Tensions in in the mixed Haredi-Secular city of Beit Shemesh came to a head this week as thousands of protesters from around Israel came to join in a protest against violence by a small group of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have been harassing school girls attending an elementary school on the border between a Hassidic and a national-religious neighborhood. The issue of the Beit Shemesh violence came to national prominence earlier this week after Israeli television broadcast an expose featuring Na’ama Margoles, an eight year old girl traumatized by members of the Sicarii extremist sect who attacked her verbally and spit on her.
Media attention took on unexpected strength following a previous story regarding ultra-orthodox men harassing women on public buses that they have claimed as their own, enforcing a strict separation of the sexes.
Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American-born educator from the mostly national-religious Kiryat Sheinfeld neighborhood adjacent to the Banot Orot school, the focal point of the violence in the city, organized a mass protest in the name of his organization, the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh. Lipman, who describes himself as both a haredi and a zionist, allied himself with Israel Hofshit (Free Israel), an NGO dedicated to maintaining the separation of religion and state in Israel’s public sphere.
Following calls by President Shimon Peres and other national figures, both secular and religious residents of towns from across the country streamed into Beit Shemesh, causing massive traffic jams and marching through the streets yelling slogans in favor of religious tolerance.
There were few ultra-Orthodox attendees at the rally, despite vehement opposition to aggression within the community itself. One ultra-orthodox attendee, a reporter for the moderate-haredi news website Behadrei Haredim, told Jewish Press that he believed many haredim, “hundreds [of whom] wanted to attend,” were turned off by the inclusion of groups his community perceives as anti-religious. “Why should we attend a rally against our own community,” he asked.
One ultra-orthodox man attending the protest, who like many members of his community spoke with the media on condition of anonymity, stated that the lack of opposition to the violence of the extremists in his community could be explained by the “fear” of retribution.
Another member of the community expressed a similar sentiment, telling Jewish Press that voicing significant opposition could lead to loss of marriage prospects for children and difficulties in enrolling children in certain schools.
While many of the attendees stated that they only opposed religious coercion and not the haredi community in general, there was a vocal minority that expressed vehement opposition to Israel’s ultra-orthodox.
Some protesters carried signs comparing the expansion of the haredi community, Israel’s fastest growing, to the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb; though one attendee carrying such a sign did clarify that she was only referring to the violent minority and not to the community in general.
However, the focus on violence, some believe, masked a bigger issue, that of the “haredi’ization” of cities such as Bet Shemesh.
Several local activists, including Rabbi Lipman, have explained that while the mainstream haredi and secular communities get along well in general, some members of the haredi leadership are attempting to take over the city.
Citing 20,000 housing units recently approved for haredi residents, as opposed to a much smaller number for all other sectors, Lipman explained that as part of his coalition agreement upon taking office, Prime Minister Netanyahu promised the haredi parties that Bet Shemesh would be theirs to develop.
In response, local hassidic activists were quick to point to their fast growing community as a reason for the large numbers of housing units being built for them, saying that they only want to live in peace. Taking over the city is not their intent, they emphasized.
Local activists were quick to point out that the Edah Haredit, the umbrella organization representing many of the most extreme of the anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox groups, has condemned the violence in the forms of pashkevilim, street posters that are frequently used to communicate Rabbinic edicts to the haredi public.
However, one local haredi activist opined, the ultra-orthodox media has fallen down on the job, keeping the full extent of the extremists actions hidden from the view of the community, which is disgusted by such behavior.
Following Friday night’s television broadcast on Beit Shemesh, religious leaders have come out strongly against violence and coercion in religious affairs, with Israel’s Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yonah Metzger stating that the haredi community does not own the public sphere and popular Sepharadi ultra-orthodox politician Aryeh Deri calling for residents to beat up anyone using violence against children.