Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Everyone is Fighting a Different Battle in Beit Shemesh

(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.

38 comments:

  1. Yes, everybody is fighting a different battle. That does not mean, however, that both sides are right.

    I certainly understand the desire of one group to live as functional separatists; adhering only to their own norms and practices. Plenty of people wish to live on compounds surrounded only by their own kind. (I will leave aside for the moment the desirability of letting every group have their wish...crazy cults that brainwash their children leap to mind).

    Unfortunately, it is very difficult to square that approach long term with the idea of a participatory democracy. Democracies require people to participate...sometimes in minor ways and sometimes in major ways. It is the price of freedom (much in the same way that the smaller community requires things of its members).

    Opting out of the broader society can be fine as long as the group opting out is small enough. However, when it becomes large its interaction with the broader society tends to increase (if only by the fact that everybody has to live somewhere.) At some point, the interactions cannot be avoided and so a modicum of cooperation must be created. The cooperation requires the definition of neutral space where people can generally act the way they want without undue coercion The neutral space is defined as the public space.

    The problem is that a neighborhood is not private property, nor is a bus line that picks up random people along the way. It is public space. That space must be designed to allow the maximal amount of freedom from coercion.

    The battle for Bet Shemesh is between a group that wants to run its own affairs treat public space as private.

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  2. I had asked in a prior post whether the non-Hareidi element in Bet Shemesh still represents a majority of the electorate. If so, or if there may be sufficient number of like-minded Hareidim to together consistute a majority, then a recall petition on the mayor may be advisable. Is this not possible in Israel municipalities? At the very least, serious efforts - including lawsuits, should be made to prevent the mayor from designating a new area for Hareidi housing.

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  3. "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.
    "

    is not joining with 'outsiders' a reliable way of determining how terrible they view it.

    in demonstrations for a united jersusalem, the chareidi world also did not join with 'outsiders' in demonstrations.

    even though I believe rav elyasheiv views a united jerusalewm as a matter of pikuech nefesh

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  4. To Arms! Or perhaps it is time to develop a non-ultra Jewish defense league /guardian angels in RBS/BS

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  5. "Many secular Jews possess the absurd belief that all haredim, or even all religious Jews, are of the same mindset as the extremists."

    I used think that news stories I'd occasionally encounter about moderates among Muslims being dismayed by the perversion/hijacking of their faith by Wahabbist extremism and Al-Qaeda ideology were mainly just products of liberal wishful thinking. Based on these recent events in Israel vis-a-vis their implication on the public perception of traditional Judaism, I'm not so sure any more.

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  6. It sounds like Sodom on so many levels. First, and most fundamentally, there is no justice so people do whatever they can get away with.

    Second, the town thrives on the segregationist attitude of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours". Of course, if I can get what's yours...it's mine also.

    Third, hateful groups of males who decide to label others as "prostitutes" and then hurt them.

    I'm glad the local people are rising against these groups. Who knows what will happen if left unchecked? Perhaps these same males will pursue payments from the government for deliberately not working, get excused from national service, and interject religious issues into national politics.

    Gary Goldwater

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  7. 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.

    From my (outsider's) perspective, it seems to be a bit of both; otherwise why were they calling the school-girls "sluts" and "whores"?

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  8. Excellent! How many JPost articles does that make for you? If they would hire you as a writer, would you accept?

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  9. "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."

    Living in the US, and utterly horrified by anti-Torah acts which ( I hope a small group of) so called "haredim" have been doing in the name of torah, I haven't had much to say.

    The problems in Bet Shemesh have to be dealt with and I don't know any easy solutions.

    What I do know is that we all - by 'all' I mean Jews - have to focus on loving our neighbors.

    It is noteworthy that the gemara uses the pasuk 've'ahavta le'reacha kamocha' to teach laws regarding a person sentenced to be executed by bet din.

    By all accounts this person (who must have committed a capital crime, premeditated, in front of witnesses, ignoring warnings etc.) is a rasha. And the Torah commands us to love him.

    (The above is especially important for people who might claim that ahavat yisrael does not, G-d forbid, extend to secular or less religious Jews).

    To combat the poison of hate in our midst we must do everything we can to promote love in our midst.

