Beit Shemesh goes to the streets

A news story about a young girl launches a national outcry over fears of ultra-Orthodox expansion, bigotry and passivity in the face of extremism.

Beit Shemesh demo_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beit Shemesh demo_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The crowd began to chant, steadily growing louder and louder, the cries washing over the massed protesters in a deafening wave of sound. “We will not give up on Beit Shemesh,” they cried, echoing a sentiment that has been stated by political and social leaders from across the ideological spectrum in Israel in recent days.
The Israeli public, already upset regarding what many see as an increase in religious coercion in the public sphere by members of the country’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority, became especially incensed this past week following a report broadcast by Channel 2 in which an eight-year-old girl from Beit Shemesh recounted being spit upon and verbally abused by haredi men upset with the location of her school, which is adjacent to their neighborhood.
Following the airing of the report, major political figures, ranging from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to opposition leader Tzipi Livni, and even Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, have come out in opposition to the growing problem of religious extremism.
A large part of the outrage on behalf of the secular and national-religious communities stems from the fact that the Beit Shemesh revelations come on the heels of another public scandal, gender-based segregation on public bus lines, the so-called “mehadrin” buses.
Despite the recently growing groundswell of support for equality in the public sphere – manifesting itself in the removal of signs calling for women to walk on separate sidewalks than men and the Transportation Ministry promising to investigate the heretofore tacitly approved policy of “voluntary” gender discrimination on public transportation – local critics in Beit Shemesh allege that the issues faced by women in the community are well known and have been for quite some time.
Tzipi Livni visits Beit Shemesh demoTzipi Livni visits Beit Shemesh demo
THE NATIONAL reaction grew even stronger following an attack on a television news crew by a haredi mob earlier this week, after the journalists had arrived to cover the newly erupted religious tensions in Beit Shemesh.
One national-religious woman, a resident of the mixed neighborhood of Sheinfeld, which borders Herzog Street, the street many of the most violent and extreme of Beit Shemesh’s zealots live on, told The Jerusalem Post that her daughters have begun to rebel against the accepted standards of modesty in their liberal community as an act of defiance toward those who would dictate to them regarding their religious observance.
“When I ask my daughter to put on a slightly longer skirt,” she told the Post, “she asked me why she should be ‘modest’ like the zealots.”
The problem has gotten so bad, another resident told the Post, that many of his neighbors have begun arming themselves with pepper spray in case of attack. One local teenager has been doing a brisk trade in the canisters, which are marked “law enforcement strength” and can incapacitate someone from several feet away.
The question of the mainstream haredi community’s attitudes toward violence and coercion has been hard to judge due to their unwillingness to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue with the secular community or media.
However, one local haredi man who was observing Tuesday night’s rally told the Post that while there are no mainstream rabbis who endorse violence, with many rabbinic leaders condemning it during communal sermons in their synagogues, he believed the rally and secular backlash to be a “political” move aimed against the haredi community.
“How many extremists are there,” he asked. “Ten? It’s not as big as it is made out to be.”
The question on the minds of many secular Israelis today is why there is no significant opposition to the zealots from within the haredi community. Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a hassid of the extremely zealous Toldot Aharon sect and a former spokesman for the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, believes he knows the answer.
Interviewed in his office in the Kirya Haredit neighborhood in old Beit Shemesh, Pappenheim explained that many in the haredi community are in denial about the true extent of the problem and the legitimate concerns of their secular neighbors.
“They don’t stand up against [the extremists] because they don’t understand what’s happening from their media,” he said.
The haredi media, Pappenheim believes, report on the secular criticism of their community without giving equal time to reporting the problems of their own extremists.
Another factor that seems to come into play is fear. In Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh haredi businesses, such as the often defaced Manny’s Books in the haredi Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula, are regularly targeted by extremists, and much of their terror is directed inwards against their brethren.
One member of the ultra-Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh who attended the rally explained that fear is a powerful motivator in preventing haredim from standing up against those purporting to use violence in their community’s name.
Commenting on the issue raised by members of the national-religious community regarding extremism turning people off from traditional Judaism, Pappenheim stated that violence “causes people to hate modesty.”
The extremists have “an ideal that is only workable for people in a closed-off place,” he continued. “These people live in a ghetto and have no idea of how things work.”
In Pappenheim’s view, the main reason why many people tolerate the extremists is that they operate in the zone between the “permitted and forbidden. They play a game” there, he said.
