Religious strife … AGAIN?

Déjà vu in Beit Shemesh as a battle over a school highlights tension between haredi and secular residents.

Children walk into their school Mishkenot Da’at, which is located on the premises of the Safot V’tarbuyot School. (photo credit: FLASH 90)
Children walk into their school Mishkenot Da’at, which is located on the premises of the Safot V’tarbuyot School.
(photo credit: FLASH 90)
It’s 2011 all over again… History seems to be repeating itself in Beit Shemesh, residents believe, with issues over the ownership of schools again dividing the Jerusalem suburb with its mixed population of national-religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.
Three years ago, extremist members of the haredi camp violently protested the opening of the Orot Banot girls' school on land situated between the established national-religious communities of Nofei Aviv and Sheinfeld and the rapidly expanding Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, a hassidic stronghold.
While the extremists’ tactics – which included the throwing of stones and other projectiles, and strong verbal abuse – were repugnant to most of the ultra-Orthodox community, their goal was not.
Residents of the haredi neighborhoods indicated that they believed that the school was on “their” turf and consequently, it was illegitimate for any institution not geared to the ultra-Orthodox to exist there. The failure of the haredi rabbinic leadership to condemn the violence strained relations with the national-religious and secular.
“I will not officially – ‘as a haredi rabbi’ – condemn the actions perpetrated by these hired kooks, just as no Jew should condemn officially, as a Jew, what [convicted fraudster Bernard] Madoff did in order ‘to show that all Jews are not like that,’ and no white should officially condemn, as a white, the lynching of a black,” the American rabbi of one local congregation wrote, explaining his decision not to speak out.
Popular perception of a lack of action on the part of Moshe Abutbul, the city’s haredi mayor, also drew condemnations from those not part of the ultra-Orthodox camp. Following his explosive election, replete with religious tensions, intercommunal mudslinging and campaign signs demonizing his opponents in biblical terms, Abutbul was reelected in March. The latest round of intercommunal strife occurred on September 1, when the night before the beginning of the school year, the Abutbul-run municipality sent construction workers to break the locks of the secular Safot V’tarbuyot [Languages and Cultures] School in a mostly haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, and to put up partitions to physically divide the building.
A Jerusalem court has provisionally given the haredi Mishkenot Da’at girls school permission to stay in the building, although the separation walls were ordered removed and were subsequently taken down.
All this is against the backdrop of demographic changes in Beit Shemesh, as most of the secular residents of that neighborhood have moved to “old Beit Shemesh” and their children must be bussed to school.
Decried as illegal by the Education Ministry, the move was designed to create classroom space for Mishkenot Da’at, and quickly led to physical clashes as parents attempted to block the last-minute separation – which included a high wall between the two sides of the playground and an internal partition that ensured pupils at each school would be completely separated from each other.
The number of children at the school has dropped precipitously in recent years, with only 144 registered despite total capacity for 500. Beit Shemesh suffers from a chronic lack of classroom space, with many schools having to make do with caravan-style mobile structures in which to hold lessons.
With revelations that NIS 70 million in government money for classrooms has been left unspent, some residents believe the Abutbul administration is seeking to use the classroom shortage to push out the last vestiges of secularism in the haredi areas of Ramat Beit Shemesh.
In response, the municipality states it has opened four new schools and that the ministry had not considered the “difficult topography” of Beit Shemesh, which increases construction costs.
Critics have not taken into account “the fact that public spaces are filled with mobile ‘caravillas’ that were erected as a temporary solution for children in haredi education, and we will join in cooperation with the ministry for preparing sites to move these caravillas to. There is not one open and clean space in Beit Shemesh today for building a school.”
Speaking with Metro, one haredi resident with connections to the national- religious community asked, if this is the case, why there has been room to build the entire new neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel as well as residential projects around the city – but not new school buildings? WHILE THE religious aspect of the school flap has rekindled fears of renewed tensions in Beit Shemesh, there is also a managerial aspect. Members of the non-ultra-Orthodox, so-called “Zionist camp” in Beit Shemesh are divided between those who see the fight over Safot V’tarbuyot in religious terms, and those who see it as the actions of a mayor looking to cover up alleged incompetence in providing necessary infrastructure.