    This is not some hippy, touchy-feely, simple-minded approach to a complicated issue. It is the true Jewish answer and will do much to help - even if not completely solve - the problems that face us.

    My point is, to real haredim (haredim l'dvar Hashem), that it is not about putting aside one's passion for Torah in order to get along with your neighbor. It is that very passion for Torah which should propel you to do everything in your power to love him or her. And to demonstrate to him or her that you care.

    May Hashem bring true peace to our People - between us, and with all nations.

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  10. Well done. Even though I think there's one you forgot (police inaction and distorted justice/law system), you raised a lot of good points.

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  11. Minuscule, not miniscule.

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  12. You scared me! But I checked, and it's a valid alternate spelling.

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  13. 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 mainstreamharedi rabbi signed on to it or made any similar such public declaration.

    Without something more to back this up, it sounds self-serving. Some Haredi rabbis did sign the letter. What defines them as "moderate" other than the fact that they signed the letter?

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  14. Personally I wouldn't describe them as Haredi at all, but since others would, I described them as moderate haredi. They all celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, etc.

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  15. "Personally I wouldn't describe them as Haredi at all, but since others would, I described them as moderate haredi. They all celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, etc."

    What is the difference between them and Chardal?

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  16. Everything is operating midda k'negged midda. Improper silence "earns" us glaring publicity. Hopefully not worse. When i'm too often bothered by the rabbonim's silence on many issues, I'm reminded of the story of the story of Kamtza and BAr Kamtza. In those days,the rabbonim's silence also conveyed acceptance of the offending position and ultimatley led to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash.

    It seems to me that such intolerance really stems from our own lack of emunah. We're not capable of loving the person while distancing ourselves from actions we migbt not want to adopt. We lack the strength these days to be who we want to be amongst people who are not like us. Fear runs the show when we lack confidence.

    Though i do "get" the idea of kedusha and purity, it seems to me that when you've exceeded the bounds of halacha, it is your own lack of emunah running the show.

    Just a thought; the chareidim were also silent on the pressures on the Gaza settlers before the expulsion. Only when the expulsion actualy occurred, and on Tisha B'Av to boot did they "seem" to get the divine message. But i don't think we're getting it. On issue after issue, abuse is another in my opinion, the rabbonim are too often silent....Hashem Yishmor....

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  17. Take a look at this article in Haaretz about the Haredi State.

    http://jewishworker.blogspot.com/2012/01/haredi-state.html

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  18. It's not about women? It might not only be about women, but when you have women forced to the back of the bus, little girls spit on and called whores, men holding up signs advocating segregation of women, then yes, it's about women. Why is it that the cause of feminism is so feared even in moderate religious circles? The truth of discrimination stares you in the face, and yet you deny it.

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  19. Of course there's an issue of women's rights in Israel. But that's not what the battles in Bet Shemesh are about.

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  20. "Of course there's an issue of women's rights in Israel. But that's not what the battles in Bet Shemesh are about."

    If you read the news today. Nobody seems to care what the battle in Beit Shemesh is about. It's now about whatever people want it to be about. Shabbat sirens/songs, the IDF charedi units, feminism, Chiloni anti-semitism, its everything and anything now.

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  21. The Humble Host

    "Plenty of people wish to live on compounds surrounded only by their own kind. "

    Sure, and usually they have a farm, or make furniture, and are self-sufficient. I've never heard of a cult which depended on society's support.

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  22. "Sure, and usually they have a farm, or make furniture, and are self-sufficient. I've never heard of a cult which depended on society's support."

    I believe it's called Scientology. :)

    But in all seriousness, there are many such groups that exist in big cities. They are normally small enough of a group that people don't care about them.

    I'm thinking here of dumpster divers, the voluntary homeless, and some environmentalist city dwellers.

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  23. Has this blog turned into a purely political/social one? I thought it was about Jewish philosophy.

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  24. I've never heard of a cult which depended on society's support.


    This nonsense is repeated so much that I have to protest: No one lives on the few hundred shekels of child allowances or other govt. benefits. You can think what you want about it, but that is not anyone's major 'support'.

