counter-campaign called “Take a Seat” to fight the practice, which is
One woman who will likely abstain from taking part in planned
civil disobedience against the segregated buses is recent US immigrant Rachel
Weinstein, who moved to Beit Shemesh with her family in
July, accidentally found herself on a “mehedrin” bus and describes the
experience as “very traumatic.”
Writing about it on her blog
http://rachelsjourneytotheholyland.blogspot.com, Weinstein, who refused
to sit at the back of the bus despite threats from haredi passengers, labeled
the post: “Rosa Parkenstein has arrived,” a reference to Rosa Parks, the black
woman whose refusal to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger
sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955.
“As we got on the
bus, a man told my husband that it was a segregated bus,” Weinstein recalled. “I
turned round to him and said, “Well it’s not segregated for me” and I sat down
near the front.”
Weinstein said she was then verbally attacked by a woman
who called her a “shiksa” and a “whore.”
“I was shaking and so angry, but
I refused to move,” she said. “I do not understand this behavior, a Jew is a Jew
and it should make no difference where I sit on a bus.”
A request from
The Jerusalem Post
to interview the mayor did not receive a
However, municipal spokesman Matitiyahu Rosensweig commented:
“We have nothing new to say on this matter, it is not a new issue. Despite the
involvement of national government offices in the [Bnot Orot girls school],
which has served to disrupt our efforts, the mayor continues to make efforts to
solve the problem and bring the two sides together.”