An introspective year

Jerusalem’s main news stories in 5772 focused on the stark divisions within society.

Jerusalem light rail 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem light rail 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Members of the haredi community in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood are calling it “the Holocaust.” At least 10 pedophiles molested more than 100 children over six years, reaching nearly every family in this close-knit community. In one family of 10 children, every child was molested. Residents believe the head of the pedophile ring, “S,” recruited some older men who had mental challenges or were considered “a little off” by the community. These men were considered generally harmless, and were even invited to meals by the parents of the children they abused. One mother said S used these men to threaten children on their way home from school, forcing the children to go to apartments to which the pedophiles had access.
In July 2011, the community went to the police and began to file complaints. Six men were arrested last summer, but police were only able to gather enough evidence to indict three of them. The other three, including S, were incarcerated for a number of weeks and then released due to lack of evidence. In January, an additional three suspects were arrested and the public and the media only began to take notice when the case was discussed in the Knesset’s Committee for the Rights of the Child.
Most difficult for the neighborhood residents is that at least three of the men they believe carried out the abuse are still walking free in their community. Police have struggled to gather evidence in an investigation complicated by the young age of the victims and by parents who unintentionally ruined the investigation by asking their children questions prior to their questioning by the police.
“This is like a little shtetl in downtown Jerusalem,” said “Rivka,” a mother in Nahlaot who lives next to the hardest-hit areas. “These are the holiest, kindest, best people, people who have devoted their lives to Torah. All of a sudden, it’s like they go from that to being the epicenter of the largest pedophile ring in Israel’s history… [This sex offender] masterminded the systematic rape of over 100 kids, and he’s just sitting there. Can you imagine how terrifying this is?”
FRACAS IN BEIT SHEMESH A blonde-haired, blue-eyed eight-year-old named Na’ama Margolese captured headlines last Hanukka when she was videotaped by Yair Lapid’s Friday Studio program crying hysterically. She was terrified to walk the 300 meters to school because of haredi extremists who harassed pupils at the Orot Girls’ School in Beit Shemesh. The haredim claimed that the national-religious school was in “their” neighborhood and that the elementary school pupils were not dressing modestly enough.
The episode threw light onto the increasingly extremist nature of neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, much of which shocked the public. The conflict was nothing new; tension has simmered for decades between haredi groups – who want to live in environments suited to their beliefs – and the secular and national- religious communities, who feel increasingly threatened by the encroachment of the haredi lifestyle on their values.
The harassment accompanying the opening of the Orot Girls’ School in September drew some media attention and public outrage, but nothing like the power of Na’ama’s tears in December, which brought condemnations from the prime minister, the police chief, the finance minister and countless MKs and politicians, not to mention the arrests of men accused of spitting on women and attacking news crews after the story broke. Only Na’ama’s tears had the power to move so many people.
Na’ama Margolese’s story was the spark that ignited many conflicts between extremist haredim and members of the national-religious and secular public in January and February, including one incident in Beit Shemesh when a woman placing advertisements in a haredi neighborhood had bleach thrown at her because she was wearing pants. Many clashes took place on public buses.
Suddenly there was an abundance of stories of women who were harassed for refusing to sit in the back of a “mehadrin” (strictly religious) gender-separated bus.
A female soldier was called a whore on a mehadrin bus line.
In response, the Yisrael Hofshit organization planned a “ride-in” and tried to force gender integration on traditional mehadrin lines, though the protest was mostly a media stunt.
The first day of the Jewish month of Elul was particularly tough for the Women of the Wall prayer group. Four of the group’s members, one of them an American citizen on a one-year program in Israel, were arrested by the police because they were wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) in an inappropriate way. This arrest came after another participant of the group’s monthly prayer gathering, Deb Holben, was arrested twice earlier this summer on the same grounds.
Officially, women are not allowed to wear a tallit at the Western Wall or anywhere else in the Western Wall Plaza. A woman who wraps herself in a tallit, prays aloud or reads aloud from a Torah scroll there is sentenced to six months in jail and a fine of NIS 10,000, but over the last few years the police’s attitude has been mostly to ignore cases of women wearing tallitot at the Wall. The kind of “gentleman’s agreement” that was in place held that women are allowed to wear special “women’s” tallitot – which don’t look like men’s striped shawls – around their necks like scarves – and not draped over their shoulders.
