Battle of the Sects

The ultra-Orthodox are the first to suffer from growing extremism in their community.

Mea Shearim woman 311 (photo credit: KOBI KIDEON / FLASH90)
Mea Shearim woman 311
(photo credit: KOBI KIDEON / FLASH90)
IT’S WEDNESDAY EVENING, September 22, a few hours after sundown. Sukkot, the harvest festival, has just begun. The streets of Me’a She’arim, Jerusalem’s most ultra- Orthodox neighborhood, are crowded as men hurry to and from the synagogues and women bring large pots of food to share with their neighbors and visiting families.
Police and haredi officials alike let out an almost audible sigh of relief, releasing statements to the public that peace and calm have been maintained.
The holiday evening had been preceded by a tense week. At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur services several days earlier, the rabbis of the Eda Haredit, a virulently anti-Zionist coalition of the most extremist Jewish sects in Jerusalem, had published a religious ruling forbidding women who are not residents of the neighborhood from walking on “their” streets during the seven-day Sukkot holiday. The ruling, an attempt, they made clear, to avoid licentious immodesty and physical contact between the sexes, included a demand that women riding on buses that pass through the neighborhood get off before the bus entered Me’a She’arim.
On Tuesday evening, September 21, as throngs of religious Jews and groups of tourists and secular Israelis crowded into Shabbat Square, the central intersection in Me’a She’arim, two young men, wearing the striped jackets that identify them as members of the Eda Haredit group, broke through the crowds. “Pritzut” (“wanton behavior”), they screamed, demanding that men and women keep apart and warning a nearby store owner selling holiday merchandise that they would burn his store down if he weren’t more strict about separating the sexes.
An ad hoc group of feminist activists planned to petition the High Court of Justice to issue an injunction against the Eda Haredit and had threatened to organize a women’s procession through the neighborhood. Haredi extremists would almost certainly have responded violently.
But in negotiations with the police, the Eda Haredit backed down and the neighborhood stayed open to all, except for the courtyard of the extremist Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect, which had earlier in the week hung signs reading “Despised Zionists – Get Out of Our Neighborhood.” At the entrance to their large compound, private guards, hired by Toldot Aharon officials, examined each woman who sought to enter – not for the usual security reasons but to ensure that each was dressed in long black clothing and heavy black stockings, that her hair was tightly covered in a tight black kerchief, and that she held a special entrance card, issued by Toldot Aharon, attesting to her residence in the neighborhood. Those women who were allowed in were promptly directed to the back door entrance to the women’s section, where they could hear and see, from a distance, the thousands of men, all dressed in Toldot Aharon’s distinctive golden striped coats, dancing and singing as they waited for the arrival of their revered rebbe, Rabbi Tuvia Weiss.
But Toldot Aharon is a relatively small sect and since they confined their restrictions to their own courtyard, no one chose to challenge them. And anyway, the police were busy with riots in the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, as Jewish West Jerusalem peacefully celebrated Sukkot.
Until Saturday night that is, when a 20- something woman named Adi, who spoke with The Report on condition that she not give her full name, tried to walk into Me’a She’arim. Adi grew up in the neighborhood and her family still lives there; she had come with a male friend to show him how the holiday is celebrated in Me’a She’arim. No longer strictly observant, Adi says that she was nevertheless dressed modestly and appropriately. But guards, dressed in civilian clothes, stopped her at the entrance to the neighborhood (an arbitrary delineation) and forbade her from walking any further. “Within seconds, the whole area was filled with hundreds of haredi men, screaming, cursing and threatening us. Some of them tried to beat us up.” Three men, also haredi, heard Adi’s screams and rescued her, using, she says, a “martial arts technique” to help her and her friend.
Adi has filed a complaint with the police, who, she says, informed her that “they do not have the 1,000 policemen that they would need to keep order in Me’a She’arim.” Jerusalem district police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby tells The Report only that “the police are providing the necessary response to the situation in Me’a She’arim.”
In response to the incident, the group of feminist activists have decided to bring their petition to the Supreme Court and have renewed their threats to march through the neighborhood.
