Burning hatred

What were the forces that drove the riots before last week's gay pride rally?

haredi anti gay riots  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi anti gay riots
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last Friday's Gay Pride festivities passed uneventfully and with military precision, to the great relief of Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco, who declared that "sanity has returned to Jerusalem." After weeks of apocalyptic warnings of a catastrophic confrontation marked by unruly yeshiva students and haredi Jews protesting the "abomination parade" by burning municipal cars and garbage bins, the march along Jaffa Road was reduced to a rally at the Grossberg Stadium at Givat Ram and mercifully passed almost without incident. Police estimate some 2,000 people passed through the security gauntlet to attend last Friday's rally while organizers claim the number was closer to 10,000. Instead of the originally planned 12,000, some 3,000 police officers were stationed at the venue and in concentric rings in the surrounding streets. The remaining manpower was redeployed across the country to prevent possible terror attacks; a high alert was declared after the IDF's accidental artillery fire of a home in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanun which killed 19 Palestinian civilians. Traffic was barred Friday morning on Ruppin, Burla, Wolfson and Hamuze'onim streets near the Givat Ram campus, as well as on all roads leading to the Western Wall in the Old City. The event passed with no riots, no violence, no nudity and - to the disappointment of those who have enjoyed such pageants in cities like Toronto, Sydney or San Francisco - no fun. But the repercussions on Israel's broader society are still reverberating, especially in the haredi sector. There, the event's very existence triggered a violent reaction that further widened the gap between non-haredi and haredi Jerusalemites. The various factions of the haredi, anti-Zionist world were also thrown into sharp relief for all to see, and there seems to be a general feeling that the rabbinic leadership has lost some of its ability to control its community's youth. In the lead-up to the parade, Eda Haredit members tried to stop haredi youth who were pelting police with rocks, cinder blocks, bottles, angle irons and wood planks, telling them that the Torah forbids taking actions that endanger lives. Their declaration of a curfew and of a step back from the brink of violence came after months of incitement in the fervent yet fractured world of haredi Jewry. Founded in 1919, the Eda Haredit is a coalition of a number of groups of mitnagdim (opponents) and Hassidim such as Toldot Aharon, Satmar and Jerusalem Hassidim. The extremist sect, well known for its kosher food certification, should not be confused with ultra-Orthodox society as a whole, which is also called haredi, meaning trembling [before God]. The Eda is vehemently anti-Zionist and does not recognize the existence or authority of the State of Israel [see box]. In 1945, Agudat Israel, formerly aligned with the Eda, broke away and today forms part of the United Torah Judaism party together with the Lithuanian faction Degel Hatorah. Typically, with the breathless narration one might expect from a World Cup finale, Kol Haredi (The Haredi Voice) - a telephone hot line that broadcasts recorded news - provided "live updates and ongoing and direct reports from all the developments and demonstrations in Jerusalem and all over the country against the parade of abomination." Every quarter hour in the lead-up to the parade came an update of the latest news about garbage cans set ablaze, highways blocked with burning tires, and barricaded roads in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Modi'in Illit and other centers of the faithful. "Kol Haredi, good evening. The State of Israel is on fire," announced the anchorman one night in the week before the rally. Like incense from the Temple of yore, the pall of acrid smoke from burning dumpsters hung over Mea She'arim and Geula - the city center Jerusalem neighborhoods which are ground zero of the haredi world. The din of a loudspeaker attached to a passing car blared: "In the name of the head of the rabbinical court and the Badatz [Beit Din Tzedek - the Eda Haredit rabbinical High Court]! The public is requested to come out at a quarter to eight in the evening to protect the honor of the Torah, to protect the honor of Jerusalem." Municipal spokesman Gidi Schmerling later put the cost of protecting that honor - in terms of replacing destroyed municipal property - at more than NIS 1,200,000. That sum includes repairing 176 vandalized traffic lights and road signs, and replacing 829 garbage dumpsters. Shmuel Poppenheim, the editor of the Eda Haredit newspaper Ha'eda, churned out a stream of vitriol against the proposed parade. Meanwhile, although they belong to an even more fanatic faction, the members of Natorei Karta - who similarly do not recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel - heaped fire and brimstone on the Eda's anti-gay crusade, which they saw as a paradoxical expression of identification with the blasphemous Zionist government. "Their war is for the 'character' of the Zionist state, so that this will be a country no worse than the other nations of the world," the newspaper Mishmeret Hayehadut wrote about the Eda Haredit - which since 2002 has been headed by Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, formerly the dayan (judge) of Antwerp, Belgium. "They are also sitting with the heads of the Zionist police to consult with them about how to cancel