Everyone agrees that the Battle of Beit Shemesh – my hometown for over a decade
– is about a group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on
a group of nice, normal Jews. But whereas the secular, national-religious and
moderate haredim (ultra-Orthodox) think that the group of hostile, hateful
people trying to impose their ideology on others are the haredi extremists,
mainstream haredim think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to
impose their ideology on others are the secular.
Hadash, the weekly
haredi newspaper in Beit Shemesh, was formerly owned by Mayor Moshe Abutbol’s
official spokesman. It was sold to new ownership which maintains devout loyalty
to the mayor and the haredi community. A giant front-page headline last
week screamed “THE BLITZ!” Under that, the article said haredi residents of Beit
Shemesh have become “a target of persecution, the likes of which have never been
The entire issue contained article after article about the
terrible, evil secular campaign against the haredim, with each article including
a graphic captioned “The city under attack!”
The lead editorial ranted on and on
about the terrible, baseless persecution of the haredi population and denounced
the kippa-wearing people who brought the Banat Orot school situation to the
attention of the wider public. There was not a single word condemning the haredi
Especially ironic was a half-page article about a Haaretz
journalist who allegedly spat on a little girl. This was in a newspaper which
never prints articles about the countless acts of harassment against the
national-religious that have taken place for years in Beit Shemesh – stealing
flags, throwing stones, spitting, threatening businesses, attacking children and
much more. Even when there was a mob beating of national-religious kids which
resulted in my neighbor’s child requiring stitches in his head, the newspaper
claimed that it was all the kids’ fault!
JUST AS important, however, the secular
interpretation of events is sometimes no more accurate. Many secular Jews
possess the absurd belief that all haredim, or even all religious Jews, are of
the same mindset as the extremists. Former Meretz Party chairman Yossi
Sarid declared that Judaism itself halachically mandates such behavior (!), and
that all religious parties should be disqualified from the Knesset.
widespread talk against religious Jews is no less offensive than the curses
heaped by haredi extremists upon others. This also has the effect of
encouraging the wider haredi world to adopt a siege mentality and prevents them
from acknowledging any wrongdoing in their own camp – which in turn lends
credence to the secular charge that haredim are indeed all of the same mindset.
Thus, the ultra-secular and the ultra-Orthodox are locked into a vicious cycle
which brings out the worst in each.
Yet another interpretation of events
was apparently held by the groups that joined the rally in Beit Shemesh, who
portrayed the issue as one relating to women. But aside from the question of
whether some of them were seeking to force a rift between Netanyahu and his
coalition, even those genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the status of
women were missing the point.
The events in Beit Shemesh had little, if
anything, to do with the oppression of women. The haredi extremists did not
object to Banot Orot because it was a girl’s school; they objected to it because
it was national-religious. And those who linked the Beit Shemesh extremists to
the soldiers who walked out of a ceremony in which women sang got it entirely
wrong. Walking out may well have been unwise and even unnecessary, but in that
case, the soldiers did not impose their mores upon others; if anything, secular
mores were being insensitively and unwisely imposed upon them.
INTERPRETATION and reaction among religious Jews outside of Israel is diverse.
Modern Orthodox groups such as the OU and RCA issued harsh, unequivocal and
unqualified condemnations of the haredi extremists. So did important moderate
haredi figures such as Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz. The
mainstream haredi world, however, watered down their condemnations of the
extremists by stressing that the (alleged) ultimate goal, of increased modesty,
is holy. As in Israel, more extreme elements of the haredi world in America
adopted the siege mentality of presenting the entire situation as a secular
campaign against Judaism.
But virtually the entire religious community
commits the error of attributing all the problems to a miniscule group of
extremists. (For foreign-born religious Jews, this often stems from sheer horror
at the thought that it could be any more than that.) Yet this is no more
accurate than the belief of the secularists that every haredi Jew is a
rock-throwing, cursing spitter. The problems in Beit Shemesh are more complex
and widespread than that.
It is true that the vast majority of haredim
would never dream of spitting on people and cursing them. These are the actions
of a fringe element that are feared and detested by the rest of the haredi
world. But the mainstream haredi community is supportive of the ultimate goals,
and does not see such actions as being terrible enough to justify joining with
“outsiders” in order to condemn it. A letter expressing support for Banot Orot
and condemnation of the extremists was signed by over a dozen national-religious
and moderate haredi community rabbis in Beit Shemesh, but not one mainstream
haredi rabbi signed on to it or made any similar such public
In addition, haredi society is pervaded by a fear of not
appearing adequately “frum”; people in haredi communities are always looking
over their right shoulders. And it is often the zealous elements that manipulate
,” the elderly Torah scholars that are ostensibly the leaders of the
haredi world. As a result of all this, those practicing intolerance and
extremism always exert a disproportionately large degree of influence in haredi
society as a whole.
THE MORE general problem is that at many levels in
haredi society, there is inappropriate behavior towards nonharedim, which is
felt particularly strongly in the mixed city of Beit Shemesh. For example, as
noted, the Hadash
newspaper never reports on attacks against non-haredim;
haredim are always innocent and non-haredim are always the enemy. And many
haredi rabbis in Beit Shemesh have either overtly or tacitly supported mild
harassment of non-haredim and attempts to impose haredi mores on the rest of the
The Ramat Beit Shemesh district was originally designated as a
mixed area for haredi, national-religious and secular Jews. But the latter group
fled after harassment, and Ramat Beit Shemesh is on its way to emulating Beitar,
where the national-religious were effectively forced out of the city and extreme
haredi elements took control. Under the current mayor, this is an accelerating
process, as he gears the expansion of the Ramat Beit Shemesh district primarily
towards haredi purchasers.
I don’t know what should or even can be done
about the larger social problems of haredim vis-à-vis the rest of Israeli
society. But I do know that the first step to solving a problem is facing up to
its existence and understanding its nature.
The writer is the author of a
variety of works on the relationship between Judaism and the natural sciences.
His website is www.zootorah.com and he also maintains a popular blog,