'Within the law'

The video clip screened on the wall of Beersheba Judge Iddo Rusin's courtroom showed a crowd of black-garbed haredim overrunning the area, knocking over chairs, shouting and singing while a few police stood by and several non-haredim stood dumbfounded. The judge, however, sounded unimpressed. "There is no question that this was a terrible event. The question is whether there's anything here that ties the defendants to it." The scene was from an attack on a Beersheba Messianic Jewish prayer service by several hundred haredim on Shabbat, December 24, 2005 (Christmas Eve). The screening took place a couple of weeks ago in the civil suit by local Messianic leader Howard Bass, who claims the riot was instigated by the city's chief rabbi, Yehuda Deri (brother of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri), and Yad L'Achim, the haredi anti-missionary organization. Deri was not visible in the crowd shown in the video clip. The attorney for Yad L'Achim, Meir Morganstern, asked a witness for the Messianics, "Did you see any placards or signs in the crowd that said 'Yad L'Achim'?" "No, I didn't," she said. "Thank you," said the attorney. Before the court session, Bass told me the haredim flooded through the gate of the compound that morning, discovering the baptismal and throwing him into it, along with garden furniture and anything else they could get their hands on. "There was a Korean doctoral student from Ben-Gurion University there and they surrounded him, kicking his ankles and shouting, 'Go back to Thailand, you dirty Thai worker.' They surrounded a car full of people and spat on it so much it had to be taken afterward to the car wash," he said. The melee went on for about three hours. A few haredim were arrested but immediately released, he added. Beersheba policeman Rafi Ben-Haroun testified that when he got to the compound, "There was rioting going on inside and out." He also said that after Deri arrived and began talking to the haredim and police, "things seemed to calm down." The key witness of the day was Rabbi Yeshayahu Khalifa, head of the local Chabad yeshiva whose members were prominent in the mob. Under questioning from Bass's attorney, Marvin Kramer, he denied a report in a haredi newspaper that he was an active member of Yad L'Achim. He also acknowledged that he and other local haredi rabbis gathered at Deri's house the day before the attack to discuss strategy against the "evildoers," as he referred to the Messianics. Khalifa said Deri "told us of the huge baptism that was going to take place, the mass conversion of innocent Jews, of children, and we decided to pray that the Jews would not fall into the trap that was being laid for them. The rabbi told us that everything should be done within the law, without any violence, God forbid." Kramer asked him why, if local haredi rabbis had truly decided against law-breaking and violence, did "70 to 100" police have to come to the Messianics' compound to make order? "Ask the police," Khalifa replied. "They probably came so that our prayers wouldn't be disturbed." "So the police came to protect you?" the attorney asked. "Of course," replied the rabbi. After the hearing, Alex Artovsky, Yad L'Achim's chief field operative, told me he was not present at Deri's house nor at the attack on the compound. "These are all made-up charges. There were a few hooligans who made trouble, we had nothing to do with it." There wasn't time for Artovsky's testimony or Deri's, and the case was adjourned until November 23.