(This article appears in Wednesday's edition of The Jerusalem Post.)
Everyone agrees that the Battle of Beit Shemesh – my hometown for over a decade – is about a group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on a group of nice, normal Jews. But whereas the secular, national-religious and moderate haredim (ultra-Orthodox) think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on others are the haredi extremists, mainstream haredim think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on others are the secular.
Hadash, the weekly haredi newspaper in Beit Shemesh, was formerly owned by Mayor Moshe Abutbol’s official spokesman. It was sold to new ownership which maintains devout loyalty to the mayor and the haredi community. A giant front-page headline last week screamed “THE BLITZ!” Under that, the article said haredi residents of Beit Shemesh have become “a target of persecution, the likes of which have never been seen.”
The entire issue contained article after article about the terrible, evil secular campaign against the haredim, with each article including a graphic captioned “The city under attack!”
The lead editorial ranted on and on about the terrible, baseless persecution of the haredi population and denounced the kippa-wearing people who brought the Banat Orot school situation to the attention of the wider public. There was not a single word condemning the haredi thugs.
Especially ironic was a half-page article about a Haaretz journalist who allegedly spat on a little girl. This was in a newspaper which never prints articles about the countless acts of harassment against the national-religious that have taken place for years in Beit Shemesh – stealing flags, throwing stones, spitting, threatening businesses, attacking children and much more. Even when there was a mob beating of national-religious kids which resulted in my neighbor’s child requiring stitches in his head, the newspaper claimed that it was all the kids’ fault!
JUST AS important, however, the secular interpretation of events is sometimes no more accurate. Many secular Jews possess the absurd belief that all haredim, or even all religious Jews, are of the same mindset as the extremists. Former Meretz Party chairman Yossi Sarid declared that Judaism itself halachically mandates such behavior (!), and that all religious parties should be disqualified from the Knesset.
The widespread talk against religious Jews is no less offensive than the curses heaped by haredi extremists upon others. This also has the effect of encouraging the wider haredi world to adopt a siege mentality and prevents them from acknowledging any wrongdoing in their own camp – which in turn lends credence to the secular charge that haredim are indeed all of the same mindset. Thus, the ultra-secular and the ultra-Orthodox are locked into a vicious cycle which brings out the worst in each.
Yet another interpretation of events was apparently held by the groups that joined the rally in Beit Shemesh, who portrayed the issue as one relating to women. But aside from the question of whether some of them were seeking to force a rift between Netanyahu and his coalition, even those genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the status of women were missing the point.
The events in Beit Shemesh had little, if anything, to do with the oppression of women. The haredi extremists did not object to Banot Orot because it was a girl’s school; they objected to it because it was national-religious. And those who linked the Beit Shemesh extremists to the soldiers who walked out of a ceremony in which women sang got it entirely wrong. Walking out may well have been unwise and even unnecessary, but in that case, the soldiers did not impose their mores upon others; if anything, secular mores were being insensitively and unwisely imposed upon them.
THE INTERPRETATION and reaction among religious Jews outside of Israel is diverse. Modern Orthodox groups such as the OU and RCA issued harsh, unequivocal and unqualified condemnations of the haredi extremists. So did important moderate haredi figures such as Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz. The mainstream haredi world, however, watered down their condemnations of the extremists by stressing that the (alleged) ultimate goal, of increased modesty, is holy. As in Israel, more extreme elements of the haredi world in America adopted the siege mentality of presenting the entire situation as a secular campaign against Judaism.
But virtually the entire religious community commits the error of attributing all the problems to a miniscule group of extremists. (For foreign-born religious Jews, this often stems from sheer horror at the thought that it could be any more than that.) Yet this is no more accurate than the belief of the secularists that every haredi Jew is a rock-throwing, cursing spitter. The problems in Beit Shemesh are more complex and widespread than that.
It is true that the vast majority of haredim would never dream of spitting on people and cursing them. These are the actions of a fringe element that are feared and detested by the rest of the haredi world. But the mainstream haredi community is supportive of the ultimate goals, and does not see such actions as being terrible enough to justify joining with “outsiders” in order to condemn it. A letter expressing support for Banot Orot and condemnation of the extremists was signed by over a dozen national-religious and moderate haredi community rabbis in Beit Shemesh, but not one mainstream haredi rabbi signed on to it or made any similar such public declaration.
In addition, haredi society is pervaded by a fear of not appearing adequately “frum”; people in haredi communities are always looking over their right shoulders. And it is often the zealous elements that manipulate the “Gedolim,” the elderly Torah scholars that are ostensibly the leaders of the haredi world. As a result of all this, those practicing intolerance and extremism always exert a disproportionately large degree of influence in haredi society as a whole.
THE MORE general problem is that at many levels in haredi society, there is inappropriate behavior towards nonharedim, which is felt particularly strongly in the mixed city of Beit Shemesh. For example, as noted, the Hadash newspaper never reports on attacks against non-haredim; haredim are always innocent and non-haredim are always the enemy. And many haredi rabbis in Beit Shemesh have either overtly or tacitly supported mild harassment of non-haredim and attempts to impose haredi mores on the rest of the city.
The Ramat Beit Shemesh district was originally designated as a mixed area for haredi, national-religious and secular Jews. But the latter group fled after harassment, and Ramat Beit Shemesh is on its way to emulating Beitar, where the national-religious were effectively forced out of the city and extreme haredi elements took control. Under the current mayor, this is an accelerating process, as he gears the expansion of the Ramat Beit Shemesh district primarily towards haredi purchasers.
I don’t know what should or even can be done about the larger social problems of haredim vis-à-vis the rest of Israeli society. But I do know that the first step to solving a problem is facing up to its existence and understanding its nature.