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  25. A very wise man I know has a theory on this whole mess:

    Why has it been blown up into the great brouhaha that it has?

    Let's remember that there is some very serious stuff going on with Iran.

    There has also been some under-reported meetings between Netanyahu & the PA lately.

    Nothing like cover to keep everyone's eyes off of the real story.

    (Even is that's not why the story exploded, once it has, it provides perfect cover for other matters more vital to Israel's interests.)

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  26. "Why is it that the cause of feminism is so feared even in moderate religious circles?"

    Uhhh, maybe because they've seen the total destruction of the family and of any sembelance of sexual propriety it's caused in America? You think??

    (And feminism is not "feared", it's "rejected".)

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  27. Sorry, the above was my visceral reaction. Should not have written so crudely, apologies. But the point is the same.

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  28. Re: miniscule vs. minuscule

    see this blog from the Oxford University Press, which produces the OED:

    http://blog.oup.com/2007/07/spelling/

    Summary: miniscule is barely OK bedieved, but not lechatchilah.

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  29. >Why is it that the cause of feminism is so feared even in moderate religious circles? The truth of discrimination stares you in the face, and yet you deny it. <

    We're not talking feminism here but basic human decency.

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  30. "Sorry, the above was my visceral reaction. Should not have written so crudely, apologies. But the point is the same."

    Your reaction was fine.

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  31. DF makes an important point. And I am not so sure we should dismiss defences of the value of tzniut as being merely apologetics that show a lack of genuine condemnation of the extremists.

    Values are indeed being attacked and need a defence, at the same time that violence and coercion are decisively rejected.

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  32. I have said it before and I'll say it again, "Law suit" we must take our fate and the #%*<?! to court.

    There will be found justice.
    It is written that "God himself presides over every court." And besides, it might take the fight to another arena where some relieve might be found for the people who are the real victims, "The women."
    o

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  33. re: fsy,

    "No one lives on the few hundred shekels of child allowances or other govt. benefits. You can think what you want about it, but that is not anyone's major 'support'."

    That's not the major support that Charedim receive.

    Charedi political parties extract hundreds of millions of shekels from whoever the majority party is, in exchange for votes in Knesset.

    This money is then funneled through the various kollels to "full-time learning" families.

    So, anyone in Israel who receives a kollel check is living off of the government.

    There are a few Charedi groups that refuse all government assistance as a matter of conviction. They don't form political parties, they don't take Israeli welfare, and they keep to themselves.

    We usually don't hear much from / about those groups. Maybe that's a positive sign in Israeli society: the larger society doesn't object to people who want to live strict Charedi lives. Just don't ask us to pay for it, and follow the laws of the land.

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  34. The Mayor designating more housing for charedim is pure politics... the extremists intimidating and causing violence should be dealt with by the police!! Where are they in this whole mess and why isn't there protest about more police action?? No condemnation is going to stop these beheimas only swift and forceful police action!

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  35. I had a hope that what was happening in Beit Shemesh would end up having a positive affect in the long run. No longer. The backlash against the Chareidim has entered into the realm of ridiculous. The secular seem to have failed to understand what it is that they should be looking at. Suddenly, "freedom for all" means "all but Chareidim." (Muqata has a wonderful essay about how the Nazi imagery really only caused an uproar because the Chareidim were doing it: compares to social protest who did the same)

    My faith in the Israeli culture and sensibilities is quickly dwindling. (I blame the Rabbis who failed to condemn, though I now wonder how much of a difference it would have made)
    Something is wrong and the government has gone crazy. It's too sad to cry about.

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  36. So, anyone in Israel who receives a kollel check is living off of the government.

    What exactly do they get from the government?

    1. payments from 'misrad hadat' (about 700 NIS per month)

    2. 80% discount on arnona

    3. kitzvat yeladim (which everyone gets)

    what else?

    Whatever it is, it certainly needs supplements from the wife's income or rich father-in-law or both.

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  37. Sorry, the above was my visceral reaction. Should not have written so crudely, apologies. But the point is the same.


    Not crude at all, in fact an understatement.

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  38. At least arrests are now happening.

    http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=252445

    I wish I had the words to apologize for their behavior.

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