TO SECULAR OBSERVERS, THESE events are characteristic of what is seen as the monolithic, xenophobic, increasingly zealous and extremist haredi world. From the dedication of Calatrava’s Bridge of Strings at the entrance to Jerusalem in 2008, when haredi political parties forced a girls’ dance troupe (of girls aged 8-13) to cover up after their costumes were deemed immodest; to the so-called mehadrin buses in which men and women are required to sit separately; to these most recent incidents – all are considered attempts by haredim, motivated by their belief that they are enforcing God’s word and bolstered by dubious political coalitions with secular parties, to impose their way of life on all of society.
But a finer examination reveals that the ultra-Orthodox world is composed of multiple, often hostile, groups. While all haredim deny the validity of most modern religious positions, each group maintains its own narrowly defined doctrine, sets of customs, attitudes toward women and degree of integration with the secular world. And within the haredi community, there is growing dissatisfaction with these increasingly strict trends, which, they contend, stem less from piety and more from politics.
Much of the competition over who is more strict focuses on women’s modesty and, especially, on keeping women out of the public eye. For decades the walls of Me’a She’arim have been plastered with signs, requesting, and more recently demanding, that women walking through the neighborhood observe their interpretation of the laws of Jewish modesty. But the signs have faded and seem almost naively irrelevant. Now there are stickers everywhere – on homes, billboards, store entrances, bus stations and even buses: “Don’t mess with God – act modestly,” they threaten.
Some haredi women have taken to covering themselves in layers of clothing in order to erase any hint of their female shape – leading secular pundits to label them “Talibaniot” (Taliban in the Hebrew feminine plural).
But this is not enough for the Sikarikim, a shadowy group that has appointed itself the keeper of Me’a She’arim’s morality. The Sikarikim, considered among the most extreme of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta movement, who oppose the existence of the State of Israel because they believe that only God can reinstate Jewish sovereignty, take their name from the original Sicarii who, 2,000 years ago, while fighting the Roman occupation of Judea, did not hesitate to murder fellow Jews who disagreed with them.
Sikarikim – mostly young men – appear, seemingly from nowhere, at bus stops and store entrances, demanding complete separation between the sexes and threatening women whose dress they deem immodest. They have extended their prohibitions to teenagers and, most recently, even the sight of girls, as young as age three, wearing heavy black socks in the summer heat has become common.
SINCE THE TIME OF THE Enlightenment in the 18th century and the emancipation of Central and Western European Jews, the ultra-Orthodox have continuously tried to separate themselves from their surroundings in order to maintain their strict adherence to Jewish law. In this context, the increasing emphasis on gender separation and modesty can be seen as an attempt by a zealous group to keep the public “in line,” as even the ultra-Orthodox in Me’a She’arim are increasingly exposed to the influences of the modern world.
But according to Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, 52, the Sikarikim are causing more damage to the haredim than they are to the secular world. A father of 12, Meshi-Zahav is still officially a member of the Eda Haredit, yet like many haredim of his generation, he has become much more moderate as he grows older. Once the self-appointed “operations officer” for the Eda Haredit, responsible for some of the largest, and most violent, anti-Zionist demonstrations that Israel has known, he later founded ZAKA, the volunteer organization, which deals with the remains of victims of terrorist attacks. Although still strictly ultra-Orthodox, he is outspoken in his criticism of Sikarikim and those who support them.
“These people have no real fear of God in their hearts, and I don’t believe that their actions come out of pure concern for the Torah. I am quite convinced that in many cases, the people who so eagerly demand purity and modesty are not so pure and modest themselves. They are motivated by struggles for power and control,” he tells The Report.
Meshi-Zahav notes with satisfaction that, in contrast to the Sikarikim and their ilk, haredim are increasingly paying attention and devoting resources to leisure time activities and other luxuries – restaurants, performances, trips abroad, vacations – “all perfectly kosher, of course” – and growing numbers are seeking vocational and professional training. This is an anathema to the extremists, who recently threatened to burn down an ice cream shop on the main street in Geula, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood near Me’a She’arim. Although the shop maintained strict separation between the sexes, apparently extremists felt an ice cream shop wasn’t a suitable activity for the haredi public.
Yet most of the residents of the neighborhood, he says, dare not fight the extremists. “People just want to live,” Meshi-Zahav says. “Most of them don’t want to get into fights, especially since they feel that there is no one to protect them. So they leave the city for one of the haredi cities that have sprung up around Jerusalem, where they can live far away from the watchful eyes of the extremists and are more likely to find work. There they can live as they see fit, without any bullies butting into their lives.”