Pappenheim explained that the zealots take an issue on which there is a consensus, in this case the opposition to a nationalreligious school in close proximity to territory claimed by haredim, and take the protests to a level that is not generally approved of by mainstream haredim.
However, many haredim are unwilling to publicly come out in opposition to the zealots, especially when they see the issue as one of secular Jews encroaching on their lifestyle.
Contrary to public perception, he declared, many of the leading rabbis of the haredi community have condemned the violence within their own inward-looking enclaves.
Turning to his computer, Pappenheim pulled up a photograph of a pashkevil, a broadsheet posted on walls and used as a form of mass communication in the Internet- and television-eschewing haredi world, which contained vigorous condemnations of the use of violence in protests.
This broadsheet, issued by the Eda Haredit, declared that one who uses force against others is a potential “murderer” and a “rodef,” the Hebrew term for one who pursues another with intent to kill.
The leading rabbi of the Toldot Aharon sect, Pappenheim claimed, has excommunicated members who have engaged in violence and publicly announced to his followers that such behavior will “lead to the haredim being expelled from the land of Israel.”
MK Haim Amsalem addresses Beit Shemesh rallyMK Haim Amsalem addresses Beit Shemesh rally
HOWEVER, EVEN moderates such as Pappenheim still subscribe to the belief that opposition to national-religious development on “their” turf should be opposed, a belief to which many ascribe blame as a motivator of violence.
The situation in Beit Shemesh was described in a recent blog posting by local resident Etana Hecht.
“When we first moved in, the ultra- Orthodox community of RBS B [Ramat Beit Shemesh B] was new, and expanding all the time,” she explained. “Slowly the buildings of RBS expanded until they were directly across from the border of Sheinfeld. Unfortunately, a group of what we now refer to as Kitzonim [extremists] moved in from Mea She’arim. This group self-appointed themselves as G-d’s personal messengers to deliver messages to all those who they believe are not living their lives exactly how G-d intended us to live. The main point that they bring across with this is their twisted views of Tzniut [modesty].
“This has manifested itself in a number of ways over the years, including spray-painting our property with their messages, chasing and screaming at teenage girls and boys from our neighborhood, spitting at the women who were wearing sandals, even throwing an egg at one girl from our area.”
The problems began with the building of the Orot Banot school, the locale for the frequently violent protests that have enraged Israelis, and result from a poor planning choice on the part of the municipality, she believes.
“On the border of Sheinfeld, Nofei Hashemesh and Nofei Aviv... sits a plot of land with two schools that mainly cater to those three [national-religious] neighborhoods, Orot Banim (boys’ school) and Orot Banot (girls’ school). Overlooking the girls’ school are the new buildings on the edge of RBS B that, due to extremely poor planning by the city, reach all the way on the border of ‘our’ neighborhoods. Orot Banot has been waiting for years for their building to be ready,” she said.
RABBI DOV LIPMAN, the organizer of this week’s protest in Beit Shemesh, agreed with Hecht’s assessment. Speaking to the Post between phone calls and e-mails related to the upcoming rally, Lipman, the leader of the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh and a haredi rabbi himself, explained that the problem stems from plans to “haredize” Beit Shemesh.
Lipman himself is a member of a more moderate, American brand of ultra-Orthodoxy that is much closer ideologically to the school of thought prevalent among religious Zionists than to that which dominates the local haredi community.
While the haredim face a housing shortage, he stated, the solution cannot be placing them all in Beit Shemesh. Citing plans by the city to build an additional 20,000 housing units for the haredi sector, Lipman stated that while the streets are generally not violent, low-key intimidation occurs on a regular basis.
He did not deny the violent activities occurring in the town as many members of the haredi community who spoke with the Post for this article did, but he did say that the violence is only a symptom of a larger issue, which he believes to be a haredi sense of entitlement regarding the land surrounding their neighborhoods. This sense of entitlement, Lipman stated, emboldens those who would utilize violence.
The main issue preventing haredim from coming out strongly against violence, he explained, is that “haredim are being told that there is an anti-haredi crusade against them,” causing them to circle the wagons and go on the defensive against outsiders.
This accounts for the presence of haredim who are not members of the zealots taking part in the recent near-lynching of several television journalists in Beit Shemesh.
“The extremists are incapable of dealing with outside influences,” causing them to lash out when they feel threatened, he explained. The issue in Lipman’s eyes is less about the level of modesty of the girls attending the school, a frequent complaint of the protesters, than about their mere presence near the haredim.
