Sleepy election campaign exploded into clashes between Satmar and Gur Hasidim
Broken headlights, spray-painted swastikas, flyers announcing a "cruel pogrom such as has never before been seen or heard." A still-burning grudge survived the wild winds that swept through Ramat Beit Shemesh this week. These artifacts are the remaining evidence of the battle waged here between United Torah Judaism supporters, led by Gur Hasidim, and anti-Zionist extremists who oppose participation in the "impure elections."
In Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and New York, the heavily anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim set aside the inheritance struggle that has been ravaging the Hasidic movement over the past few years and closed ranks against the Gur Hasidim. Posters were printed and protest marches made their way past the Gur synagogues.
The somnolent election campaign did not spur any party to generate as tempestuous an atmosphere as the one to be found among the marginal ultra-Orthodox sects. A huge budget, much of it donated by Satmar communities in the United States, was dedicated this year to the printing of flyers and pamphlets calling on all God-fearers to boycott the elections and the Zionist establishment as a whole, to the anger of the UTJ rabbis.
Physical combat broke out in Jerusalem between Gur Hasidim trying to stop Satmar Hasidim from distributing their anti-election materials, and Election Day itself saw scuffles at a few polling stations. It was Ramat Beit Shemesh, though, that turned out to be a particularly violent site of conflict, even before the advertised Saturday night "pogrom" that brought in special police forces.
On Shabbat eve, a group of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet residents put up posters defaming the chief rabbi of the Gur movement, who was called a "millionaire" who uses UTJ to enrich himself. Shortly before Shabbat ended, some 400 Gur Hasidim from Kiryat Gur and neighboring areas went to the offending neighborhood to avenge their honor. Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet residents refer to the neighborhood as "the Casbah." The Gur Hasidim were heading toward "the Muqata" - not the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority chairman in Ramallah, but the Rama Synagogue in the heart of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, where the third meal of the Sabbath was nearly over.
The rabbi leading the meal, Yehoshua Rosenberg, is affiliated with the Satmar-dominated Eda Haredit, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, and is respected by most ultra-Orthodox sects in the community.
There are contradictory stories about what happened when the Gur Hasidim reached the synagogue. Residents say the Hasidim went wild, throwing benches, breaking windows, attacking those partaking of the meal, wounding a young boy and "grabbing beards and earlocks." One story repeated over and over is that a plate filled with herring was hurled at the rabbi.
"Even the Zionist police don't dare enter a synagogue," one resident said. "What they did was a very grave matter. To send boys to a synagogue? No one has heard of such a thing."
Gur Hasidim are convinced that most of the destruction was caused by the Satmars, who they said would do anything to make their opponents look like "terrorists."
One of the few Gur Hasidim who said he was present at the incident and agreed to be interviewed said his group's sole purpose was to pray quietly there to protest the poster, and then return home. "Right away they started cursing us and pushing," he said. "Hundreds of people were outside quiet, but marginal people on our side, no more than 20 people, went in and danced. But of course an argument began. Maybe two of them screamed that their rebbe had not agreed to condemn the poster. There were blows, but no injuries and no earlocks were grabbed. Our approach is just to protest. We did what we had to do."
On Saturday night more than 1,000 people clogged the streets, and police said rocks and chairs flew. Protesters on both sides said police called to the scene were scared of entering "the Muqata."
The chief of the local police station, Oz Elias, said there was no need to enter the synagogue once the police officers had forcibly separated the demonstrators and escorted the Gur Hasidim home. Elias said no injuries were reported, but added: "If we hadn't been there, there certainly would have been."
The Satmars see themselves as the victims, and one admitted that their "dedication" gets them a lot of donations from their brethren abroad.
But an ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh resident who is not affiliated with either the Satmar or the Gur sects said the Satmar were to blame for causing trouble. He said Satmar youth regularly block roads and burn garbage bins.
"This has become the most radical stronghold of extremists in Israel," he said. "All the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh feel grateful to the Gur Hasidim for teaching them a lesson."