Barkat shuts down Mea She'arim, Geula welfare offices after violence

Barkat press conference 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Barkat press conference 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Hundreds of haredi protesters rioted in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood on Wednesday over the arrest and detention of a woman from an extremist haredi group who is suspected of nearly starving her three-year-old son to death, police said. The continuing violence prompted Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to instruct all city welfare offices in the Mea She'arim and Geula neighborhoods to close until workers no longer faced a safety threat. Two municipal welfare offices in the area have been targeted by haredi assailants in back-to-back attacks this week. In the latest violence, the demonstrators pelted police and motorists with stones at the midday protest and set garbage bins on fire, Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said. A Border Police officer was lightly wounded in the hand by a rock, and at least 20 haredi protesters were arrested in the rioting, which ceased by mid-afternoon. Repeated shouts of "Nazis!" and applause incited the crowd every time a protester was dragged into a police van. However, the protests resumed in the early evening, snarling traffic on main city thoroughfares. Demonstrators gathered on Rehov BarIlan, shouting Psalms, mingled with cries of " Gevalt!" The police attempted to control the crowd, subduing the more violent individuals who tried to push into the busy intersection. Outside the city, garbage bins were also set on fire in Ramat Beit Shemesh, police said. The protests came a day after a courtimposed gag order was lifted on the arrest of the woman, a Mea She'arim resident who is five months pregnant. The woman apparently suffers from Munchausen's-by-proxy, a psychiatric disorder that entails abusing someone, typically a child, to draw attention to or sympathy for oneself. She is suspected of severely abusing her child for two years, until he weighed a mere 7 kilograms. She has not been cooperating with police investigators. The woman's London-born husband, a 30-year-old yeshiva student, has said he was unaware of any abuse on the part of his wife, who is a native of Jerusalem. On Sunday, rioters broke into the welfare offices near Mea She'arim and proceeded to wreak havoc, breaking things and shouting, "Nazis! We will burn you!" On Monday, rioters converged on a different welfare office in the city and set one of its doors on fire. The suspected child abuser was arrested last week after meeting a social worker. Wednesday's protesters insisted that those responsible for the woman's arrest wrongfully accused her. "We know the family," said demonstrator Yaakov Avraham Fruchter. "It's a good family, and no one ever sinned … It's just a blood libel." Chana Weisvish also called the woman's arrest the "blood libel of 2009." "She said something to the big doctor that didn't suit him, so he said to her 'You won't see your son for three years,' and he took revenge on her. So he brought social workers that testified against her that she's not a good woman … "We will not be silent about it, because if they can get away with it once, then they'll do it again." Another onlooker agreed, saying: "I am sure that she is innocent. I know her personally, she is a woman who nurtures her children, nurtures her house, nurtures everything. A pure woman. She sits all day, from eight in the morning until 10 at night, every day by her son … It's really not appropriate for a religious woman to sit with those criminals, women with drugs in jail." The city said Wednesday that the offices would reopen as soon as workers were no longer facing "life-threatening" danger, and expressed regret over the inconvenience caused to neighborhood residents not involved in the violence. The city added that the two days of rioting had caused hundreds of thousands of shekels in damages, including to two municipal vehicles and 50 garbage bins. Aharon Rose, an expert on haredi customs and history at Hebrew University, explained that the organizers and participants at these riots were representative of the radical right in the haredi community, but other haredim were nonetheless responsible for not being active in trying to stop them. "They have more power than their numbers would warrant," he said. The welfare offices had briefly reopened on Wednesday morning under heightened security, said Ruti Matot, director of the children-at-risk division of the city's welfare department, which held an emergency meeting on the security situation in the morning. Matot said the welfare authorities had been unaware of any problems in the family until they were recently contacted by the city's Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, where the boy had been hospitalized seven times over the last two years before medical officials determined that his mother was abusing him. She said the other children in the family had not been abused, noting that people who had the rare syndrome tended to attack one specific child. "There is no cause for concern regarding the other children," Matot said. In the meantime, a court order has barred the woman, who is in custody, from seeing her hospitalized child, who remains in serious condition. The order, which can be renewed, is in effect until September 1, the welfare official said.