this impurity." Meanwhile Israel's chief rabbinate issued a statement on November 6 calling the country's homosexuals the "lowest of people" and urging the public to assemble for a nationwide prayer vigil as gay rights marchers gathered in Jerusalem. "We were horrified to hear of the threatening plot that an abominated minority of our brothers are planning, convening to carry out abominations that make them the lowest of people," Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger wrote in their statement. "Everyone from toddlers to the elderly will join in the streets and bitterly protest this awful abomination that is desecrating Israel's name throughout the nations." While the Shas faction was not directly involved in the riots, Rabbi Eldad Shmueli, affiliated with the party, said he perceived the cancelation of the parade as a victory of sorts. "It is still our obligation to protest against a public display of rebellion against God," he declared. "True, it [the march] is not in the streets - but it is in an open stadium, and the desecration is nearly the same... We cannot be concerned with public opinion, but rather with protesting against open rebellion against God's will." He warned of a culture clash with secular Israelis. "The left-wing public often threatens that when they finish with the Arab problem and bring peace, then they'll start dealing with the religious problems - which means to make war with us." After the compromise was reached between the gay parade organizers and haredi rabbis, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization and a veteran organizer of haredi protests, explained the reasoning behind the compromise. "We managed to prove that homosexuality is an abnormality, a sickness that needs to be cordoned off in a restricted area," he said. Though he acknowledged that the demonstrations damaged the haredi community's relations with secular Israelis, he said he had no regrets about last week's events. But not everyone was obsessed with the specter of the parade. In the haredi mainstream, hassidic leaders including the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Ya'acov Arye Alter, ignored the campaign to halt the gay celebration. Determined to preserve the taboo against homosexuality, they forbade even a discussion of Rabbi Weiss's crusade against the parade. Continuing the three-centuries-old standoff between hassidim and mitnagim, Sephardi and Lithuanian haredi leaders Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv joined in the Eda's "holy war." In effect they legitimized groups previously considered "untouchables" in the eyes of the rabbis: shababnikim (alienated young people on the fringe of haredi society), and mizrahistim National Religious Party-affiliated hilltop youth living in the West Bank. As well, they joined with Christian and Muslim religious leaders in a rare display of ecumenicalism in a multi-faith coalition against the same-sex parade. "We are very afraid of the cooperation with the settlers," Poppenheim said. "We don't want our young people to see that we are involved with them. For me, [extreme right-wing settler leader] Baruch Marzel is no less a danger than the participants in the parade. The haredi embrace of the Right has led to a very great moral deterioration since the days of the IZL," referring to the pre-state underground (the Irgun) which used terrorism to fight the British and Arabs. But, he added, the end justifies the means. DURING JERUSALEM'S previous annual gay pride parades beginning in 2002, the Eda Haredit remained mute, as it did when homosexuality was legalized in Israel 18 years ago. Why then did they decide now to fight so vehemently? "In the past, there was great confusion about this [issue] in the haredi community," said Poppenheim. "There were internal debates as to whether to go out and demonstrate, and in fact it's that way today as well. You see that the leader of Ger Hassidim is of the opinion that nothing at all should be said about the parade, and you will not find a single word about it in [Agudat Israel newspaper] Hamodia. But we are asking how the struggle of the haredi community and the rabbis against the Internet or cellular phones is different. These are also issues that if we fight against them, the children may be exposed to forbidden things, but we have an agenda and we say that we have to draw the boundaries as we see fit, as the rabbis see fit." Jerusalem's Eda Haredit has been waging a war against modernity since Israel was founded in 1948, and against the Zionist establishment in the Yishuv before that. Issues have included public swimming pools, the recently demolished Edison cinema on Rehov Yeshayahu, the National Service Law for women and archeological digs. "Jerusalem is an idea, it is not only wood and stone," said Poppenheim. "Jews who lived in Jerusalem have always felt responsible for the place. There is patriotism connected both to the place and to its holiness. The haredim fought in the past in Tel Aviv and Tiberias and in other places over various issues. But in Jerusalem, it always came to mesirat nefesh (the willingness to make a personal sacrifice for religious reasons) - and they fought here tooth and nail." Poppenheim believes that after a protracted period of inaction, the Eda is once again leading the wider haredi community. Nearly four years after the death of Rabbi Yisroel Moshe Dushinsky, the previous head of the Beit Din Tzedek tribunal that rules the community, "Today there is a strong leadership. Everyone is suddenly talking about the Badatz. There is a new and very invigorated leadership, and the rabbis there receive feedback from the street. The