The Women of the Wall generally wear colorful floral – not striped – tallitot, but some of the women who participate in the monthly prayer service wear other kinds of tallitot. The four women who were arrested last month are forbidden to approach the Western Wall Plaza until the end of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. The next time the Women of the Wall will pray at the Wall is on the first day of the following month, Heshvan.
Mid-September last year was the beginning of the end of the protest movement, at least insofar as protesters were camping out in tents around the country.
Except for in Jerusalem, where the single-parent families’ camp in the park across from King George Avenue remained for a few more weeks. When the municipality asked them to evacuate the park, the 16 or so families, which joined a group of young radical activists, moved to the lower part of Sacher Park.
The chill of October nights made it difficult, so the leaders of the group – Eti Vanunu and Eti Chen – changed their tactic. Instead of remaining in tents that wouldn’t protect them and their children from the cold and the rain, they decided to squat in empty buildings or houses. Their first attempt was in Kiryat Hayovel, in an old and neglected building that served years ago as student dorms. When they were called in by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which owns the building, the police expelled them.
The group, which was operating under the name “Hama’abara” and started a website and a blog, moved to a more prestigious neighborhood, squatting in 31 Pinsker Street, an abandoned building that they wrongly believed to be public property but turned out to belong to an oligarch. The expulsion this time was rude and widely publicized, but the group refused to give up, and looked for another venue.
Over the past two months, they have established something approximating a real community in what was once a day-care center in the Katamonim neighborhood.
They have a shared kitchen, a day-care center for the babies and a program of cultural and political activities. The group, which holds very radical positions, refuses to renounce its struggle for public housing for all the needy, and rejects any attempt or proposal for a temporary solution to its problem.
Some of the members of the group spent long weeks at the the tent city in Sacher Park last year, which had to be hidden from the sight of the runners of the Jerusalem Marathon, a municipality decision that infuriated them.
For the moment, their situation remains unstable and the waiting list for public housing in Jerusalem remains unchanged at between three and eight years. As for the squatting, they say that as long as people continue to live in parks and on the streets, they will not hesitate to “free” empty buildings from their unjust emptiness.
Almost a year later, city councillor Rachel Azaria (Yerushalmim) swears she didn’t mean to drag the municipality or the mayor into her petition to the High Court of Justice. “It was a simple formality; my intention was to enhance the police in order to prevent gender segregation on the Mea She’arim streets during Succot,” said Azaria, but it didn’t help her.
At the monthly city council meeting right after Succot, Mayor Nir Barkat announced that Azaria had been fired from the city’s coalition, after he had already stripped her, a few days earlier, of all her responsibilities (preschool education and local community administration.) Azaria quickly recovered from her surprise when the incident turned her into a local Joan of Arc battling against the exclusion of women from the public domain.
Since she was fired last November, there have been a few attempts at reconciliation between her and Barkat but none has been successful.
One of the reasons is the very strong opposition of the haredi members of Barkat’s coalition, who cannot forgive her for being a religious woman, a Zionist and a feminist. On at least two occasions when reconciliation attempts became serious, there was clear opposition from the 12 haredi seats on the city council, so Azaria continues to remain in the opposition.
At first, the rumors seemed too terrible to be true. In a country that is so frequently marred by senseless and frequent tragedy, how could something as minor as a lighting-rig collapse cause death and destruction on the day that Israel celebrates its ability to overcome these tragedies?
The scene at Mount Herzl moments after an enormous lighting rig collapsed during rehearsals for the color guard for the 64th Independence Day ceremony was chaos: broken steel bars; smashed glass; paramedics and firefighters running in every direction; bewildered soldiers from the color guard, still wearing their decorative sashes, hurriedly gathering their belongings.
