Under Attack

The haredi community in Mea She'arim feels betrayed, persecuted and misunderstood, but despite last week's riots over the arrest of a mother suspected of starving her child, it still seeks dialogue and cooperation.

Haredi arrested 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
Haredi arrested 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Last Friday morning, the scene outside the local municipal social work office on Rehov Hayei Adam, close to Mea She'arim, looked like a battlefield: plastic bags and garbage strewn around, lots of paper flapping in the hot wind, in the air a heavy smell of smoke and fire. Three haredi women stared at the building, speaking in Yiddish in hushed tones, while a group of children chased each other nearby. At one point, two of the kids, one dressed in a black suit with a hat too big for his head, found a pile of ragged clothing and tried to set it on fire. Their third attempt succeeded, and suddenly the flames rapidly spread to a neighbor's clothesline. Seemingly out of nowhere, a van burst onto the scene. The driver jumped onto the sidewalk, leaving the vehicle's engine running, and chased the kids who, apparently frightened by their deeds, ran away. The young haredi man managed to catch the boy in the suit and, holding his arm firmly, brought him to his car, asking for his principal's name. One of the women shouted in Hebrew, "His parents will have to pay for the clothes he burned; it's a shame. And in the newspapers they will say that we're barbarians." "I didn't want to frighten him, just to try to explain to him that he was doing something wrong," explained Moshe Shuruk, after he let the boy go. "I live here in this neighborhood. I am haredi and I also didn't like seeing the violence during the riots (Shuruk was referring to the events of last week that took place after the arrest of a haredi mother who was suspected of starving her child), but I feel that the secular press is too eager to put us all in the same basket. After all, they could see for themselves that it was mostly children and teenagers. I'm not saying that we should be indulgent, but hey, they're kids, you know? It's summer, they feel part of what's going on, but the secular - authorities, residents and media - are too quick to accuse us of anything." After a while, one of Shuruk's own came up to him and asked him if it was true that "the mother" starved her son. Shuruk hugged him, calmed him down and continued, "You see? No one can avoid all these rumors; they feed the children's imagination. Believe me, I am not the only one here who hates this violence. It's not our style, but the way we are portrayed and treated is infuriating." At noon on Friday, while the temperature reached unbearable heights, a group of haredim, most of them from the Toldot Aharon sect - easily recognizable in their striped robes - stood at the entrance to the court between Kikar Safra and the district police headquarters. Entry to the court session in which Judge Shulamit Dotan was to decide on the mother's release or her continued incarceration was permitted only to closest members of her family. While some of the group were young yeshiva students waiting to hear the fate of their friends arrested the previous night (34 were arrested and later released), a group of what seemed to be leaders of that community took refuge from the sun while discussing in Yiddish the chances of her release. Two women from the same community arrived but were also refused entry. One of them said, "She hasn't done anything wrong! It's shameful to arrest a pregnant woman. She is suffering, and the police are acting cruelly." Y. Wolpin also stood close to the guard at the court entrance. Judging by what he was wearing, he didn't look like a member of the Eda Haredit and only said that that he had come out of concern for someone close who'd been arrested for no reason the evening before; something, according to him, that happened to more than one young haredi who was just passing by. "These arrests are indiscriminate. Even innocent people who were just walking by got arrested. Not only is it indiscriminate, but I also believe it is illegal. I am a haredi oleh from the US and have been living here for 30 years. I never saw such a thing in the United States." The general feeling among the various haredi communities is one of deep hurt. The Shabbat parking-lot affair, the arrest of the mother, Hadassah University Medical Center's accusations that she neglected and abused her child, alleged police brutality and perceived hostility against the haredim in the secular press - have created a feeling within the haredi community - a feeling that is shared across the board, by both extremists and moderates - that the community is hated and berated. In their eyes, they are totally misunderstood and stand falsely accused. "Who says we don't have anything in common with Iran? Look at what is happening here: The only two countries where protesters have been arrested during the last two weeks are Israel and Iran, isn't it weird?" says Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of ZAKA and a former active member of the Eda Haredit. "Years of dialogue and quiet understanding between the Eda Haredit and the police have been destroyed in minutes. When I compare the attitude and behavior of the present chief police district to the former one, I feel so frustrated. District Commander Aharon Franco has no understanding at all of how to handle such a delicate situation," complains Meshi-Zahav. "It began with the parking lot," he continues. "After all, it was Franco who requested it, as if he didn't know what the outcome would be. And now