rabbi gives an order and the public obeys it. The public sees that there is leadership, and becomes increasingly close to it. The police know it, too." But that's not necessarily so, says Prof. Menahem Friedman, an expert on haredi society at Bar-Ilan University. As the haredi community has exploded demographically in recent decades, so too the numbers of shababniks and their relatively permissive behavior have grown. According to Friedman, Poppenheim is exaggerating the cohesion of the Eda in haredi society and the authority wielded by Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss. The Eda Haredit's last significant leader, he said, was Manchester-born Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss, author of Minchas Yitzhak, who died in 1989 after leading the group for a decade. In a prolonged process that haredi leaders are loath to acknowledge, the status of its rabbis has been gradually eroded while marginalized, disaffected youth are gaining power, Friedman said. While Rabbi Weiss was anxious to strike a deal to end the riots if the parade was canceled, in effect he had lost control of the nightly rioters - none of whom obey Badatz rulings. After Shabbat ended on November 4, hundreds of shababniks and yeshiva students, along with a handful of hilltop youth, went on a rampage in the streets of Jerusalem. A second clash with police happened the following Monday, when the head of the rabbinical court ordered people not to throw stones and to disperse by 11 p.m. Kol Haredi was forced to acknowledge Badatz's powerlessness to stop the violence. That Saturday night, a reporter for Kol Haredi spoke about "guys who have nothing to do, criminals," who took to the streets despite Badatz's orders. The members of the Eda Haredit, he reported, "told them, 'Guys, get a move on,' but they absolutely refused. Three shababniks were severely beaten. One was slightly injured; he was badly beaten in the face." SOME OF the zealots who disobey Badatz are American yeshiva students looking for some excitement to lighten the tedium of constant Torah study. Avraham Erezel is a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who studies at the prestigious Mir Yeshiva. Acting in his opinion on the orders of Rabbi Elyashiv, almost every night in the week preceding the gay pride rally he left the Lithuanian seminary's study hall with hundreds of other students to clash with police. "Friends in New York told me that Israel is a crazy place, but I didn't imagine how crazy," says Erezel, who scorns the police here. "In New York they would have let us have it long ago. We especially are not afraid of the police. As soon as they see an American passport, they release you on the spot. Half the people here are Americans. We're all Jews and we all have a common goal: to stop the parade and to have some fun." Israel Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, now studying at the Brisk Yeshiva, explained, "Not everybody has a rabbi whom they follow. They see action and they come running." Ezra Rubinowitz, 21, of Los Angeles, was equally keen not to miss the action in the streets of Mea She'arim. "The rabbis are in favor of it," he explained. "They think it will stop the parade. They tell themselves, 'It's not so bad for the young people to enjoy themselves a little, the main thing is that the parade is stopped.'" Noting that the parade had been twice postponed, initially because of the August 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif, and then again due to this summer's war in Lebanon, New Yorker Yisrael Mendel of the Mir Yeshiva said: "God sent a message. Obviously He doesn't want it." Whether divinely inspired or not, once lit, the bonfires proved difficult to extinguish. Last Monday as members of the Eda Haredit set fire to garbage in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood next to a building occupied by Ger Hassidim, Avraham Lehrer, one of the tenants, came downstairs to beseech the rioters not to incinerate the dumpsters - and release the toxic fumes of burning plastic. "The smell hurts the children, our children. What's the point?" he pleaded in vain. "So shut the windows, everyone is suffering a little for the struggle," one young man replied. "But why set them on fire? For what? I'm also opposed to the parade. But why harm our children for no reason?," asked Lehrer, already casting suspicion on himself as a traitor. "You have a part in the parade of abomination," someone else shouted at him. "Be ashamed of yourself, Gerer [Ger Hassid]." Lehrer and some of his neighbors brought out a hose to extinguish the fire, and were screamed at by passersby. "There's a problem here. They're all shababniks who should go to the army," he said. Paradoxically the protests draw attention to the very homosexuality that they were meant to decry, compromising the purity and innocence of the haredi world they were meant to protect. Poppenheim is aware of the self-defeating nature of the haredi protests against homosexuality. "Of course we don't talk about the thing itself. Nobody will tell his son exactly what it is. We talk about a parade of immorality, abomination. Nobody says that it's people walking naked in these parades or talks about what exactly they do. There are people, even 50 year-olds, who are under arrest after demonstrating, and don't understand exactly what it is. Children do ask, but we think that this world is full of immorality in any case. Our children will find out about these concepts one way or another, so it's better for them to find out about it through condemnation and protest, through a position of extremism, through a war against it - not through lust."