Hila Bezaleli, a 20-year-old soldier from Mevaseret Zion and a paramedic in the army, was killed on April 18 and four others were injured, one critically. Her mother, Sigalit Bezaleli, has worked at Mount Herzl in administration for 16 years. Hila was buried on Mount Herzl later that same day – the very place where she had been scheduled to perform the following week.
Police arrested four people involved in the construction of the lighting system, including the system engineer and the owners of the Itzuv Bama (stage design) company. A subdued Independence Day ceremony took place a week later, the day the Bezalelis rose from the traditional week of mourning. The Bezalelis sat, passive and stoic, in the front row. Sigalit lit a torch with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and dedicated it to eradicating the “culture of carelessness” in Israel.
“These people just care about the money that they make; they don’t care about doing professional work,” she said a few days after the accident. “For no reason, they endangered soldiers; for no reason, they took my daughter.”
Arsonists struck twice in just over a month, each time a blow to the security of Jerusalem’s migrant worker population, and police still haven’t been able to catch the perpetrators. Twice, African migrants awoke to smoke and burning after someone threw a Molotov cocktail into their apartment.
While Tel Aviv has traditionally been the center of issues surrounding African migrants and noisy, racist, and sometimes aggressive anti-African protests this spring, Jerusalem was the site of far more violent attacks.
On June 5, arsonists tried to burn down a building housing 50 mostly Eritrean migrants on Jaffa Road by starting a fire in the stairwell. Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Asaf Abras said the fire’s location in the downstairs stairwell was a “death trap” that could have easily ended in major tragedy. Three people received minor burns on their arms and legs and one apartment was completely destroyed.
In the second incident, vandals attacked a one-room apartment on Bibas Street next to the Mahaneh Yehuda market a little after 3 a.m. on July 17. Tigai Timrat, an Eritrean migrant worker, was burned severely on his arms and legs, and his wife, who was six months pregnant, suffered from smoke inhalation. Their apartment was completely destroyed. Police created special investigative units in each case but were unable to find the perpetrators.
Since the capital does not have volunteer organizations like those that serve migrants in Tel Aviv, which has been dealing with this issue for much longer, few organizations stepped up to help the migrants, though Anglo residents of Nahlaot organized to help the Timrats.
In a move that shocked even the most hardened Israelis, extremist haredim covered walls at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority with vitriolic pro- Holocaust hate messages on June 11. One spray-painted slogan said, “If Hitler hadn’t existed, the Zionists would have invented him.” “Thanks, Hitler, for the wonderful Holocaust you organized for us! Only because of you did we receive a state,” read another. A third slogan read, “Jews, wake up, the evil regime does not protect us, it only endangers us.”
Ten graffiti slogans were spray-painted in large black letters concentrated in the museum’s Warsaw Ghetto Square and the Deportees Memorial next to the cattle car. Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said the graffiti “crossed a red line,” and that it was the worst thing he had seen in his career. Two weeks later, police arrested four haredi suspects from Jerusalem, Ashdod and Bnei Brak, who are suspected of being members of the anti-Zionist Natorei Karta sect. Police suspected that the four are also responsible for anti-Israel graffiti at Ammunition Hill on Remembrance Day and vandalizing army memorials throughout the Jordan Valley.
When Nisso Shaham took up the mantle of Jerusalem’s police chief, he promised a tough “no tolerance” crackdown on lawlessness, especially in haredi neighborhoods. Unfortunately for Shaham, after a year and a few months on the job, he himself was on the receiving end of the “no tolerance” policy. Shaham was forced to take leave of absence on July 26, when the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department (PID) announced that it had conducted a months-long undercover probe against Shaham and suspected him of sexual harassment, indecent assault and improper sexual relations with multiple policewomen.
On August 30, Shaham officially resigned and was replaced by the Southern District chief, Asst.-Ch. Yossi Prienti. Jerusalem Police Zion Precinct head Dep.-Ch. Nissim Edri was also placed on leave in connection with his failure to report Shaham’s alleged sexual misconduct.
On August 2, the Justice Ministry transferred Edri’s case to the Jerusalem Police for an internal disciplinary hearing after the PID decided that Edri’s conduct did not warrant criminal charges.
