At a demonstration by the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit organization, a pashkevil - polemic poster - was distributed showing photos of Hitler and the commander of the Jerusalem Police side by side. "Indict the Nazi criminal who is still alive," it exhorted. The police investigated but those responsible have not been found. That was August 1983, and the commander of the Jerusalem Police was Brig. Gen. Rachamim Komfort.
Until now, the only grievance ultra-Orthodox groups have held against Maj. Gen. Niso Shaham, who took up the position of Jerusalem District police chief last May, were his blunt and indiscreetly uttered words against settlers during the 2005 Gaza disengagement: "Shit on them. Let them burn. Listen to me, you know I'm an expert on those ultra-Orthodox."
Now there are also deeds, including about 100 arrests made in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods since May. Last week, members of the National Committee to Save Needy Families were arrested on suspicion of perpetrating scams and subversive activity rather than charity work. Shaham demonstrated he is putting the relations between the police and all the ultra-Orthodox to the test, not only the extremists who have acquired tremendous influence in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
In the past these extremists were called Naturei Karti (Aramaic for Guardians of the City); today they are called Sicarii, after the Jewish "dagger men" of the period just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The 1983 pashkevil pairing Hitler and the police commander was ordered at a print shop; today it comes from a home computer and an email address. However, the most dramatic difference between the two eras has to do with the current internal ferment within the ultra-Orthodox community.
The short history of the current conflict begins in 2003, with the anointing of Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss - an elderly Belgian Jew who lives in Antwerp and who earned a respectable living as a rabbi and a rabbinical court judge - as leader of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit community in Jerusalem. In his years as the Gavad (Genius Father of the Court ), pragmatic elements have been shunted aside and radical elements have grown stronger, dragging the sect into a series of struggles, most of them violent failures: against the gay and lesbian community's Pride parades; against opening the Karta parking lot and the opening of the Intel plant in Jerusalem; against the construction at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon; against the arrest of a mother from the Toldot Aharon Hasidut for starving her son; and more.
In the last of these cases, in 2009, top police officials continued to treat the Gavad with respect due to his being the great rabbi of the generation. But the soothing words they extracted from him at late night meetings remained within the room, while activists around him continued to fuel the struggle in the streets.
At about the same time, a group of Sicarii attacked a busload of ultra-Orthodox children with special needs driving down Mea She'arim Street in the capital. There were no physical injuries but some of the children suffered prolonged psychological trauma, which led representatives of the ultra-Orthodox public to realize that their internal institutions are not enough. They demanded, in no uncertain terms, that the police intervene and do what no rabbi dares to do: suppress the fanatics.
The message now from Shaham, who ordered the arrest of Rabbi Weiss' personal assistant Amram Shapira, along with the heads of the National Committee, was clear: even the Gavad is not immune. Beginning this week, there has been a sharp break between the Eda and the police. Moderate elements within the sect are coming out secretly against the radicals, out of ideology but also because they fear the violent branding will affect the Badatz kashrut authorization that provides a living for hundreds of Eda families. The struggle in the radical wing surrounding the "shawls cult" (with which the women cover themselves from head to toe) has left a number of rabbis and activists in conflict with the establishment.
The police are emerging as the winners in the struggles. The Gur Hasidut, which is embroiled with the Sicarii in a real-estate war in the Batei Warsaw neighborhood of Jerusalem, is nurturing its relations with the top police commanders. Also, its representative, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, maintains a personal friendship with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. It is with good reason that Litzman and Shaham star together on the pashkevils distributed in the streets.
"Shaham is right in his actions against the criminals, but he is wrong if he thinks he will succeed in intervening in our internal politics," said a source within Eda. "With all due respect, even the moderates who support him will join the Gavad if it comes to a clash between them. It is impossible to crush the Gavad from the outside."
This week, there was a wider gap than usual between the apocalyptic language of the pashkevils ("Utra-Orthodox Jewry, headed by its rabbis and its captains, is embarking on a war of existence to assemble and put our lives on the line") and the reality in which only a few hundred came out to protest against the arrests. Shaham has told Haaretz: "The operational doctrine of the Jerusalem District is part of the national doctrine led by the police commissioner. In Jerusalem this means, for example, that enforcement will be the same in Kiryat Hayovel, Silwan and Mea She'arim. Those who implement the policy are the amazing police officers in the district."
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