Beit Shemesh rally reflects haredi-modern Orthodox tensions

Amid rising religious strife, over 1,000 residents protest: "The violence must stop."

haredi beit shemesh 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
haredi beit shemesh 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
With tension between haredi and modern Orthodox Jews at an all-time high in the fast-growing town of Beit Shemesh, a group of about 1,000 to 1,500 predominately Anglo, Modern Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh residents gathered Monday night to stage an anti-violence protest. "If the police don't stop them, we will stop them," warned deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh Shlomo Lerner, referring to young haredim who have resorted to stone-throwing and spitting to protest their disapproval of other residents' lifestyles. Lerner's promise was greeted by the cheers of protesters who lined Rehov Herzog, which lies between the city's Modern Orthodox and haredi neighborhoods. "We are working people," added Lerner, who is planning to run for mayor next year, "but we found the time to meet here to send out a clear message: The violence must stop." Over the past year or so clashes in Beit Shemesh have become both more frequent and more violent. Young haredi men, many of whom are emigrants from the crowded, expensive and devoutly religious Mea Shearim and Beit Yisrael neighborhoods of Jerusalem, have attacked the surrounding Beit Shemesh population - a mix of Modern Orthodox and secular - out of a feeling that their way of life was being threatened. These young haredi men - members of hassidic sects such as Satmar and Toldot Aharon - view Zionism as inherently evil and see any encroachment of modernity on their way of life as a direct spiritual threat. Rabbi Oren Duvdevani, who leads the Netzach Menashe Congregation in the Modern Orthodox Sheinfeld neighborhood, warned that if the violence did not stop his predominantly affluent congregants might stop providing charity to their mostly poor haredi neighbors. The greatest spiritual threat in the eyes of these young, violent haredim is what they consider to be the lascivious, wanton behavior and dress of Modern Orthodox and secular women. Some have taken the law into their own hands. Modern Orthodox neighbors complain that their daughters have been spit on, shouted at or pelted with tomatoes for dressing inappropriately. One resident told The Jerusalem Post that rocks had been thrown at her for trying to tear down a sign that called on passersby to dress modestly. Beit Shemesh resident Steve Kamilar recounted how a year ago, when he tried to stop a group of haredim from throwing stones at a car, he was hit in the head with a rock. "True, there was just a handful who actually threw the rocks," said Kamilar. "But there were dozens more who stood by and did nothing to stop them." Last week a woman who boarded the 497 Egged bus from Ramat Beit Shemesh to the haredi town of Bnei Brak was attacked - haredim say verbally, she says physically - because she refused to sit at the back of bus. The 497 is a "mehadrin" or "scrupulously adherent" bus line, which means that out of deference to the moral sensibilities of the haredim in Ramat Beit Shemesh, male and female passengers are segregated. Women enter the bus from the back door and sit in the back of the bus. Men sit up front. But the woman, who is Modern Orthodox, boarded the bus from the front and sat down behind the driver. The woman, who sat next to a supportive soldier, refused repeated requests by the haredi male passengers to abide by the seating customs. In response, hundreds of haredim, who were notified of what was happening via cellphone by the haredi passengers on the bus, blocked the road and stopped the bus. However, the latest point of contention is over a national religious school complex being built on the border between the haredi and Modern Orthodox neighborhoods. The plot of land, which will house both a boys and a girls school, is seen by the haredim as encroachment on their turf. Recently, the fence surrounding the building site was riddled with graffiti that read "thieves" and "stop causing destruction" and "entrance permissible only in modest dress." "I came to Ramat Beit Shemesh because I wanted to live in a modest, God-fearing neighborhood," said Moshe Friedman, one of the young haredi activists in Beit Shemesh. "I even paid twice as much for an apartment here in Ramat Beit Shemesh because that was the environment I wanted and I was willing to pay for it. "I want to make it clear that I don't care what those people do in their own neighborhoods. But I don't want them bringing their lasciviousness into my neighborhood. That school, with boys and girls together, is an atrocity for us. It does not belong in this neighborhood." Moshe Montag, a haredi member of the Beit Shemesh Municipal Council, said that the demonstration organized by the Modern Orthodox on Monday was counterproductive. "They are making a big mistake staging a demonstration," said Montag, who participates in municipal elections, unlike many of the even more haredi Beit Shemesh residents who refrain due to their anti-Zionist ideology. "The best way to deal with the zealot activists is through peaceful means, through dialogue and mutual understanding. Demonstrations and use of force will only escalate the situation."