Beit Shemesh one year on – an insider’s view

The relative peace and quiet currently enjoyed by the city’s residents will be tested this year, with tension around the battle for city hall expected to come to a head.

Beit Shemesh protest 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Beit Shemesh protest 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Beit Shemesh turned into ground zero for tensions between haredi and general society exactly one year ago today, but the violence and intimidation has since given way to progress; a model of success that should be imitated across the Jewish world. However, that success is fragile and our campaign for change must press forward.
How do the events of Beit Shemesh in 2011/12 represent an important milestone in the changing relationship between the haredi community and the rest of the country, and perhaps more importantly, how did we get there? Within Beit Shemesh the street-level tension has slackened dramatically. This is not because the haredim are any less haredi, nor has the rest of the city become haredi.
New boundaries and behavior norms have been set between the communities, which have created a more sensible modus vivendi. In my view this is the result of three factors:
1. Facts on the ground: The original flashpoint, the Orot Banot school, is now an accepted reality, both for the extremists who sought to avoid its opening and the elements within city hall that aligned themselves with the extremists.
2. Civil action: Robust efforts by residents who weren’t prepared to put up with more intimidation, together with police action, reset expectations among the hard-core extremists about what constitutes acceptable behavior. It is sad that this was required, but important that local residents had the courage to say “enough is enough.” This action sparked protests and demonstrations that attracted national participation and interest.
3. Communication: Bridge-building has taken place at an unprecedented level, with practical, community-driven initiatives. Especially important are Gesher’s round table and the Beit Shemesh Women’s council, both breaking barriers that once stood between local communities.
HOWEVER, WHAT has clearly not changed is the political dynamic in the city, and the relative peace and quiet currently enjoyed by the city’s residents will be tested this year, with tension around the battle for city hall expected to come to a head.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding the current leadership’s plans, the most controversial of which are the expansion of the city along haredi-only lines. The next test for Beit Shemesh will come following the elections, and we all hope the community initiatives will prove their worth, allowing residents to restate their commitment to zero physical or verbal violence or intimidation, even as the political struggle for the city continues.
But looking beyond Beit Shemesh, there have been historic developments at the national level. The debate last year which brought down the largest government coalition in recent memory revolved specifically around the haredi community.
The issue at stake was haredi enlistment into the army following the end of the Tal Law. The issue was left undecided, resulting in a difficult legal vacuum and a spectacular political train wreck.
SO IN the run-up to national elections and as Jews around the world debated the big policy issues at stake, what was often overlooked is that the main changes on the ground are actually taking place within the haredi camp itself.
In the background, a growing legitimacy for “New Haredim,” or working ultra-Orthodox, has been unfolding.
Not only do they exist, but for the election they were even looking for their voice to be expressed within the traditional haredi camps, or more worryingly for the haredi politicians, as independent groups.
There is no single type of New Haredi, and in many ways they find themselves in the catch-22 position of wanting to be part of, and break away from, the haredi mainstream at one and the same time. Interestingly, for the first time, the mainstream haredi politicians are addressing them as a group, even as the official haredi newspapers still pay lip-service to the axiom defining haredim that work as living a life of compromise.
So while the internal bickering continues, more and more haredim are joining special army programs, and enrolling in higher education initiatives. All of this is reflects a trend of increasing haredi participation in the workforce, even if in absolute terms the numbers are still too low.
WHERE DOES this leave general society, as it observes these changes and trends? As you would expect, it is complicated. There is a huge amount of impatience as Israelis demand haredi Jews serve in national service, join the workforce, and develop a more accountable and modern education system.
At the same time, groups like Gesher are trying to create a more mature dialogue based on a sense of joint responsibility for finding the solutions. This is not because we have withdrawn ourselves from the question of who got us into this mess, but simply due to recognition of the fact that name-calling and the blame game will not help.
Where are Israeli politicians? To this point they have largely avoided working together to create practical solutions and instead use the haredi issue as a political football.
This is true of the haredi and secular politicians alike.
Society (haredi or otherwise) needs to see mature and courageous leadership navigating these difficult and emotionally charged issues. There is some optimism given the election result and the rise of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
BEIT SHEMESH continues to serve as a microcosm for these issues on several levels.
While not the exclusive solution, efforts to live side by side, stand up for our rights, and build bridges for practical and unthreatening areas of cooperation must replace the dialogue of dogma.
This and similar models must be replicated around the country to amplify the positive engagement among the various social and religious groupings.
Israel’s citizens and Jews around the world are tired of argument for power and base political ends. They demand solutions and cooperation for the benefit of the residents of Beit Shemesh, the citizens of Israel and the Jewish People as a whole.
Daniel Goldman is a resident of Beit Shemesh, managing partner at Goldrock Capital, and chairman of Gesher.