Beit Shemesh rally ‘a success’ say protest leaders

Police should be protecting schoolgirls, not us, organizer says.

Beit Shemesh demo_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beit Shemesh demo_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Organizers of Tuesday night’s anti-extremism rally in Beit Shemesh expressed satisfaction with the turnout and impact of the protest on Wednesday, welcoming the media coverage and the participation of senior political figures.
Estimates vary as to the number of protesters who turned up for the rally, ranging from several hundred to more than 3,000, as claimed by those who coordinated the protest.
The protest was called to speak out against attacks perpetrated by extremists elements from the Beit Shemesh haredi community against the Orot Bnot elementary girls school, located on the border between the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the mixed neighborhood of Kiryat Sheinfeld.
One of the central organizers was Rabbi Dov Lipman, who heads the Emergency Committee to Save Beit Shemesh. He said he was extremely satisfied with the results of the protest regardless of the number of participants.
The presence of senior politicians including the head of the opposition, Kadima MK Tzipi Livni, and former Labor party head MK Amir Peretz, along with a huge media presence meant that the rally achieved its goal of drawing attention to the issue, Lipman told The Jerusalem Post.
Lipman, who describes himself as “modern-haredi,” said he had hired a “top media consultant” to help in getting sufficient media coverage for the problem.
“The media pressure has been 100 percent effective in bringing national attention to the issue of radicalization in Beit Shemesh,” he said. “I believe the issue stands on its own, but in Israel if you want a problem addressed you need the media.”
Asked whether the campaign had led to increased tensions in the city, Lipman answered, “100 percent yes.”
“I feel bad about that,” he admitted, “but we needed to make a difference and really tackle the problem head on.”
Gidon Yavin, a Beit Shemesh resident and communications consultant to the haredi world, as he describes himself, said the activism and media campaign “was very wrong” and that it had backed all sides into their respective corners.
“Nelson Mandela said you should always leave your opponent room to maneuver, but this drumming up of media attention means that now the haredim and the those on the other side of the issue have no room to maneuver. The situation is now much harder to resolve,” he said.
Yavin also claimed that the haredi leadership in Beit Shemesh was not given the opportunity to discuss the situation with the religious- Zionist and modern-haredi communities, because the leaders from those neighborhoods said that Mayor Moshe Abutbul of Shas, who is himself haredi, was biased against them. “They went to war,” Yavin said. “They ignored the opportunity to discuss possible solutions to solving the tensions and so now this is where we are.”
One of the main claims of the haredi community in Beit Shemesh is that the violent and abusive acts carried out against the Orot Bnot elementary school and its pupils are perpetrated by an extremely small but criminal minority.
This was refrain was repeated by numerous haredi residents observing Tuesday night’s demonstration.
Rachel, a married ultra-Orthodox woman living in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, said that the people at the center of the attacks did not follow any particular rabbi and did not heed the instructions of senior communal leaders either.
“These are not people we can control, and we shouldn’t be asked to either,” she said.
“It is not the responsibility of different communities to control the crazy people in their midst, it’s the responsibility of the authorities.”
Lipman sees this as an attempt to shirk responsibility, and argued that if the haredi community was indeed opposed to the radical fringe, it should publicly join his struggle, with the kind of poster campaigns that haredi leaders and organizations deploy for issues they hold dear.
According to Yavin, haredi leaders have been doing just that. He said that Rabbi Shaia Rosenberger, one of the leading haredi rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, spoke out in a public address to his followers against violence and abusive behavior.
The haredi community in Beit Shemesh also rejects the notion that there is a process of radicalization within their society, and explains increasingly stringent approaches to numerous areas of Jewish law as a reaction to the enticements of modern culture.
The concern of the haredi community regarding the positioning of the Orot Bnot school, said Yavin, was primarily over the influences that their children were exposed to when they saw the way the girls dressed and behaved, Yavin explained.
“For a haredi person, one of his greatest fears is that his children will adopt a different, less spiritual way of life,” he said. “If they see other children who don’t dress like them but are having great fun, it is a path that they may take.”
According to Yavin, the haredi community feels that its values are under siege by secular and modern society, which has prompted the current trend to insulate its children and congregants from the influences of the more modern and progressive religious- Zionist communities abutting their neighborhoods.
But the trend, he said, was not a form of radicalization.
“Halacha is not a set of rigid rules, it changes according to the reality on the ground. And the reality is that when it becomes spiritually dangerous to mix genders in the street then the rabbis will rule against it.
“The haredi community is acting in accordance with the tradition and rulings of the great rabbis of previous generations in response to the extreme lack of modesty in the secular world so as to protect themselves,” Yavin said.
In Lipman’s view, the rabbinical rulings that have led to gender segregation on public buses and even to some extent in the streets of the haredi neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh are a complete deviation from the norms of Jewish law.
“I view this behavior as similar to Reform Judaism,” he said. “There is no basis anywhere in the Torah for saying where women should walk, for segregated buses or any of these other similar rulings.”
Lipman is anxious to point out that his campaign is not in anyway anti-haredi, but is simply focused on the safety and well-being of the Orot Bnot pupils. He said, however, that “broader radicalization” in Israeli society was a major concern and described himself as a “card carrying member” of MK Haim Amsalem’s Am Shalem movement who hopes to run for Knesset.
“We’re against extremism and what we want is for the haredi community to be active participants in stopping this phenomenon,” he said. “We saw that the abuse against the school was starting up again, and so we initiated this campaign in order to stop it. Last year we were the ones who had to protect the girls and it shouldn’t be us, it should be the police. That is what we are trying to achieve here.”