School battle looms in Beit Shemesh

Residents protest against "haredi extremists" threatening violence if planned opening of local national religious girls’ school goes ahead.

Religious school girls 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Religious school girls 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hundreds of Beit Shemesh residents protested in the city on Monday against what they say is the city’s caving in to pressure from the local haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population which threatens to leave the doors of a local girls’ school shuttered come September 1.
Two years ago ground was broken to build a branch of the Orot Banot national religious girls school. The ground-breaking was met by fierce protests on the part of some of the city’s haredi residents, irate about the presence of the national religious school within what they say is the confines of their neighborhood, as well as due to the fact that it would be a girls' school.
The Beit Shemesh parents committee said Monday that a week ago the municipality and the Education Ministry reached an agreement that the building will house the Orot Banot school for girls. The mayor even sent a letter congratulating the committee, but days later it received a letter from the mayor’s office asking them not to have the girls study there on September 1, due to the threat of violence from haredi extremists. The committee said that it then held a meeting with the mayor in which members said he felt his hands were tied by the extremists, and he asked them to settle on a compromise.
Locals say that a number of haredi extremists also broke into the building and began squatting there after it became apparent that the girls’ school would open.
‘Ruth’, a mother of two elementary school boys studying at the national religious school, said that the city’s Mayor Moshe Abutbul has caved to pressure on the part of a small minority of haredi extremists within the city.
“Since the mayor was elected as a haredi mayor there is a feeling that haredi people are getting more advantages than the national religious residents. We don’t object to them having their own schools or buildings, just we want our own as well.
“I think that the feeling is that they [haredi extremists] are trying to make it a haredi city and trying to use all means to do so. The threats of violence against the girls seems to have worked because they got want they wanted which is the city’s refusing to let the girls have the school.”
In a statement sent to The Jerusalem Post on Monday, the Beit Shemesh municipality said “the schoolhouse in question is located in a haredi neighborhood.
Residents of the neighborhood maintain that the building belongs to the haredi residents and was built on public land allocated for the neighborhood.
In spite of this, the mayor is interested in parceling this land to the national religious school ‘Sha’alei Torah Banim’. To our dismay, Sha’alei Torah is not showing the necessary flexibility to this and is insisting on building a girl’s school within the building.”
The municipality added that “it is worth noting that when construction of the building began two years ago, there were fierce demonstrations held at the scene by neighborhood residents who blocked the scene with their bodies and stopped the work at the site. The mayor took note of the situation and worked a great deal between the two sides in order to reach a compromise.”
The statement added that the mayor “also offered Sha’alei Torah a series of benefits in order to get them to accept a compromise, but at the moment, they are violating that agreement and leading to an unnecessary dispute between the residents.”
The statement continued: “In response to the threat of violence, the mayor said ‘the police have passed on intelligence saying that there are threats to the safety and security of the girls who will study in the building, due to the expected violent actions of extremists. The mayor has asked for the police’s help in securing the citizens of Bet Shemesh and the city hall has sought to quiet the area and populate the building solely in keeping with the agreement reached between the two sides.”
Mati Rozenzweig, a spokesman for the municipality said Monday that the mayor, the national religious leader and local haredi leaders managed to reach an agreement a year and a half ago following protests by local haredim, under which the building would be for boys only, and the girls would study elsewhere.
Rozenzweig said that the new building is only one of three being built as part of the Sha’alei Torah chain and that there is no shortage of school rooms for students from the school system.
He also said that one compromise was to have the girls study at an all boys Sha’ale Torah school in nearby Ramat Beit Shemesh, and to have the boys at that school study at on the coed campus that is at the heart of the controversy.
He said that what went wrong is that national religious protesters broke into the school and began squatting there, at which time they were met by haredi protesters who also broke in.
When asked if the city hall was surrendering to extremists, Rozenzweig drew a comparison to the rocket attacks on the South, saying, “when there were rockets falling on Ashkelon and they canceled school, was this surrendering to terror? We are in favor of any compromise that brings quiet to the city.”
Yossi Green, a father of three who lives in the second building down from the school, said he opposes its opening.
“I am very against there being a school. I pay mortgage every month, and this facility is on our property, so who does it belong to? The ones who live here. I can’t walk in the streets here with my children because there are women in the street who are religious, but not in haredi dress.
This is not the education that I am teaching my children.”
He added, “I am not a person to go to demonstrations or to throw rocks, but I will have to move if this school opens.”
The Education Ministry told the Post on Monday that the school under controversy Orot Neria will open this year’s studies on September 1, just like the rest of the schools in Israel.