Widely quoted sources said that Shaham is suspected of harassing at least five women, but that the five harassment complaints are “just the tip of the iceberg.” They called his sexual harassment “systematic” in the police force, though the PID slammed the reports, calling them “not only inaccurate but completely wrong.”
On the night of August 16, Zion Square and the nearby Hatulot Square looked the same as they do every Thursday night – packed with hundreds of youths, many of them drunk or nearly drunk, hanging out in groups. Some of them were just spending the evening in the city center while others were totally disconnected from any family ties and looking for some action and a place to spend the night.
At some point, a girl told another girl in Zion Square that she had just been harassed by an Arab youth, who had tried to rape her in Hatulot Square. A bunch of boys sitting nearby heard the story and began to shout anti-Arab slogans. After a short while, looking for a way to calm their anger, they arrived at an ice-cream shop on Ben-Yehuda Street at the same time as Ras el- Amud resident Jamal Julani and three of his friends. As soon as they were recognized as Arabs, the four youths were surrounded by a group of Jewish teens (one, age 19, was later arrested), who chanted slogans like “Jews have souls, Arabs are sons of bitches.”
Three of the Arab youths managed to escape the group, but Julani didn’t have time. He was punched in the chest, fell to the ground and lost consciousness.
The group of Jewish teens continued to kick him all over, including his head. Someone called the police, who quickly arrived on the scene, and were followed by an ambulance. The Jewish teens fled upon the arrival of the police. The paramedics worked hard to resuscitate Julani, who was taken to Hadassah University Medical Center, where he spent a few days in intensive care. A witness who also volunteers with the city’s at-risk youth wrote about it later that night, spreading the story via social media, the first to refer to the incident as a “lynch.” Three days later, police arrested most of the Jewish teens who participated in the lynch. Julani has been released from hospital but he is still traumatized and has lost part of his memory. Since then, two other serious incidents of attacks by Jewish teens on Arabs have occurred.
On August 24, the last belongings of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel were packed up and removed after a modest ceremony bidding farewell to the Sergei Courtyard.
Despite lobbying, plans, projects and support from the press, both local and national, nothing was able to change the decision taken by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 to return the historical courtyard to the Russian government.
Generations of Jerusalemites have grown up with the green touch of the local branch of the SPNI, which offered tours in the region as well as lectures on environmental protection, green energy saving and recycling.
The courtyard served as a center for the SPNI’s activities since since 1964, and was also the location of the offices of the Agriculture Ministry and the local branch of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, which are now scattered around the city. The SPNI branch has found temporary refuge in the JVP Media Quarter in Talpiot. No one knows exactly what will become of the courtyard and the magnificent historical building inside it, which was built as a hostel for Russian pilgrims in the late 19th century, but in the meantime, an era has ended.
Renewing ties with the past is an understatement when it comes to describing the tremendous amount of effort that has been invested by the directors of the Musrara art school this year. To celebrate the 25th year of its foundation, founder and director Avi Sabag went above and beyond when intertwining the past with the present. The Naggar School of Photography, Media, New Music, Animation & Phototherapy, and Sabag himself, who received a lifetime achievement award last year, this year launched a new exhibition in the school’s gallery – a literary review and an arts festival.
What began as a high-level alternative for local youngsters who wished to study artistic photography but couldn’t get into academic high schools (for lack of money or academic achievement) has become one of the most prestigious institutions in the country.
Sabag, the son of immigrants who grew up in a transit camp but managed to get an academic education, believes that everyone should have the support they need to reach their potential. The Musrara school, which was established by the Jerusalem Foundation and thanks to a very generous grant from the Naggar family, offers a wide range of studies, including a new field conceived here – the phototherapy course, which attracts students from all over the country and the world.
To celebrate the quarter-century anniversary, the main exhibition traces the story of the first Jewish residents of Musrara – mostly immigrants from Morocco who had to face both the hazards of the no-man’s land between Israeli and Jordanian territory until 1967 – and the neglect and poverty that led, in 1970, to the creation of the Black Panther protest movement.
The memories and the anger as well as the reconciliation process appear in the exhibition, while the review launches prose and poetry and essays on arts, politics, the environment and social activism.