BEIT SHEMESH- In an effort to prevent future conflicts between religious factions in the embattled city of Beit Shemesh, which has made headlines in recent weeks due to a sometimes violent running fight over the location of a religious Zionist girls’ school, the Tov party, which represents English speaking members of the Ultra-Orthodox community, has issued a call for the municipality to establish a “Rabbinical committee” to engage in preemptive dialogue regarding controversial issues.
Eli Friedman, who holds the party’s one seat on the municipal council, issued an ultimatum to Beit Shemesh Mayor Rabbi Moshe Abutbol, stating in a letter plastered around the city on broadsheets that unless such a committee is formed, he will be “forced to abandon the municipal coalition and serve the entire Beit Shemesh community from the side of the opposition.”
Tov, widely known to residents as “the moderate haredi” party, only holds one seat in council, making its defection to the opposition less of a substantive threat than a symbolic gesture of disapproval.
“Out of a desire to increase love and friendship between the various communities here in Beit Shemesh, we turn to you with a request to establish a rabbinical committee that will be comprised of [rabbis] from all the religious and haredi communities as well from the old city and from the new,” the letter read.
According to Friedman, the proposed council’s role will be to “sit and work out every public issue that might ignite the fire before it actually happens, with the objective to resolve it and provide a solution, to arrive at a common ground from the perspective of ‘talmidei chachomim [Torah scholars] increase peace in the world’, and in order to prevent the recurrence of violent acts and thuggery that cause chilul Hashem [desecration of the name of God] and give a bad name to the entire haredi community in the city and around the country.”
Recent protests outside the Orot Banot school, during which schoolgirls have been verbally attacked and spat upon for alleged immodest dress, are not “the first and only time a chilul Hashem has been caused by the extremist residents of Beit Shemesh,” Friedman explained.
Taking responsibility on behalf of the Ultra-Orthodox community, the party leader wrote that “it is obvious that unless steps are taken against this evil phenomenon we will not be able to say ‘our hands did not spill the blood.’”
The Tov party, he continued, has “given in many times in the past in the name of peace and unity in Beit Shemesh” but can no longer “be quiet and give in, as we are witness to the horrible results of what is happening in front of our eyes, and their influence on all the haredi communities across Israel.”
“The goal of TOV is to mend tears, and not to deepen them, our interest is also to glorify the name of our city and not to distance different groups of residents from it.”
The Municipality has thus far declined to respond to requests for comment from The Jewish Press.
Speaking with The Jewish Press, party activist and Anglo department head Mendy Newman stated that, in his estimation, it is important that “there be a non-political venue for dialogue between the various [communities] in the city with the goal of resolving religious tensions before they flare up.”
“It is not enough to deal with issues as they arise,” he said, “but rather the city government must take positive steps to increase dialogue and unity between all residents of the city in an effort to avoid future problems.”
The Mayor, together with Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a local Ultra-Orthodox activist affiliated with the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit umbrella organization, have held several meetings between the local zealots, known as the Sicarii, and leaders of the religious-Zionist community in the past, but these meetings were ultimately unsuccessful.
Advocating a system of preventative dialogue, rather than holding talks after matters have spilled over into the streets, Newman told The Jewish Press that the proposed forum “could be very helpful in preventing religious conflicts and forging common ground on issues.”
However, despite the blow to the Mayor’s prestige that would result in the Tov party’s defection, Mayor Abutbol has so far declined to respond to the ultimatum.
While “we have not received any response from the Mayor to our idea,” Newman stated, “we have only heard positive responses from various [rabbis] throughout the city,” though he declined to cite which rabbis have signed on to the initiative.
Rabbi Yaakov Haber, another local American Ultra-Orthodox leader and the Rabbi of the Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun synagogue in Ramat Beit Shemesh, has also publicly sought a solution to the issue of the “chillul Hashem” that Orthodox Jews believe the recent conflict to have caused.
According to locals, the Rabbi recently held a town hall meeting in which residents were encouraged to offer suggestions regarding ways in which to increase unity between the various sectors in the city.Eric Schulenberg