Violent nights

Fights and obscenities are becoming increasingly common among visiting yeshiva students.

Four English teenagers sit around a small wooden table, their suit jackets perched over each seat as they ogle their beers. Tequila shots rest on the table next to the nargila pipe the boys are smoking, thickening the air in the downtown Jerusalem bar. The seating area is covered by a transparent nylon tent that fills this outdoor courtyard in the picturesque neighbourhood of Nahalat Shiva. The lads - Aharon, Yossi, Yaakov and Daniel (not their real names) - had studied at a well-regarded yeshiva for one year before returning to England to begin university studies. Now they speak brashly and have clearly been drinking for many hours. As they sip their umpteenth litre of beer, a large group of American teenagers cautiously enter the tent. The English stand immediately, and one can sense tension between the two groups. The Americans smirk as Johnny (not his real name), the ringleader, makes his way toward the Brits. Abruptly, scuffles break out. "You want some?" "Come on then?" "I'll knock you out!" Yaakov stands up from his rickety chair and shouts, "We're all Jews here, could we just calm down?" Johnny turns to Yaakov and aggressively spits back, "F*** you!" He then removes his blue and white crocheted kippah - seemingly renouncing his religion in preparation for a bout of violence. Yaakov continues, saying something that could only ever be heard in a fight between Jews, "Well, you are Jewish. You don't have a foreskin do you?" Johnny hesitates; unsure how to answer such an absurd question. "Show us," Yaakov dares. Johnny reaches into his dark blue Ralph Lauren slacks and pulls out his most sacred parts, placing them on the table. Punches are thrown as the students try to ensure that their "side" salvages the most respect. As the Americans are ushered out by the distraught manageress and her staff, Daniel shouts "You're not old enough to drink anyway!" The American boys are indeed too young to legally drink alcohol on their home ground, and like so many other young Americans in Jerusalem, are taking every opportunity to drink alcohol. With the fracas over, the English boys sit back down and Daniel cheerily suggests, "Come on boys, let's have a l'haim and drink our tequilas." These brawls are not isolated incidents, and Jerusalem bar staff are growing increasingly disgruntled. Ofir, a barman at Egon, grumblingly told In Jerusalem, "It happens once or twice a week; it's always the foreign yeshiva guys." Likewise, Asaf Shub, another city center barman, claims that "increasingly, American yeshiva boys are on the streets, drunk and vulgar. They aren't allowed drink at home; they come here and have too much, too quickly." The fights do not stop with fists either. Jonny Daniels, a former yeshiva student who has made aliya and is currently serving in an IDF paratroopers unit, has witnessed several scuffles in town. Recently, he met an American immigrant during a hospital visit. The young man had been "smashed over the head three times with a baseball bat" during a confrontation with a group of yeshiva students. A former yeshiva student, who requested anonymity, claims he has witnessed confrontations involving both yeshiva boys and American participants in the Young Judea program. In one incident, he recalls, "tables and bottles were thrown, it was mayhem." Another common location for fights is "Crack Square," a small plaza on Jaffa Road, where - as reported in IJ ("Falling through the cracks," March 10) - young people hang out in the square, dabbling in drugs and alcohol. Judith Benamor, who studied at the Michlelet Esther seminary in 2002, told IJ that in Crack Square, "the fights are sometimes yeshiva against yeshiva, sometimes Americans against English; it depends on who is the most drunk or drugged up." It is important to note that most yeshiva students do not use drugs and are not involved in violent events. Aish Hatorah's Rabbi Jamie Cowland maintains that "none of our guys get involved, and that is indicative of a Ba'al Teshuva [newly observant] yeshiva. In general, kids away from home for the first time go absolutely crazy for a while to let off steam, like the first few weeks of university for many people." Says a current long-term Shapels Yeshiva student, "These kids are here for a gap-year, and their behavior is usually totally unrepresentative of the yeshivas in which they study. They give the yeshiva a bad name." Indeed, these teenagers seem to be permanently tarnishing the reputations of their host establishments. For Gal Ganzman, co-owner of Mikes Place, possibly the most popular hangout for Anglos in Jerusalem, the situation had become simply untenable. "The problems, for us at least, have declined in recent years as we now do not allow large groups of yeshiva boys in," he says. "We even banned specific yeshivas."