Once again, haredi Jews worldwide were shamed and disgraced by association due to the actions of a few violent criminals.
Two weeks ago in Beit Shemesh, according to reports in Israeli papers, a group of five haredi young men assaulted a woman for refusing to move to the back of a bus whose front seats were reserved exclusively for men. A male soldier seated next to the woman was also assaulted.
When police arrived to arrest the individuals, dozens of other haredi men attacked the officers and punctured the tires of a police car, according to the newspaper reports.
This was the third high-profile incident of brutal violence committed by haredi men on buses in Eretz Yisrael in less than a year. (Editor’s note: see op-ed below by one of the victims.) It represents a colossal desecration of Hashem’s name, especially since the criminals who committed this despicable act claim that their violent actions represent Torah values. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They disgrace our holy Torah and bring shame to all of us.
Two weeks ago, the night the incident occurred, I prepared this column for publication in The Jewish Press. The next morning, I decided not to submit it, as I was reluctant to add to the desecration of Hashem’s name that occurred when the incident was reported in the secular Israeli press.
But last Friday, in an otherwise generally positive New York Times article on haredi purchasing habits, the incident was described for potentially millions of readers. The writer characterized Beit Shemesh as “a modern, attractive town of 73,000 people” and continued:
There is a more secular part, with a large mall, and an ultra-Orthodox district, Ramat Beit Shemesh, which is divided into two. Bet, or B, is very strict, with 15,700 people. Aleph, or A, up the hill, is somewhat more flexible and contains 17,100 people, including a growing number of North American and European Jews who wanted to join an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.
Though the sections look similar, there are more wall posters and angry graffiti in B, and streets are quieter, with fewer women visible. One spray-painted warning reads: “Going here you must be appropriately attired. Modest attire only.”
The Egged bus company has special routes for the ultra-Orthodox, so that men and women are segregated, sometimes in separate buses. But there have been riots in Ramat Beit Shemesh B over certain bus routes, with graffiti comparing the company and the police to Nazis and calling Israel “the regime of the apostates,” rejecting the government as nonreligious.
On Oct. 21, five ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted a woman and an Israeli soldier on a bus bound for Beit Shemesh. The men demanded that the woman sit in the back of the bus; when she refused and asked the soldier to sit next to her, they beat them both. When the police came, dozens of ultra-Orthodox men attacked them while the assailants escaped.
Later in the article, there was talk of the tensions between the two ultra-Orthodox communities, and the harrowing experience of Ilan Shmueli, 35, who runs American Pizza in Beit Shemesh A, was described:
He opened in the stricter B in August 2005, based on his work in a Deal, N.J., pizzeria. After six months, he said, “the problems started – they began to throw things at us: tomatoes from the market, hot oil, gasoline.” Some ultra-Orthodox from B were customers, but “the Hasidim, who were a bit nuts” started demonstrations, which became violent. His sin was to sit men and women in the same restaurant. “I went to their rabbi and I said, ‘Look, it’s like the war of Gog and Magog,’” Mr. Shmueli said. “And he said, ‘You might end up dead.’”
He closed at a big loss, then reopened in A last December with his father’s help. “Lots of very pleasant ultra-Orthodox people come in,” he said, “especially new American immigrants.”
I believe the overwhelming majority of haredi Jews feel as I do – disgraced and shamed – when these events occur. We also feel frustrated, as there is little we can do to remove this collective stain from our shirts.
But there is much we can do to distance ourselves from these thugs, to teach our children right from wrong, and, l’man Hashem, to start protecting our women and children.