The violent incidents in Beit Shemesh this week, beginning with little Na'ama Margolese, who was spat on and cursed on her way home from school, and followed by an attack on television crews that had come to cover the news, should set off major alarm bells. The public at large has sensed the danger and Tuesday evening they came to Beit Shemesh in large numbers to demonstrate against this extremist violence and against the ominous threat that it represents. The demonstration is welcome and is evidence of civic involvement and concern and the need to protect society from those who come to destroy it. Even so, it should be remembered that Beit Shemesh is an extreme case, that the hard core among the rioters represents a problematic exception and that most of the ultra-Orthodox population decries this extremism and has itself suffered greatly from it.
The Israeli experience teaches that sweeping hatred of the ultra-Orthodox is the easy way out for every populist, whether in politics or in the media. This hatred could have ruinous consequences. In the best case, it could only strengthen ultra-Orthodox isolationism. In the worse case, it could intensify the violence.
The rioters in Beit Shemesh are criminals in every sense of the word. They cannot hide behind their religious worldview, behind their rabbis' rulings on matters of halakha, Jewish religious law. Nor can they hide behind the argument (which in and of itself is correct ) that government authorities have preferred to ignore the growing lawlessness in this increasingly ultra-Orthodox city and have allowed a reactionary group to terrorize the city's residents and turn them into defenseless hostages.
As a result, it is the government's task, in the words of the Hanukkah song, to dispel the darkness and make it clear to the extremists that Israel is a country of law, and that the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not want to live in a backward country governed by halakha. Instead they prefer to live as law-abiding citizens in a free, open and enlightened society.
The government must develop a firm and unambiguous policy that will enable the police, the state prosecution and the courts to apply the law to deal with the rioters as well as their spiritual leaders, who encourage and incite them to run wild. These people are endangering the well-being of the public in whose midst they are living and are threatening to undermine democracy and Israeli society as a whole.
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