Beit Shemesh

My resolution not to write so often lasted only a few hours, until I found myself enraged by a television report about Heredi extremists in Beit Shemesh.
We''ve known about the Beit Shemesh community for some time. Religious friends from the US and a secular Israeli colleague initially settled there, then moved out when they realized what life would be like. The television episode headlined the young daughter of a religious family, afraid to walk a few blocks alone to her primary school, due to Heredim likely to yell and spit on her because of not dressing according to their standards of female modesty, or walking on the sidewalk that they determined should be only for men and boys. The program identified her as only seven years old. As the story grew legs the next day, it turned out that she was eight, but the difference is not significance. She came across as shy and frightened, with every right to be afraid of the Jews she must pass on her way to school.
Interviews with Haredi of Beit Shemesh, their confrontations with television personnel, and a segment about a modestly dressed woman harassed added to the message. Readers with a command of Hebrew can click on the arrow that appears on this site to see the episode. Those without Hebrew can probably sense what it is all about.
Beit Shemesh is in the foothills of the Judean Mountains about half the distance between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It initially grew with quickly built four storey apartment blocks mostly for North African immigrants. In recent years it has sprouted several neighborhoods of houses with small gardens as well as high rise blocks. Prominent new residents are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox immigrants from the United States, and young Haredi couples from communities in Israel. As of 2010, the population was about 80,000.
According to men interviewed, they operate according to instructions of their rabbis, who are entirely just in determining how a woman or girl should dress and behave. We saw signs indicating which sidewalk women and girls must use, and heard men declaim the justice of spitting on improper young girls. They claimed to represent true Judaism that soon would control all of Israel.
Following the segment on Beit Shemesh, the news program turned to issues of national defense. A commentator known for his enthusiastic endorsement of an aggressive defense posture began his comments by saying that the greatest danger to Israel was not from Iran, Syria, or elsewhere in the region, but from what he had just seen in Beit Shemesh.
The itsm appeared on the Friday evening news, and was not immediately available to families who observe the Sabbath. By the end of the Sabbath, it was clear that it would be the event that guided commentators and politicians for for the next day or more. Saturday evening we heard that the Prime Minister had declared himself once again in favor of equal opportunity for women and girls in public places. He instructed the Minister of Internal Security (i.e., police) to enforce the law, and met with the Attorney General to assure cooperation from the judiciary.
Sunday morning''s Ha''aretz devoted all of page 2 to the story. In the middle was a large picture of the 8-year old star of the show, now smiling rather than crying. Another story was headlined, "Even a 3-year old can be called "shiksa" (an uncomplimentary word for a non-Jewish woman) or "whore." Four thousand people had already committed themselves to a protest march in Beit Shemesh.
By noon Sunday we heard of arrests and indictments. A radio talk show broadcast a comment by a Haredi from Bnei Brak. He objected to extremism, and to what he perceived as a media campaign against the Haredim. Then we heard from a foreign affairs reporter asked to talk about political demonstrations in Moscow. He did that, but not before he added to the conversation about Haredi excesses.
My own conversations with friends produced the information that extremism has deep roots. The woman of a deeply religious family told her own story of being spit on in Mea She''arim years ago for not dressing up to the standards of the spitter. Her husband told of his Hasidic father who was not allowed to approach the Torah scrolls in a synagogue he attended near Mea She''arim in the 1920s due to his lack of conformity with the norms of others who prayed in the synagogue.
Josephus'' The Jewish War brings the story back to the first century.
Our Saturday afternoon walk led us to another story close to home. A friend was posting a sign in front of her building indicating that the neighborhood included religious and secular families who lived alongside one another in a spirit of tolerance, and urged all those contemplating the purchase of an apartment advertised for sale to respect established norms.
She explained that the sign was meant to warn away extremist Haredi who would object to the variety of ways in which the residents observe--or do not observe--Sabbath and the holidays. She reminded us of the neighbor who had blocked the sidewalk with a Succah, and the inability of complainers to get the municipality to order its removal.
We talked about the threats to the neighborhood of an "invasion" of Arab or ultra-Orthodox families. We agreed that a mixed neighborhood is ideal. Perhaps a few more Arabs would serve to prevent a great influx of ultra-Orthodox, and a few more ultra-Orthodox would serve to prevent a great influx of Arabs.