Explaining both perceptions, national- religious resident Daniel Goldman says, “The mayor clearly attaches a great deal of importance to [the school]. Whether this is because he is getting immense pressure from within the haredi community or it is his own idea, he clearly feels this is part of the consolidation of his election victory.
“It’s quite clear to me… at the end of this process, with classrooms in the hands of Mishkenot Da’at, it doesn’t come close to resolving the big issue around this matter – which is the total incompetence in planning and building physical education infrastructure in Beit Shemesh during his time as mayor. Ironically, the people who are most negatively impacted by this are, of course, in the haredi community – the ones who are primarily in substandard caravans.”
According to Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who rose to prominence leading protests against religious coercion in Beit Shemesh three years ago: “Many solutions were offered to help the haredi girls, including new caravans for the opening of the school.
The city rejected all offers, further demonstrating that this is not about the girls, but about grabbing the building for the haredim and forcing out the hilonim [seculars].”
However, not everybody agrees with Lipman.
While there is widespread opposition among non-haredi residents of Beit Shemesh to the way the school split was conducted, carried out like a police raid the night before the start of the school year, the issue is not quite as simple as that of Orot Banot, some residents believe.
According to Ian Hametz, who made aliya to Ramat Beit Shemesh three years ago from New York, the extra space available in Safot V’tarbuyot and the classroom shortage add a moral complexity to the story that was not present during the Orot Banot affair.
It is likely that dividing the school was the right move, he explains, citing the manner in which the division occurred as the source for his opposition.
“The concept of having a school, I don’t care where it is, that has 60-percent vacancy, it would be ridiculous not to utilize that space. However, with all that being said, the school they put in there [Mishkenot Da’at] doesn’t deserve to receive municipal financing because it is a private school and they don’t accept [everybody]; they are actually extremely restrictive even within the haredi community,” Hametz says.
“If it is really your right to divide the school or take the excess space, you don’t go in there at 2 a.m. and build a wall in secret. All it does is make you look like a criminal.”
In a less publicized action, several evenings after the Safot V’tarbuyot affair began, city councilman Richard Peres sent out a Facebook message calling on residents to flock to stop workers from placing a caravan next to the parking lot of a national-religious girls school on Nahal Refaim Street in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef.
The caravan, whose placement, Peres claimed, was overseen by haredi members of the city council, was subsequently declared illegal by police and the municipality but did not receive much play in the media.
Haredi city council members were indeed present along with Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, a local religious leader who was supervising the placement of the illegal caravan, confirms a school administrator who asked not to be identified.
Among the reasons for the feeling of déjà vu was also the return of violence by extremists, many of whom are linked to the groups involved in the Orot Banot affair, against a construction site in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef down the block from a number of schools.
Writing on Facebook, local resident Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll asserts, “There needs to be a creative and serious solution to the thugs who come and ‘protest’ by lighting fires next to our children’s schools. My daughter witnessed them lighting the fires, screaming and yelling. The girls were frightened, they inhaled a lot of smoke, they had to come home early, my daughter doesn’t want to go back to school and frankly, she’s not feeling love for men in long coats, hats and swinging peyot [sidecurls].”
Yaniv Fogel, deputy chair of the municipal parents’ committee, says he believes the issue is both one of religion and of a failure of management.
“There is a real problem that there are not enough classrooms in the city,” he notes, citing a lack of 400 rooms.
Responding to Abutbul’s claim of four new schools, he says it is possible they have been built in purely haredi areas, but that he was not aware of any new construction. Even in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, no new schools are being built and with the population increase in the city the new neighborhood is bringing about, the classroom crisis will only be exacerbated, he maintains.
The only way to avoid a religious conflict pitting secular and national-religious against the ultra-Orthodox, he asserts, is “simply to talk.”
If the Education Ministry, parents’ groups and the municipality sit down together and work out the issues, he concludes, “I am sure we can find solutions.”
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.