Mea Shearim - Michal Fattal - December 2011
An Ultra-Orthodox man walks by a gender-segregated store entrance in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Michal Fattal
David Eisenbach, who was arrested on suspicion of spitting at Na’ama Margolese. Photo by Michal Fattal

The small bubble of tension that is rising about Beit Shemesh bears notice. Local elections are still far off on the horizon and Mayor Moshe Abutbul (Shas) sits confidently atop a wide, stable coalition that guarantees him the support of the Labor Party (the world of Beit Shemesh is filled with wonders), yet two opposition forces are kicking into high gear, preparing for a political showdown.

What distinguishes these two forces, which compete with each other, is the fact that both operate on the Haredi playing field: the "Tov" party, which has under its belt an ultra-Orthodox political success (it managed to send a representative to the city council after the last elections, overriding the objection of local rabbis and religious functionaries ); and the "Am Shalem" faction, led by Shas renegade and former MK Haim Amsalem, who recently established a power center in Beit Shemesh.

These two rebellious movements appeal to moderate Haredim, English-speaking Haredim, disappointed Shas members, Haredi "home-owners" (referring to ultra-Orthodox who work for their living ) and others who are alienated from traditional leaderships of Shas and other mainstream religious parties. Beit Shemesh is filled with such off-the-mainstream Haredim, particularly in the town's new neighborhoods.

Eli Friedman, chairman of "Tov," and Dov Lipman, a representative of Am Shalem, gave interviews on secular media outlets, and Lipman expressed himself on Facebook. Their viewpoints acutely attack Haredi extremists, and strike squarely against Mayor Abutbul. Nobody can cast doubt about their strict level of Orthodox observance, and for both, it is important to be identified as a "Haredi" activist; but under current extremist circumstances in the city, they sound as though they belong to Meretz. The future of these two movements remains unclear, yet both bear witness to important facts of the past and present in Beit Shemesh. And Beit Shemesh is in many ways a miniature representation of the Haredi world, and of the State of Israel as a whole.

Many wonder about where the rabbis have gone. Can it be that the current media uproar, in which virtually every day Haredi extremism reaches the front pages of the newspapers, hasn't reached the rabbis' attention? Can it be that the norms of the outside, secular political world are completely foreign to them? Are the statements and denunciations uttered by the prime minister kept away from them? Do the rabbis have nothing to say about acts of violence that occur in Beit Shemesh?

The simple answer is that the Haredi rabbis, particularly in the Ashkenazi community, do not feel committed to any agenda or public viewpoint, certainly not anything rooted in media coverage. They do not "respond" and, assuming they are aware of public consternation concerning the Haredim, do not feel obligated to expectations of any sort harbored by secular Israelis, who believe they (the rabbis) should deal with this or that phenomenon.

Not only that, but if Haredi rabbis do have an official position, it is one of complete negation of what they see as a campaign against the Haredi community, as another attempt to uproot religion. The closest thing to a response has been headlines such as one that appeared in Bnei Brak based newspaper "Yated Ne'eman" on Sunday which said, "The tendentious and deceitful incitement continues."

Another key reason is the leadership crisis among Haredi rabbis. The Haredi community is awaiting for comments from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the Lithuanian Haredi leader, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader oh Shas, neither of  who have addressed the incidents so far.

None of this, however, is directly relevant to Haredi extremists in Beit Shemesh, who do not oblige dictates given by the mainstream Haredi world. In recent years these elements seem to have spun far from the main Haredi rabbis.

"The main problem concerning Beit Shemesh is our silence, the disturbing silence maintained by religious, Haredi people. We are the first people who really ought to come out and oppose such extremism," stated Rabbi Dr. Dov Halbertal Sunday. Halbertal suggested that if a prominent figure, such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, issued a denunciation of violence emanating from the Haredi fringe, it would cause convulsions in the Haredi world, including its extremist fringes.

Yet Elyashiv persists in his silence, as do the main Haredi media outlets. In their eyes, the Haredi community is the subject of a serious blitz, and those from the Haredi camp who are willing to cooperate with the media are playing into the hands of those who wish to uproot the Torah. Any criticism that does exist in newspapers such as "Mishpacha," Hebrew for "family," or "Be Kehila," Hebrew for "in community," is very subtle indeed. 

Even so, the winds of change are blowing. The call for change, for stopping the Haredi gangs, for putting an end to extremism, are coming from the Haredi street. Until last week, these voices were mainly heard in internet forums, where members can comment anonymously, but on Sunday they were clearly visible in the headlines of Haredi websites, such as "Kikar Shabat," Hebrew for "shabbat square," that called on extremists by name, and called to denounce them. One example is journalist Asher Gold, who called on members of the public to join a religious-nationalist protest in Beit Shemesh on Tuesday.

Many are not prepared to put up with the tyranny of Haredi gangs in Beit Shemesh, or incidents such as the recent one where little girls are spat at, and not just because they understand how much damage the extremist minority is doing to the ultra-Orthodox majority.

Read this article in Hebrew.