Apportioning the blame

Local residents blame an alleged failure of leadership by the government, civil society and law enforcement for the increase of violence in Beit Shemesh.

Beit Shemesh demo_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beit Shemesh demo_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘It seems as if the police have been more focused on keeping the peace than on serving justice,” complains Shmuel Katz, a fiveyear resident of Beit Shemesh. Katz, who, like many American immigrants, moved directly to Beit Shemesh upon arriving in Israel, summed up the feelings of many members of the local Anglo community who have directed their anger toward the city’s leadership.
The police, the mayor and local Anglo rabbis are all being blamed by residents who believe that the violence of a small group of radicals should not have been allowed to continue until it became an internationally reported news story.
“Initially [the police] did very little to stop the harassment” because it seemed to be “the path of least resistance,” Katz continues. “Only once public interest focused on the case did it seem like the head of the local police station allowed his officers to take action to actually stop the harassment.”
This sentiment has been echoed by many other locals who say that they have noticed a wide disparity between the actions that the police were willing to take before and after a Channel 2 news segment brought the issue of religious violence in Beit Shemesh into the national consciousness.
Speaking from his home in the predominantly modern-Orthodox neighborhood of Sheinfeld, Rabbi Dov Lipman, the head of the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh and the driving force behind the secular and national-religious backlash against religious violence in the city, told In Jerusalem that following Channel 2’s coverage of the issue he received a call from Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch vowing to take swift action against demonstrators outside the Orot Banot school. Lipman said that Aharonovitch promised to arrest any haredi protesters attempting to yell at or scare the pupils at the school, whose location adjacent to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood has placed at it the center of the current violence.
The violence, while only recently brought to national prominence, has been ongoing since before the school’s opening in September. According to Lipman, the local police forces have “shown a stronger response over time” but “still let [the protesters] stand and scream.” Beit Shemesh police commander Koby Cohen met with Lipman on several occasions over the past several months, the rabbi said. During one of those meetings, Cohen, who declined to speak with IJ, was reported to have told Lipman that according to the law the protesters had the right to scream at the girls.
“How can it be legal to yell at girls?” Lipman asks, saying that if that is the law then it must be changed.
“I sent a letter regarding this matter to the attorney-general and for over two months the extremists did not come after the girls,” he says.
Lipman praises the lower-echelon police officers effusively but makes it clear that he believes they have been hobbled by restrictions regarding their reactions when confronted with provocations.
“I became close to some of the police and they are doing what they are told to do,” he says. “They cannot arrest someone if that is not policy. On a higher level the authorities were not doing their job.”
Lipman also believes that the sudden change in the police department’s response to the extremists is politically motivated. “They can arrest someone [now] and four months ago they couldn’t,” he states.
“The police dropped the ball.”
Michael Lipkin, another local resident who has attended many of the counter-rallies at the Orot Banot school, said he believes the police are doing a “decent job” but that the situation is “complex.”
Despite what he terms a “reactive more than proactive” police policy in the early days of the neighborhood conflict, the efficacy of the police has “ebbed and flowed.”
“The police tried to be more laid back about how they enforced the law in order to avoid confrontation,” he alleges. While he wonders “how long can you put someone in jail for throwing an egg,” he does believe that there would be more of a chance of “mitigating [the extremists’] behavior” if the police would “hit them with [a punishment] every time they did something.”
Lipkin, who has spent months photographing the protesters and their activities, says that he has personally been attacked while photographing the extremists. “I was spit on and pushed,” he says.
“We have been dealing with them for five years, since they moved onto Herzog Street [the border between hassidic Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and Sheinfeld]. They originally protested the boys’ school as well. It’s not an issue of modesty, it’s a control issue,” he added.
Despite what he sees as police passivity in many cases, he does admit that “when it got really violent they have made arrests and I have seen people carted off into police wagons.”
“We need a Giuliani,” he opines, referring to former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, known for his zero-tolerance approach to crime.
BEIT SHEMESH Mayor Moshe Abutbul, however, has made it clear that while he believes in a “firm hand” against rioters, he does not agree with Lipkin. In an interview with the press, Abutbul said that “we don’t need Giuliani” in Beit Shemesh.
Abutbul is also a subject of intense controversy among national-religious and secular residents who believe that he has taken a soft line toward violent elements.