this, with this unfortunate mother. I don't get it. If she is, as it says in the secular press, mentally ill, is prison the place for her? Shouldn't she be treated instead of punished and not be sent to a prison like a criminal?" Meshi-Zahav, who has in recent years veered a long way from the extremist wings of the Eda Haredit to the Israeli consensus, admits that he hasn't felt so bitter in a long time. "Our community feels as if it is under attack," he says. "We are trying to protect ourselves from vicious accusations from all sides - the police, the media, the mayor. What can I say about him that hasn't been said already? That I cannot understand why, instead of caring for me, who lives here, he cares about the convenience of the 30 or so people who will come to Jerusalem davka on Shabbat? Yes, we feel persecuted. Since the last elections, we feel that they are after us." Meshi-Zahav gives a litany of what he considers to be evidence of a planned program launched against the haredi community. "Since the elections, we hear about things that make us feel very anxious. This mayor closes synagogues in Kiryat Hayovel, and in Har Homa he launches collective punishments and deprives a whole community from the services it needs. The media describe us as bullies and vandals. What should we do? "I know about more and more families who refrain from going to the hospital, to the doctors, to the social services for fear of being arrested. This is a disaster. We are accused of the worst crimes. As a result, we have recently created a gemach for lost children. People volunteer to help look for children who went missing because we are afraid that if we go to the police, the parents will be accused of neglecting their children. But really, can't one understand that it's hot, our houses are small, and yes, we have many kids who play outside and sometimes a kid goes a little farther - is that a crime?" Shlomo Papenheim is haredi, a member of the Toldot Aharon hassidim and a psychologist. He is an active member of various committees working to diminish the misunderstandings between the different communities in the city. Asked about the current situation after the latest riots and regarding the issue of the mother accused of starving her son, Papenheim sounds more hurt than angry. "Who sends a pregnant - and presumably sick - woman to prison with her hands cuffed?," retorts Papenheim. "If someone thought she could hurt herself or someone around her, well, that's what guards are for, no? Nothing can explain the decision to send her to prison in her condition. And on top of that, I know about the cruel attitude she had to face there. They even took away her mattress, and she had to lie on the floor. Where does that cruelty come and for what purpose? What she is going through is a trauma. And we all know that a fetus feels his mother's traumas while in her womb. Who will be responsible for the damage caused to that baby once he is born with some trauma?" Asked if he was expecting the medical authorities to act differently once suspicions were raised, Papenheim says he expected the Hadassah authorities to establish contact with the woman's community leaders. "We would have taken care of her in the most appropriate ways, and they knew it," he says. Papenheim, like Meshi-Zahav, says that the whole haredi community, and more specifically the Eda Haredit, feels that the secular society and the establishment is after them out of hatred, ignorance, perhaps fear of their difference. "We feel that Israeli society considers us all as neglectful or abusive parents. We are judged by different criteria without taking into consideration any cultural differences to which we have the right like any other community." Papenheim says that the problem lies in the refusal of the state authorities to recognize and admit that some communities have different customs and traditions. "If a social worker pays a visit to a family in our community and finds that the house is not in good order, perhaps even not so clean, and the kids are not dressed in new or very clean clothes, the impression might be that the children are neglected and the decision could even be to take the children out of the family's care," he explains. "They just don't understand; with us it's different. These people, the 'primitives,' the 'not so well groomed,' they 'only' know by heart the whole Babylonian Talmud, but then they don't know who Madonna is. They may not even know that Michael Jackson is dead, who knows how? But that's the way we are: primitive, but we love our children, even if our houses are small, not fancy and sometimes not so neat and tidy." Abigail Danieli is head of the municipality's north Jerusalem social work office, which serves almost exclusively the haredi community. Another office is located in the Bucharian Quarter, and the two offices witnessed the most violent riots last week, following the mother's arrest. Danieli says she is very concerned about the "loss of years of hard work to create trust and mutual respect between the social workers and the haredi community." She is convinced that the riots are the expression of a deep hurt but believes that, nevertheless, something of these years of collaboration is still holding. "We have become an address, even in such difficult times," she says. "I just received a note that a family from a haredi neighborhood has come to ask for help because their apartment was damaged during the riots. In a way it is absurd, but it is also a sign that not everything is lost." Danieli recalls how it all began. After receiving information from Hadassah regarding a member of the Eda Haredit community suspected of starving her