Hundreds of people, including Knesset members from all sides of the political spectrum, gathered in the city of Beit Shemesh on Tuesday, where they protested the behavior of a small group of extremist hareidim.
Members of the group have been fighting the presence of a religious Zionist girls’ school, Orot, which, due to the burgeoning hareidi population in Beit Shemesh, now borders their neighborhood. They claim that the girls' mode of dress, although set to a religious standard, is not modest enough to meet their particular standards.
Some of them have been insulting, cursing and yelling at the young girls. The Beit Shemesh law enforcement agencies either would not or could not put a stop to the volatile situation and let it go on unabated.
The deteriorating situation received public attention following an incident documented last week on Channel 2, in which one extremist hareidi in the city was spitting on a seven-year-old religious girl as she walked to school. Channel 2 equipment was stolen and vandalized by the hareidi protesters when the reporters entered the area.
The situation in Beit Shemesh, basically one where police allowed a small group of hareidi hooligans to get out of hand, is the bottom of the barrel. The sensation-seeking Israeli media and a largely uninformed secular population who have little understanding of the religious or hareidi-religious lifestyle, have in the last few days lumped together a gamut of religious and hareidi practices that appear to them to discriminate against women. One of the "hot" issues is gender separation.
“The main message is that separate but equal is not equal,” MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), who chairs the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women, told Arutz Sheva.
“You can’t put women in the back seat of a bus and tell them this is equality,” the MK continued, referring to the fact that women are asked to sit in the back of buses on mehadrin routes - a bus with separate seating for men and women.
The expression "separate but equal", however, was used in the southern USA, when blacks were forced into a separation they did not desire. The MK did not note the vast difference between separation by mutual agreement in contrast to separation forced on one side by the other. Both hareidi men and women have asked for separate seating on the buses that serve their neighborhoods (as is the case in hareidi private bus lines in New York) with married couples sitting together in the back part of the bus if they wish to sit together.
“We’re speaking [in the Beit Shemesh issue] about extremists who are trying to bring in norms that are not part of halakhah, not part of the Torah and not part of Judaism,” Hotovely said. "They’re trying to say that this is Judaism, but this is not Judaism. This is anti-Judaism, actually...We need to fight violence wherever it is and no matter who is committing it.”
This separation issue also garnered nationwide attention last week, after a secular woman refused to change her seat after purposely sitting in the men's section on a mehadrin bus route so as to cause a provocation - and made the issue a public one. Another provocation soon followed, when non-Orthodox feminists tried to interfere with a regular commuter daily morning service for men going to work on the Beit Shemesh-Tel Aviv train (also a regular fixture on NY commuter trains). A female soldier also remained in the men's section of a mehadrin bus and claimed to waiting media that she was insulted by some of the passengers, although witnesses denied it on Israel's Radio Kol Hai.
Hareidi-religious Express Their Viewpoint
A group of hareidim took part in the Beit Shemesh protest, though they chose to stand on the sidelines.
“We think that what is going on here in Beit Shemesh is a terrible hilul Hashem [desecration of G-d’s name],” Dr. Shlomo Tikochinski, who headed the group, said.
“We want to speak in the name of the Torah and in the name of the Jewish religion,” he added. “There is a radicalization in Beit Shemesh which brings the religion to very dangerous places. We are the mouthpieces for thousands of hareidim who think like us and who chose not to come here this evening for their own reasons, which I completely understand.”
Dr. Tikochinski rejected some claims that hareidi-religious Judaism is under attack, stressing that “it’s only the extremism which is under attack.”
“Since when do hareidim support extremists, be it in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem or in the upgraded version of Mea Shearim here in Beit Shemesh?” he asked. “Hareidi-religious Judaism has a tradition of moderation.”
Some of the protesters have taken issue with signs that have been posted in the hareidi areas requiring separation between men and women on streets and in places of business. The signs have been posted in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, where the extremist hareidim reside. Earlier this week, authorities removed the signs. A resident of the neighborhood told Arutz Sheva that no one has the right to remove the signs.
“Why do you care what we have in our neighborhoods?” the man, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “So we have signs. Do we interfere in what goes on in Tel Aviv? There are pictures there that don’t fit our lifestyle. Have we told anyone to remove them? We haven’t. It’s our right to put up whatever signs we want in our own neighborhood.”
He, too, denounced the violence that has been exercised against students deemed “not religious enough,” saying that the people who exercise such violence are individuals that in no way represent the residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh.
An Educator's Response: the School Principal
Meanwhile, the principal of the Orot girls’ school has called for mutual toleration of different lifestyles and for focusing on the practical need for law enforcement services to protect the students from extremists.
In a letter she sent to the school’s staff and to the parents of the students and which was obtained by Arutz Sheva, the principal, Perahia Nahmani, wrote:
“In my humble opinion, we should focus this struggle on our uncompromising demands that the authorities provide total security to our children and any other citizens who suffer from the violence of the extremists.
“If we stay focused and target this struggle only against those who support any kind of violence we will gain the support even of the moderate elements in the hareidi community, as we have seen happening in the last few days,” she added.
“I believe that we should avoid interfering in the way of life of our ultra-Orthodox neighbors, and dictate to them which signs they may or may not hang in the inner streets of their neighborhoods,” Nahmani emphasized. “Lastly, but of utmost importance to me, is that we should not take part in the wave of hostility towards the hareidi community as a whole.”
Nahmani noted that “we have much in common with the hareidi world, in many issues we have more in common with them than we do with some of those who have volunteered to stand by our side today, but who do not always understand the reasons for our insisting on separating boys and girls in the school system and in activities such as swimming and physical education classes.”
The principal's words summed up the inherent contradictions in the media hype: the hareidim in Beit Shemesh feel the school is not stringent enough for them, but secular columnists have written that the school is as ''bad' as the hareidim - after all, it separates males and females, just like the hareidi buses and the minyan on the commuter train. The secular do not want hareidim involved in their lifestyle, but feel free to criticize religious Zionist and hareidi lifestyles. They do not want crime labelled as "secular" when committed by the non-observant but brand the entire hareidi community, as they do the residents of Judea and Samaria, for the acts of a fringe group.
There is, however, one subject on which there is consensus: the violence in Beit Shemesh must be stopped by those in charge of law and order.
(Rachel Sylvetsky contributed to this report)