“The mayor has totally failed our city,” says Katz. “A real mayor would have stood [at the school] on day one, shoulder to shoulder with the parents and neighbors who did show up... His presence and his actions would have clearly said, ‘This is not acceptable in my city.’ Unfortunately, his absence said the exact opposite and showed a total lack of leadership.”
Lipman also criticized the mayor, writing online that he has learned that the city “does not issue complaints when protesters damage city property and, as a result, the police do not investigate or make arrests in those cases.” Abutbul contested these claims, stating that the city contacts the police in the event of vandalism.
Many benches in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet have been removed by those who believe that women sitting in public can be considered immodest behavior.
The mayor shot back at his critics, stating that nobody has blamed Nir Barkat, the secular mayor of Jerusalem, for the actions of his city’s radicals in the haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim, from which many of the extremists in Beit Shemesh hail. Unlike in America, Abutbul noted, in Israel a mayor does not exercise direct control over local police forces.
In late August, the Beit Shemesh municipality issued a statement indicating that “Sha’alei Torah [Orot Banot] invaded the building illegally, and in their footsteps the haredi neighbors did as well.”
Furthermore, Abutbul’s bureau stated, the mayor could not give a final permit for the girls’ school to move into their new building as “the police have passed along information and warnings concerned for the safety of the girls.” However, the police subsequently told The Jerusalem Post that “under no circumstances do we share any intelligence with any bodies outside of law enforcement.”
Moreover, residents add, the local newspaper Hadash, which is sympathetic toward the mayor’s agenda, has downplayed the violence of the Sikariki extremists.
Following last Tuesday’s rally against violence in Beit Shemesh, the newspaper, which is considered by many to be a mouthpiece for the mayor, decried the “persecution” of the haredi population of Beit Shemesh while barely touching on the issue of violence.
While many local haredi residents vigorously condemned religious violence when contacted, local activists have protested the silence of the city’s rabbinic leadership. Locals have stated that their rabbis have issued thunderous denunciations of radicalism within their synagogues, but many of them declined to sign petitions calling on religious leaders to publicly condemn the protesters.
RABBI NATAN Slifkin, a local author and blogger, told IJ that “at the various rallies held in support of Orot over the last few months, barely any haredim were present. And a letter of support signed by 14 local rabbis included only rabbis on the edge of haredi society; more mainstream haredi rabbis refused to cosign it. I don’t believe for a moment that they support the violence, but they are not willing to openly protest it.”
Among those who declined to officially condemn the extremists is Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz, a wellknown scholar and the rabbi of the Beis Tefilla synagogue, one of the largest in the Anglo enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef. In an e-mail exchange that was re-posted on the Internet by community activists, Malinowitz explains that he “will not sign the petition – because I will not be meshatef pe’ula [a collaborator] with people that I hold have a definite anti-haredi agenda here, loving every minute of this, and painting all ‘haredim’ with the same brush.”
“To my mind,” he writes, “this is like demanding that every Italian condemn bank robbery after the Mafia pulls off a job. That every Russian condemn murder after the Russian Mafia has someone killed.
That every Jew condemn financial fraud after Bernard Madoff was arrested. That every white condemn the KKK after they burn a cross on a black’s lawn.”
Calling the extremists “hired… kooks,” the rabbi stated that “by ‘officially’ condemning what is condemned by any sane person, I am playing their game. And so I will not.”
While some members of Malinowitz’s congregation did rally in support of the Orot girls, they did so without his official endorsement.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a former extremist and the founder of the ZAKA rescue service, contacted IJ this week to state his empathy for those who have protested the alleged rabbinic silence in Beit Shemesh. One “who doesn’t say anything,” he declared, “is a partner [to the violence].”
Despite the widespread popular opposition to the police and municipality in Beit Shemesh, however, Sergio Herzog, senior lecturer in criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pointed out that the law in Israel does not allow for the arrest of one who is merely yelling.
Speaking in defense of the actions taken so far by law enforcement officials, national police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld commented that since the events in Beit Shemesh have reached national prominence in recent weeks, several arrests have been made and a number of investigations have been opened.
Regardless of these claims, however, Lipman and his fellow residents believe that there must be a way within the law to arrest those who have come to harass the schoolgirls of Orot.
As immigrants from the United States, Lipman and his associates are no doubt aware of the American definition of assault as “a threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent present ability to cause the harm.” The extremists have certainly shown their ability to cause both emotional and physical harm and have left the American residents of Beit Shemesh wondering: just how different is the legal definition of assault in Israel?