BEIT SHEMESH- The Jewish Agency for Israel has called on local residents of the city of Beit Shemesh in central Israel to submit proposals for “promoting dialogue and cooperation between Haredi [ultra-orthodox] communities and other communities in Beit Shemesh,” according to an advertisement on the organization’s website.
The chosen proposal will be “allocated up to NIS 35,000” by Partnership2Gether, a joint initiative of Beit Shemesh, the Mateh Yehuda Region, and Washington, DC and South Africa Jewish Federations run under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Established in the early 1990s, Partnership2Gether pairs over 500 diaspora communities with 45 Israel partnership regions.
Beit Shemesh has been wracked by internal divisions and violence in recent months, as a small group of ultra-orthodox radicals have attempted to wrest control of a school on the border of their Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhood away from the local religious-Zionist community.
Despite disapproval of the radicals’ violent tactics by much of the wider ultra-orthodox community, critics of the ultra-orthodox claim that many members of that sector support the protestors’ aim of territorial expansion. This claim has been borne out in interviews with many locals, many of whom have stated that the religious-Zionist community has no business running a school next door to Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
While many of those who have engaged in violence, including screaming “slut” and spitting at girls as young as six, claim to be opposed to the “immodest” dress of the schoolchildren, one member of the group, dubbed the Sicarii after a violent Jewish faction that operated during the Roman period in Judea, stated that he opposes the existence of the school due to its bringing outsiders near his children. His progeny, he explained, should not have to see Jews of other religious streams.
The problem of violence, however, predates the building of the school, which is adjacent to an ultra-orthodox building on Herzog street, the border between Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the modern orthodox Kiryat Sheinfeld neighborhood.
The school itself is surrounded on two sides by secular and religious-Zionist residents and was built around the same time as the ultra-orthodox neighborhood it borders was expanded to include territory on the Herzog road.
Since moving into the new buildings on that street, members of the Sicarii group have harassed female joggers, spat on teenage girls deemed “immodest,” attempted to break up mixed groups of men and women sitting on the Sheinfeld side of the street and have demanded that their more modern neighbors divest themselves of their televisions.
One local resident, fearful of the continuing harassment, began selling “law enforcement strength” pepper spray to his neighbors. So far, he claims, over 100 residents have purchased his wares.
While many local Rabbis have stated their opposition to the violent tactics within the confines of their synagogues, all but fourteen mainly modern orthodox Rabbis have refused to sign a letter condemning the use of force against children.
The letter was signed by Rabbis David Spector, Avishai David, Sheinkolovski, Kurtz, Rosenzweig, Shalom Rosner, Yitzchak Rones, Vargon, Menachem Cooperman, Naftoli Rones, Boaz Mori, Bagno, Chaim Soloveichik, and Danny Myers.
The silence of many local Rabbis has been shocking to residents, especially in light of the harsh condemnation issued by the Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization representing haredi Jewry in the United States.
Following a major rally against religious violence and coercion in Beit Shemesh last week, organized by the local religious-Zionist community and several secular organizations dedicated to separating religion and state in Israel, several hundred members of Beit Shemesh’s haredi community rioted, blocking streets and setting municipal rubbish bins ablaze.
Following the events in Beit Shemesh, a secular backlash against gender separated buses and religious coercion ensued, with non-religious Israelis boarding public buses designated as segregated “mehadrin,” or ultra-strict, lines throughout the country in an act of protest. This, and last week’s religious-Zionist rally, have led haredi media outlets to complain about a secular offensive against their community.
This has even led to a crowd of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem’s insular Meah Shearim enclave to march through their neighborhood wearing yellow stars and concentration camp uniforms to protest the their “Zionist” opponents.
It is in the wake of these events that the Jewish Agency has decided to seek proposals for bridging the gap between the different segments of Beit Shemesh’s population.
According to the Jewish Agency, all plans to be considered must “strengthen collaborative action between Haredi communities and other communities in Beit Shemesh” and “have a lasting impact on the city.”
Any program chosen would also have to be “based upon a vision of Beit Shemesh as a home to all its communities” and “mobilize Haredim who are opposed to violence and [are] willing to go public with their views.”