three-year-old child she alerted the emergency services. The mother was located and summoned to the offices of the Bucharian Quarter social work office. Danieli says she doesn't know who called the police, but the fact is that while the mother was leaving the office, after listening to the explanations of a social worker regarding her son's condition, the police showed up, handcuffed her and arrested her. Within a very short time, dozens of haredi women were alerted and began a sit-in demonstration in the office, soon followed by larger demonstrations led by the men of the community, which eventually turned that night into violent riots. Even before that, says Danieli, the workers in the main offices on Hayei Adam were attacked and the workers needed police protection to get out, while the offices were heavily damaged. The mayor's reaction was to order an immediate cessation of all municipal services to the haredi community in that quarter. But Danieli delicately indicates that all the social workers in her office expressed their desire to resume work as soon as possible. "We have established over the years a deep and genuine relationship, especially with the women of this haredi community," explains Danieli. "They were the first to open their doors to us, allowing us to do our professional work; we didn't want to jeopardize these precious ties." Regarding the near future, Danieli expresses cautious optimism. "We have created workshops on issues such as parent-child and husband-and-wife relationships. Our workshops are very much appreciated and requested. We also enable them to have some days off, in a caring environment, to take off their shoulders at least for a couple of days the burden of a large family. Neither we nor they want to put an end to these valuable services. We have received, even in these difficult days, requests from the women not to stop these workshops. We feel we cannot betray them." Danieli believes that things will get back to some kind of routine, but she admits that her staff is in a state of shock. "It's not easy for them. They have witnessed violence. There is frustration and even some fear, but we all share the same position; we all want to go back to business as usual as soon as possible." Dudi Zilbershlag is a Vizhnitz Hassid and a well-known figure in secular as well as haredi society. He runs a public relations firm and has been hired to help in the present crisis by leaders of the haredi community. As a haredi, and as someone who participates in actively in haredi-secular dialogue, he feels personally involved. For Zilbershlag, the worst has already happened. "Years and hundreds of hours of dialogue, understanding, cooperation and working out solutions - almost all the results obtained through hard work over the last 10-15 years are lost," he sighs. "Everything here is based on trust. Once that trust is broken, everything crumbles and we have to start again from scratch." Zilbershlag says he is disappointed at the lack of solidarity with the mother. "A pregnant woman, supposedly sick, sent to prison, and we hear nothing from the civil rights movements, and above all, from the women's rights organizations. Isn't she a woman, too? What I understand is that once the media put us on the benches of the accused, on one side the anti-haredism, the general hatred was aroused, while on the other side, the anti-Zionism issue became even more acute. We're now years back; it's a pity." Zilbershlag is an active member of the Inter-Cultural Center, headed by Avner Haramati. "I am the haredi board member, and I was summoned immediately when the riots began. We are all looking for solutions and for ways to decrease the tension and the violence. It will take time, but the people I work with there are all totally dedicated. I have confidence that we will work it out. We have to bring in more sanity, more tolerance. There is no other way." "The only way is to see that the establishment understands that we have different customs and needs," adds Papenheim. "It is already accepted in the therapeutic profession that a secular therapist will not treat a religious patient unless he is well aware of his different positions and learn not only to respect him but to understand him first. The same should apply to social workers. That is why we requested from the beginning that we receive religious, even haredi, social workers. But now I hear that the mayor has fired all the haredi social workers who have been specially trained. What is this attitude? What will he accomplish by doing that?" "People involved have to understand how to work with our community," adds Zilbershlag. "When I was informed of the outcome of the mother's arrest, I tried to contact Franco. He was also invited to our emergency meeting at the intercultural center, but he didn't come. He said that he needed to be in the field because of the riots. At around 2 a.m. I met him and told him that the woman should be released. His answer was "There is no chance that the prosecutor will agree." He was very tense, and I could see he was nervous. I heard later that the judge showed much more consideration toward that poor woman and did her best to bring some sanity into this whole messy situation." "There is no doubt that these incidents will leave a deep impact on all of us," says Meshi-Zahav. "People should always be careful to understand the sensitivities of others. That was not the case, for sure. As for the haredi members of the city council who are part of Barkat's coalition, they are in trouble with our community. Nobody trusts them anymore. The least I can say is that they have not contributed or helped in any way. On the contrary."