Civil rights or Jewish values as a model for conflict resolution

It is obvious that the law recognizes that one may not enforce one’s lifestyle on another.

Ultra Orthodox and secular Israelis clash in Beit Shemesh. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra Orthodox and secular Israelis clash in Beit Shemesh.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a non-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) resident of Beit Shemesh the past year has not been an easy one.
I am trying to balance the many great facets of our city with the seemingly unstoppable trend of Beit Shemesh becoming the country’s largest haredi city.
A recurring theme is the challenge to create a welcoming city environment for all residents and more specifically a sustainable modus vivendi for communities with starkly contrasting lifestyles and beliefs. Does the legal framework give us boundaries and guidelines, or should we expect that mature dialogue and leadership can achieve a more successful outcome? On this backdrop City Hall received a court ruling recognizing the humiliation and emotional distress caused by the signs that adorn the city’s public areas instructing women on appropriate dress and which sections of the pavement they are entitled to walk upon. Initially, the ruling looks symbolic, with the compensation for the four plaintiffs totaling NIS 60,000 ($15,200). Aside from local ramifications, will the ruling have a wider national impact? What effect does this ruling have on other public-domain dilemmas? In the ruling the court drew parallels with other similar legal precedents such as gender- segregated bus lines.
All the way through the process, and again in response to the ruling, Mayor Moshe Abutbol has claimed that his attempts to remove the illegal signage are futile – as those who placed them waste no time putting them straight back up. He has also suggested that an aggressive attempt on his part to enforce the law would lead to violence, even hinting that he is not convinced the police are equipped to handle this situation.
More damningly, Abutbol has not made any serious attempt to solve the issue through dialogue. He has tacitly backed the haredim, ignoring his responsibilities to the wider community. As a result, the plaintiffs have been left with no choice but to pursue the matter through the courts. As his credibility as leader diminishes, so community support for the suit will grow.
A broader question comes into relief. It is obvious that the law recognizes that one may not enforce one’s lifestyle on another. Discriminatory signs hung in public areas are illegal. Intimidation and violence to enforce such signs cannot be condoned. The haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh surely understands this, and I am confident that no haredi would change his mode of dress or lifestyle if the signs came down.
Why then the difficulty? Parts of the haredi leadership do not give credence to secular laws and certainly do not accept as axiomatic Western pluralism and democracy. Any perceived collision between Torah law and civil law will have only one winner in their eyes. Obviously, it is somewhat easier to debate these points when the implication creates no change to the status quo in one’s own neighborhood or community.
It is altogether different when these laws impinge on one’s sacred duty to protect the haredi way of life and the Torah itself. An additional, but more tactical difficulty is the asymmetric nature of the problem.
While haredim demand all those entering their neighborhoods adhere to a dress code, the same cannot be said for the rest of Beit Shemesh, which tends to accept all comers in a more open and tolerant fashion. This creates a difficulty for non-haredim as the lack of mutuality in the dialogue translates into a feeling of constant compromise to haredi standards without receiving anything in return at a communal or city level.
Without in any way justifying the offending signs, (I personally support the plaintiffs’ fight to have them removed), the courts may not provide the exclusive longterm solution to this complex neighborhood, citywide and potentially national challenge. Additional narratives have to be created enabling a more consensual solution.
I have no prescriptive recipe, but by way of example I would suggest that while enforcing modesty requirements both within the neighborhood and toward visitors is of high importance to haredi leaders, the ancient Jewish value of welcoming visitors should surely carry no less value. I would even suggest that while modesty laws and customs have developed over the centuries, being hospitable is an ever present Torah principle, guiding Jews everywhere since the time of Abraham.
Dialogue of this type will take time to build, demanding maturity and leadership from all sides of the community.
As a first step, it requires the city leadership to decide that it is in their interest to engage in a conversation that all parts of the diverse city can commit to. Can Moshe Abutbol bring haredi rabbis, the plaintiffs and other interested parties to the table? Is he prepared to recruit haredi rabbinic leaders to fully denounce violence and intimidation of any kind? The onus as our city’s leader squarely lies with him.
In the meantime I would expect more people to join the suit. Indeed, this precedent may easily form the basis of multiple additional suits in other parts of the country where the same phenomena exists. NIS 60,000 may not seem to indicate a serious problem, but if 100 women successfully sue, the city will suddenly have an NIS 1.5 million problem.
Mayor Abutbol continues to ignore an historic opportunity to prove that haredim and the rest of society need not been on collision course. An inability to do so in Beit Shemesh may have wide-reaching consequences. Cities and mayors around the country will be following events closely while contemplating how their own future may be impacted.
The author is chairman of Gesher and Beit Shemesh resident.