Beit Shemesh: Why Jews cannot remain silent

As a resident of Beit Shemesh, I would be pleased if Mayor Moshe Abutbul would respond to the civil wars which are tearing at the seams of a city and at the heart of a Jewish community.

Sea of Haredim 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sea of Haredim 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
This past Sunday, 98-year-old Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, now considered the leading rabbi and figurehead of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, recently traveled to Paris to offer moral support for the Jewish community in France after growing concerns have surfaced within the European Jewish community regarding the legal status and uncertain future of conducting circumcisions and shechita – ritual slaughter of animals according to Jewish religious law.
The rabbi arrived in Paris, addressed an assembly of several thousand Jews and returned to Israel that same day. While I respect the rabbi’s incentives and do not question his sincerity, I found the entire episode rather strange. Here’s why.
Last year at this time, a large group of haredi Jews in Beit Shemesh physically assaulted 7-10-year-old religious girls and their mothers who were innocently escorting the girls to school for the new school year.
These haredim, who felt that the girl’s school (a religious school, but one which did not meet their standards of modesty) was too close to what they claimed was allocated to be a haredi neighborhood, proceeded to spit on the children and call their mothers “loose and immodest harlots.”
For days they formed human blockades at the gates of the school and protested aggressively, at times even throwing feces in the direction of the children and their guardians. This news was obviously disturbing, although not surprising considering the rapid growth of extremist haredi groups swiftly spreading throughout Beit Shemesh.
Yet what was most alarming to the non-haredi residents of Beit Shemesh, religious and non-religious alike, was the lack of responsiveness from the haredi leadership, who apparently disapproved of these appalling protests and warped patterns of behavior – or so we were told. The same with regard to Moshe Abutbul, Mayor of Beit Shemesh and himself a haredi; he was shamefully unresponsive and made no attempts toward appeasement or reconciliation.
Puzzled at the time, I approached a number of haredi acquaintances of mine and asked them if they could explain the silence, to which they responded that the rabbis no doubt disapproved of the radical antics but were probably busy with other issues which demanded their attention. In addition, they explained that the leading rabbis of the haredi community are very old and therefore at times uninformed.
Upon reflection I cannot help but wonder: if a 98- year-old rabbi and leader of the haredi community is informed about the current events regarding Jewish rituals in the European community and decisively gets on a private jet plane to speak to a rally of thousands of Jews in order to encourage unity and preservation only to return on the same day, could he not have been persuaded to show up in Beit Shemesh to do the same a year ago, or at the very least could he not have voiced some sort of statement expressing his disapproval?
I cannot help but wonder what kind of explanation I will receive in response to my inquiry. Is it possible that the rabbi’s close informants failed to mention that Beit Shemesh is considerably closer than Paris? Surely they are aware that making a trip to Beit Shemesh in one day is less taxing on the elderly rabbi then flying to Paris and back on the same day?! The Talmud states, “silence is a sign of approval”; the haredi community, its leadership and the Mayor of Beit Shemesh affirmed the above with their indifference.
A year has passed and while the haredi extremists in Beit Shemesh have been relatively quiet of late, the streets of Beit Shemesh continue to surge with racial tension. I live adjacent to a Beit Shemesh neighborhood of Ethiopian Jews which is plagued by crime and recklessness. The youth of this particular neighborhood are left to roam the streets; juvenile delinquents with no parental supervision engaged in petty theft and alcohol abuse.
If I sound prejudiced that is certainly not my intention; unfortunately there is a disturbing explanation for this pattern of deviant deterioration. When the Jewish Agency brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel from the late ‘70s-’90s, they were positioned by both the Agency and the Israeli government to live in large, isolated communities. As a result, many of the Ethiopian Jews were never integrated, or encouraged to become a part of Israeli society.
What emerged was large clusters of Ethiopian Jewish communities consisting of people who found themselves torn from their past without the capacity to deal with, let alone prepare their children for the future. These same children, now the emerging generation, lost respect for their disoriented parents, became resentful towards a system which reeked of exclusion, and sank into the depths of reckless desperation, the results of which we are now beginning to face as last Friday night a group of Ethiopian youngsters converged on a group of Israeli youths in our neighborhood in what could be described as an all-out gang war.
Knives were pulled, fists were thrown and some of the youths ended up spending part of Shabbat in the local police station (not the first time this type of encounter has occurred, with similar results). Yet again there has been no response from Mayor Abutbul and his cronies on the city council.
In contrast this past week Rabbi Daniel Alter and his daughter were assaulted by four young Muslims in a blatantly anti-Semitic attack on the streets of Berlin.
According to the Berlin police, the four young Arabs screamed obscenities at the rabbi and threatened to kill his daughter, after which they punched Rabbi Alter in the face, fracturing his cheek bone in several places, because he was Jewish and wearing a yarmulka.
While this news was obviously disturbing, it was not surprising considering the rapid influence of radical Islam and its violent mantra swiftly spreading throughout Europe. In response to the violent attacks, Dr. Dieter Graumann, an official representative of Germany’s Jewish community, called on the country’s Muslim associations to tackle anti-Semitism within their communities and he encouraged Jews to continue wearing kippot in public.
The violence of Muslims towards Jews in the streets of Berlin was met with an urgent reaction by its Jewish leadership in an attempt to unify the community and encourage them not to live in fear. In Beit Shemesh, as Jews fight one another, Moshe Abutbul, the haredi mayor who prides himself in having established institutions of Torah learning throughout the city, has nothing to say.
He makes no mention of the Torah’s directive to love your neighbor, nor does he allude to the holiness of the Shabbat, a day which should be celebrated with serenity and peace. Most disturbingly, he makes no attempt to facilitate reconciliation and restore security for the city’s youth and residents.
The episodes described above are upsetting but they will have served a purpose if we learn something from them, so here’s a thought. My rabbi used to say to us, “Judaism is not a spectators sport, you are either moving forward or by definition you are moving backwards.” Judaism does not advocate apathy or endorse indifference; from a Jewish perspective silence is harmful.
Dr. Dieter Graumann told the Berliner Zeitung on Friday, “I would be pleased if the [Muslim] associations would finally deal decisively with anti-Semitism in their own ranks.”
In retrospect I am inclined to say that I would be pleased if the haredi community would finally reassess their priorities. As a resident of Beit Shemesh I would be pleased if Mayor Moshe Abutbul would respond to the civil wars which are tearing at the seams of a city and at the heart of a Jewish community; if he does not then he should step aside and let someone else try.
The writer teaches at Yeshiva Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a lecturer under the Harel Division for the Rabbanut of the IDF as well as a lecturer for the Menachem Begin Heritage Center Israel Government Fellows. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education.