According to the figures provided each year by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem suffers from negative immigration, as the thousands of residents who leave the city every year far outnumber the number of those who move in. Indeed, a close look at this data seems to support Meshi-Zahav’s contentions: Large numbers of haredim are leaving Jerusalem for the ultra-Orthodox satellite towns near Jerusalem and for ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in cities such as Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.
FURTHERMORE, THE INCREASED emphasis on gender separation, as well as other religious proscriptions, says Meshi-Zahav, has little or nothing to do with religion. Instead, he says, it reflects the power vacuum in the haredi world and is an expression of the struggles for political and religious dominance between rival sects.
“There have always been extremists in the haredi world who wanted to make things more difficult and stricter,” Meshi-Zahav explains. “But now, as opposed to in the past, there is no one to stop them.”
Referring to the former undisputed leader of the ultra-Orthodox world, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, who died in 2001, Meshi-Zahav continues, “Rabbi Shach never allowed these extremists to run rampant. Whenever someone would approach him with a suggestion to be more strict on something, he always gave the same answer: ‘Have you completed your daily quota of studying for the day? No? Then go study and don’t bother me.’”
Rabbi Shlomo Rosenstein, a member of the Jerusalem City Council representing the ultra- Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, and a member of the Vizhnitz Hasidic group, is the man who began the mehadrin buses in Jerusalem. But in an interview with The Report, he acknowledges that this decision has ricocheted. Lacking strong and accepted leadership, he says, the haredi world “has reached a stage in which each individual does whatever he pleases, and each time someone says that he is extreme and pure, someone else declares that he is even more extreme and even more pure. There’s no end to this, and everyone is suffering.”
And women, feminists note, are easy pawns in this game of power. Rona Orobano, 26, a fourth year architecture student and vice president of the Jerusalem students’ association, has been one of the main organizers of the secular protest. “In haredi society, it is very rare to see a woman who will stand and confront a man, especially not a rabbi. And the men know that, so they can allow themselves to make these ridiculous rules,” to demonstrate their power.
Adds Anat Hoffman, a former city councilwoman and current director of the Center for Religious Pluralism, which is allied with the Reform Movement, “Why do these issues always focus on the attempt to police women’s bodies? Because women are a weak link in society, and so a woman’s body is an easy target for fanatics, all over the world.”
YET IT WOULD APPEAR THAT the haredi street is beginning to revolt. Describing the scene when the men (presumed to be Sikarikim) burst violently into the store selling holiday merchandise near Shabbat Square, Eliezer, a resident of the neighborhood, tells The Report that at first, “People began to run away. Mothers gathered up their children to protect them. But then all of a sudden, everything turned upside down. People organized spontaneously, shoved the two men away and began to beat them up. There was lots of shouting, screaming and cursing, lots of threats and lots of violence. The two of them ran away and then everything continued on as normal.”
“I’m really afraid that some day someone will hang one of the Sikarikim in Shabbat Square,” Meshi-Zahav says. The situation, he warns, is extremely volatile.
Even some of the most fervently anti-Zionist leaders now tell The Report – although on condition of anonymity – that only intervention by the reviled state can restore a modicum of calm to the haredi neighborhoods. “The police have to get involved. They have to arrest these people, to put an end to this madness,” says Eliezer.
Spokesman Ben-Ruby tells The Report that the police are, in fact, “aware of the problem of increasing extremism in Me’a She’arim and the surrounding neighborhoods.” The police are attempting to respond on two levels, he explains: first, through dialogue with the leaders of the community in an attempt to maintain calm and order, and second, to respond “to the full extent of the law against rioters and individuals who break the law, to arrest them and to bring them to trial.”
Like Meshi-Zahav, Rosenstein and Orobano, Ben-Ruby says that the police are working on the assumption that it is the haredim themselves who suffer the most from the extremists. Even the women, usually docile, are beginning to revolt – at least passively.
Orobano claims that she has received numerous calls from haredi women, who refuse to be identified but tell her that they are “sick and tired of the dictatorship of modesty that is being forced on them. If the haredi women were to tell us not to march, we would respect that and cancel our activities. But on the contrary – we know that the march is exactly what they want us to do for them.”