Guest Columnist: It is time

Haredi leaders must learn introspection and adapt to new realities.

Beit Shemesh girls school protest 521 (photo credit: Atara Beck)
Beit Shemesh girls school protest 521
(photo credit: Atara Beck)
It is time for genuine soul searching among the haredi leadership. The progression seen in the last few months is inexcusable. First, mainstream haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis refused to condemn the verbal and sometimes physical assaults on children at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh. Activists met with rabbis of various hassidic sects and tried to put together a coalition of haredi rabbis against the violence.
While some privately expressed anger over what was happening, none was willing to join.
Religious Zionist rabbis denounced the violence in a strongly worded letter, which the local haredi rabbis refused to sign. The moderate haredi Tov Party joined in demonstrations and spoke out against the violence, but the activists failed to generate the unified response from all haredi leaders that was needed to heal the open wounds and confront the extremists.
Then, the haredi leadership invented an “anti-haredi” campaign. Certain haredi political leaders, rabbis and journalists – instead of joining the rest of the country in condemning the violence and the extremists, which were exposed on national television – resorted to claiming simply that “they are anti-haredi.”
The most extreme example of this made-up campaign was in a Beit Shemesh newspaper that functions under the auspices of haredi political and rabbinic leaders. It reported that “innocent Jewish children with traditional peyos framing their cherubic faces have become the target of virulent verbal and even physical abuse, preyed on by common street thugs. Their very blood and dignity is laid waste, free for the taking by any hotheaded hooligan under the influence of the venomous media campaign.”
According to the paper, “tens of thousands of Jewish mothers nationwide are terrified, fearful for their children’s safety.... We receive daily reports about haredi Jews in various cities across the country who have been victimized.... Boys and girls age 10 and younger have been the victims of violent assault, with some requiring hospitalization for their injuries.... All of these innocent victims are severely traumatized with emotional wounds that may never heal.”
While there were unverified reports of sporadic incidents of this kind, the exaggerated description of a country filled with attacks against haredi children and their desperate mothers is simply inaccurate. Lies and distortions in a religious publication, which rile up a haredi street that has no other source of news, is extremely disturbing, especially when written under the auspices of rabbis who must okay what is printed.
Unfortunately, less malicious but nonetheless inaccurate reports made their way into this magazine last week (“Who picks up the tab for manufactured social conflict?,” January 20). The column’s labeling of the Beit Shemesh protest as an “anti-haredi demonstration” was false. There was not one “anti-haredi” statement from the speakers at that rally. The column’s report that journalist Yair Lapid suggested that the Beit Shemesh story could happen throughout the country “unless the haredim are brought to heel” was incorrect. Lapid said nothing about “the haredim” and was careful to mention only “extremist haredim,” a significant difference. Finally the column’s statement that Lapid’s documentary “did not reflect current realities” was untrue. The extremists began to return to the school again shortly before Hanukka, and children were still scared, as Naama’s tears demonstrated.
So it is time for some introspection in the mainstream haredi leadership. Why didn’t it join the moderate haredim, the religious Zionists and the secular to condemn the violence? Why didn’t its representatives come to the school even once to witness the venom coming from these violent men and the fear on the children’s faces, to educate themselves regarding the severity of the situation? Why didn’t the haredi newspapers cover the truly scared mothers and emotionally scarred children of Orot? Why did they twist the words of the news reports and the rally into “anti-haredi”? Why are they so quick to speak harshly about this made-up campaign, lying to rile up the haredi street?
Before I suggest an answer to these questions, let me make clear that I view myself as “haredi,” some of my closest friends are “haredi,” and the rabbis who have influenced me most in my life are “haredi.” This is why the failures of the haredi leadership so disturb me. I openly declare in local, national and international media that the majority of haredim would never be violent and have no interest in imposing their lifestyle on others. So attempts to dismiss my serious questions via charges that I am “anti-haredi” won’t work.
I suggest that haredi leaders would not condemn the violence, would not stand side-by-side with the rest of Israel at demonstrations, reacted to the charges against the extremists by being defensive and crying “anti-haredi,” and had to resort to lies or, at best, inaccuracies to make those charges stick, because they continue to view their standing in Israel as “us against them.” And as long as they see the rest of the country as being against them, not only are they incapable of condemning acts by even the most extreme haredim, they must find fault with everyone else, to the point of making up stories with no basis in reality. Because haredi leaders direct the community in this tone, even moderate haredi journalists cannot accept that the non-haredi side is completely blameless.
And therein lies their tragic mistake. These haredi political leaders, rabbis and journalists must recognize the changing times. While Israel’s secular founders wanted to rid the state of religion and haredism, that is no longer the case. As the director of the secular Yisrael Hofshit told me before our joint rally, “We don’t want them to stop being haredi. We just want them to respect us and not force anything on others.”
Lapid himself openly made this declaration in a graduation speech at a haredi college in Kiryat Ono when he told the students, “You won!” and went on to explain that the religious world had proven that there was no justification for a State of Israel without religion. The haredi leadership must recognize that Yair Lapid is not his father Tommy Lapid – the former chairman of the anti-religious Shinui Party – and it is time to adjust to the new realities in which we live.
These leaders must begin viewing themselves as part of one nation where we all work together to make the country better. If haredi extremists act improperly, then haredi politicians must join the rest of the country in condemning them without qualifications.
If settler extremists act violently, haredi journalists should not say, “Look, they do it, too,” but join the rest of the country in denouncing them.
When horrifying murders occur, haredi rabbis should not respond by saying, “Look what happens when you don’t have Torah,” but should cry with the rest of the nation.
The haredi street is ripe for this shift; I know this firsthand. Since the massive, nationally televised Beit Shemesh rally, I have been contacted by Belz, Ger and Breslov Hassidim who want to work not only with me, but with secular groups to fight against extremism and to improve our country. The time has come for the rest of the haredi political leaders, rabbis and journalists to follow suit.
The writer is an educator, author and community activist in Beit Shemesh and the director of the English Speakers Division of the Am Shalem movement.