While the mainstream haredim oppose the school out of territorial concerns, the extremists have stated that they believe it is problematic to show their children that there are other kinds of Jews who are not part of their world.
One religious resident reported being told by a small girl, the daughter of one of the extremists, that she, as an outsider, was not an Orthodox Jew in their eyes.
In a telephone conversation with the Post, Moshe Friedman, one of the leaders of the extremists, stated that all of the fault for the violence lies with Lipman.
“He brings little girls to our demonstrations,” he stated, putting the Americanborn rabbi at fault for exposing the schoolchildren to the verbal and sometimes physical abuse.
“Lipman is the one who is engaged in terror,” he continued, citing one occasion when concerned parents brought dogs to a counter-demonstration in an attempt to scare off the zealots.
According to many local sources the rabbinic authority of the zealots is Rabbi Meir Heller, whose son Naftali has been implicated in multiple violent incidents. Heller can usually be found in a small study hall located in a caravan several hundred meters away from the Orot Banot school.
When contacted by the Post, Heller denied any connection to the violence, saying that he merely deals with personal queries regarding Jewish law.
This claim has been vigorously disputed by local residents, who have pointed out that before arriving at the school for protests many of the zealots can be seen exiting his study hall.
The Post spoke with several members of the extremist group calling itself “Sikrikim” after the Sicarii, a militant Jewish group that functioned in Judea during the Roman period.
“We have a Torah and we have rabbis and we have the Halacha [Jewish law],” one member of the group stated flatly. “That is your story. Now go and write it.”
Another member of the group was even terser, saying that there was no need to “explain ourselves to anyone.”
However, one member of the group did unbend enough to offer that he believed the issue to be one of self-defense as his community was being hemmed in and not being given room to grow. The school was built on land that belongs to the haredim, he stressed.
PROF. MENACHEM FRIEDMAN, one of the leading experts on the haredi population, found this statement to be particularly revealing.
According to Friedman “the public sphere is the most dangerous place for the haredim and they feel the need to control it.” This is especially true, he said, of the “border between their neighborhoods and others because they are growing and taking over other neighborhoods and joining them to their own ghetto.”
“The fight is always over the border,” he said.
The concerns over haredi expansion have led Lipman to join forces with Yisrael Hofshit [Free Israel], an organization dedicated to the separation of religion and state in Israel. However, this move, which has helped bring in secular support, has also alienated many sympathetic haredim.
One haredi journalist covering the protest told the Post that hundreds of kollel students had expressed their interest in attending the rally, but were put off by the general anti-haredi tone they believe it has.
Secular and national-religious politicians in the city place most of the blame for the increasing tensions on Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, who they claim has built only for haredim at the expense of other groups.
City councilman Motti Cohen of the secular Dor Aher party told the Post that many secular residents, including himself, initially supported and voted for the mayor, who represents Shas.
“Abutbul positioned himself as representing the interests of all the residents,” says Cohen, asserting that the mayor only puts any real effort into building for certain segments of the haredi population.
“He is trying to ‘haredize’ the city,” says Cohen. “We have no problem with building even more haredi neighborhoods; they just shouldn’t be dominant.”
Cohen and Lipman both emphasize that except for the actions of the Sikrikim, there is no territorial conflict in Beit Shemesh outside the political arena and that there is normally little or no violence in the streets.
NATAN SLIFKIN, a local rabbi and the author of the controversial Rationalist Judaism blog summed up the issue by stating that “the vast majority of haredim are horrified and disgusted at the thought of screaming at girls and spitting on them – or indeed at anyone. These are the actions of a fringe lunatic element that are detested by everyone. But as such, it’s easy for haredim, including Mayor Abutbul, to give television interviews protesting their behavior. This neatly enables them to avoid the more general problem, which is this: At every level in haredi society, there is a certain degree of intolerance towards non-haredim, which is never protested by those to their Left in haredi society.
“The mainstream haredi rabbonim [rabbis] and residents of RBS-A, such as Rav Kornfeld and the Hadash newspaper, are utterly disgusted at the idea of any physical violence or verbal intimidation of non-haredim – it’s so obviously criminal to them that they don’t even see a need to make it clear that they oppose it. And they do not support the approach of the RBS-B rabbonim and the extreme haredi rabbonim. But they will not speak out against them.”
The haredi community, Slifkin alleged, does “support milder attempts to impose haredi mores on the rest of the city and to oppose non-haredim” and the moderate haredim refuse to condemn such “milder attempts” due to the perception that they are “on the same general team.”