Charedi zealotry has been a hot topic in Israel over the last few weeks, and Bet Shemesh is the hotspot this week. Today, a huge rally will take place, sparked by a moving interview that aired on television last week. It featured an eight-year-old girl who was traumatized from going to her school, Orot, due to charedi extremists who scream at her and spit on her.
Now, I do not mean for one moment to minimize the awful nature of the situation with the Orot girls. I am extremely upset by it, and I was at several rallies to protest what has been happening there. However, I am concerned that there is an excessive focus on that particular situation which distracts from the larger problem and even plays into it.
The vast majority of charedim are horrified and disgusted at the thought of screaming at girls and spitting on them - or indeed at anyone. These are the actions of a fringe lunatic element that are detested by everyone. But as such, it's easy for charedim, including Mayor Abutbol, to give television interviews protesting their behavior. This neatly enables them to avoid the more general problem, which is this: At every level in charedi society, there is a certain degree of intolerance towards non-charedim, which is never protested by those to their left in charedi society.
That formulation is a little technical, so allow me to illustrate it. The rabbonim and residents of RBS-B (the area where the hooligans are based), and some extreme Charedi rabbonim and residents of RBS-A (such as Rav Perlstein, and certain people in the Kupa Shel Tzedakah in RBS-A), do not support these acts of thuggery against women and children. However, they don't think that it's all that terrible, they agree with its ultimate aims, and they will not actively protest it. And they do support less extreme forms of physical/verbal opposition to non-Charedim - e.g. "encouraging" stores into putting up signs about tzniyus, and incidents such as when Rav Perlstein led a group to break up a concert in RBS-A due to it mixing charedi and non-charedi elements of the population.
The mainstream Charedi rabbonim and residents of RBS-A, such as Rav Kornfeld and the Chadash newspaper, are utterly disgusted at the idea of any physical violence or verbal intimidation of non-charedim - it's so obviously criminal to them that they don't even see a need to make it clear that they oppose it. And they do not support the approach of the RBS-B rabbonim and the extreme Charedi rabbonim. But they will not speak out against them. They will not show any support for the Orot girls. And they do support milder attempts to impose Chareidi mores on the rest of the city and to oppose non-Charedim (which is how non-Charedim were driven out of Betar). Examples include signing notices against women dressing in a non-tzniyus manner, prohibiting the dati-leumi charity organization LeMaan Achai from fundraising in their shuls (which long predates the dispute over how to handle child abuse), hostility to TOV (the non-Daas Torah neo-charedi party), and occasional displays of opposition to achdus with non-charedim - when some people tried to arrange an achdus shiur after some tragic deaths of children, these shuls would only co-operate if the speakers were all charedi and the event was not called an achdus event!
The moderate Charedi rabbonim and residents of RBS-A dislike any form of opposition to non-charedim. But they won't protest the actions of the previous group, because they see themselves as being on the same general team. Furthermore, due to their interest in furthering their own desires for the city, they vote for charedi parties which strengthen more right-wing charedim and which implement changes (such as destroying green areas to make room for cheap housing) that end up driving away non-charedim. And the moderate charedim generally won't even protest the crazy lunatics. Virtually none attended the rallies in sympathy of Orot. One Rav, for whom I generally have the greatest respect, said that to protest the crazy lunatics would strengthen the mistaken impression that he and they are in any way part of the same community. But it's not an entirely mistaken impression. There is a continuum in the Chareidi community. A borderline/ moderate Charedi rav is not obligated to protest the lunatics to the same degree that a mainstream or extreme Charedi rav should protest them, but since he is affiliated with the mainstream and even extreme elements, he does have an obligation to protest to a much greater degree than an entirely non-charedi person.
The end result of all this is that while the crazy violent extremists are indeed only a fringe element, there is a much wider problem of charedi intolerance to non-charedim at many levels, and a general attitude of not protesting unacceptable intolerance that allows it to endure and proliferate. Furthermore, there is a general charedi belief that, once they are in the majority, the neighborhood should conform to charedi sensitivities; and they are generally working to increase the charedi percentage of the population (to bring the city in line with their spiritual ideals)!
Jonathan Rosenblum claimed in The Jerusalem Post that "There is no place for attempts to impose haredi mores on others." For someone who claims to be speaking for the mainstream charedi population (and who is a disciple of Rav Aharon Feldman), this is disingenuous. Many charedim might not consciously intend to impose charedi mores upon others, but this is certainly and inevitably what happens. It happened in Beitar and it's happening here. As a resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh for over a decade, I can attest to a continued attempt to "charedize" the city, which has driven many non-charedim away to Modiin and other towns. Those who engage in violent means to accomplish this are a fringe minority that most charedim detest - but there is a general charedi effort to accomplish this via non-violent means.
The fate of the city will be determined in the next election, two years from now. Anyone who votes for political parties such as Gimmel and mayoral candidates such as Abutbol is part of this problem.