I’ve heard many complaints lately about the silence of the haredi leadership and public – that vast majority of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and laypeople who are presumably appalled when extremists in their midst spit on little girls, stone policemen, call female soldiers “whores” and the like. But I’ve heard far too few complaints about the real outrage: the fact that despite all the verbal condemnations by government officials, the very state agents who are supposed to protect the public from such thugs often side with the extremists instead.
Consider, for instance, what happened last month when Tanya Rosenblit sat in the front of a mehadrin bus – a public bus serving mainly haredi passengers, whose unwritten rule is men in front and women in back. One haredi man demanded that she move to the back, and to enforce his demand, blocked the door of the bus for about 30 minutes, thereby preventing it from moving and effectively holding all the passengers hostage. In this case, the other haredi passengers didn’t remain silent; they demanded that the driver intervene, and he eventually called the police. But instead of arresting the extremist for this blatant disturbance of the peace, the policeman urged Rosenblit to just be a good girl and sit in back.
Or take what happened last week when dozens of secular activists boarded seven mehadrin buses and sat in front. Almost none of them encountered untoward behavior from the haredi passengers. But on two buses, activists suffered blatant abuse from the drivers – employees of public bus companies licensed and subsidized by the state. On line 354, the driver initially refused to let the women board at all, grudgingly capitulating only after police intervened. On line 402, the driver not only objected to the activists, but threatened to smash the accompanying journalists’ cameras.
Nor is this a problem of a few bad apples: It appears to be policy from the very top. The most shocking statement I’ve heard since this issue erupted came from Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, who told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that such behavior toward women is mainly “a social issue,” so police “cannot provide the whole solution.” Another unidentified senior officer later told a Hebrew paper that “detectives shouldn’t escort children to school, that’s not the police’s job.”
Really? It’s not the police’s job to enforce a High Court of Justice ruling barring segregated buses? It’s not the police’s job to ensure that an eight-year-old can walk to school without being spat on and cursed? In 1957, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort black children to school every day for weeks to enforce a court order requiring the desegregation of schools. Is it too much to ask that our police at least arrest offenders who happen to fall into their lap, like Rosenblit’s harasser?
Granted, the haredi majority ought to speak out more forcefully. Aside from the eternal truth that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” ordinary haredim have the most to lose if other Israelis come to view the entire community as extremist. For instance, there’s a crying housing shortage in haredi neighborhoods, yet efforts by haredim to move into non-haredi neighborhoods are increasingly meeting fierce resistance from existing residents, who understandably fear their neighborhoods becoming like parts of Beit Shemesh, where eight-year-olds like Na’ama Margolis must run a gauntlet of spitting, cursing haredi extremists just to get to school in the morning. And rightly or wrong, most Israelis do interpret silence as consent.
Moreover, the haredi leadership’s response has been appalling. Though Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi haredi leader, finally denounced the extremists in his Shas party’s Yom Leyom newspaper last week, Ashkenazi leaders – whose response is far more important, since the extremists are mainly Ashkenazi – still haven’t. Worse, some have even poured oil on the fire. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, leader of the non-Hasidic (“Lithuanian”) haredim, chose the very moment when the uproar over haredi extremism was at its height to publish a front-page letter in his party’s newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, calling for even more extremism: He ordered his followers to boycott the haredi colleges and haredi army programs that have enabled thousands of them to learn a profession and serve their country while maintaining a strictly haredi lifestyle, lest they thereby “integrate and connect with the nonreligious life and the culture of evil people.” In other words, he may or may not support the extremists’ methods (he doesn’t say), but he certainly shares their goal: total isolation from, and zero responsibility toward, the “evil” non-haredi majority whose taxes fund haredi yeshivas and whose army service protects haredi lives.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to expect ordinary people to take on increasingly violent extremists as long as the state authorities who are supposed to protect them can’t be trusted not to side with the extremists instead. And judging by one of the most extraordinary reports to emerge from Beit Shemesh, ordinary haredim are truly afraid. Two weeks ago, Yair Ettinger of Haaretz – a paper loathed by haredim – reported that while covering protests against the extremists by the town’s non-haredi residents and outside activists, he was approached by numerous haredim, including a “leading rabbi,” who begged the secular media to pressure the government and police to take action against the extremists. “They’re violent, they threaten us, they’re strangling us,” mourned one haredi, who said the extremists’ threats had forced his wife to quit her job.
In all honesty, how many ordinary non-haredim would risk standing up to violent bullies knowing that the people in authority – the bus driver you’re depending on to take you home, the policeman you turn to for protection – are likely to side with the bullies instead of you? That takes extraordinary courage. For their own sake, I hope ordinary haredim find it, but I don’t think the rest of us have any right to demand it.
Instead, we should be demanding something that doesn’t require extraordinary courage: that state representatives finally start carrying out the minimum duties of the jobs we pay them for.
The writer is a journalist and commentator. She is currently a JINSA Visiting Fellow.