Throwing Blows in Beit Shemesh

Tensions rise as ultra-Orthodox extremists fight religious Zionist girls school.

Outside, blood is boiling, emotions are seething, and the residents of Beit Shemesh are exchanging blows. But inside Moshe Montag's office, the answers are simple and cool.

Deputy mayor and holder of the building portfolio, Montag prefers to direct attention to the bigger picture: During the last month, he has authorized the construction and sale of 2,800 housing units in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, which is to be entirely populated by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Within a few months, thanks to Netanyahu's National Housing Committee Law, another 27,000 units will be authorized in Ramat Beit Shemesh, all of them almost certainly for the ultra-Orthodox.

Ultra-Orthodox extremists - Gil Cohen-Magen - 08092011
Gil Cohen-Magen

"The battle going on outside is not over the character of the city," Montag said. "A city building 30,000 housing units for the ultra-Orthodox is not going to fight over a run-down old school. Certainly we won't fight over it. This is a city undergoing demographic changes, something that is neither simple nor easy."

"On our part, we're trying all the time to calm everyone down, to maintain a positive atmosphere," Montag said. "I promise you that this city will preserve a balance between the various populations. There is room for everyone in Beit Shemesh."

Montag's is one interpretation of the situation in Beit Shemesh, and certainly not everyone agrees, but first - the headlines:

The escalation began yesterday with a conflict involving the girls school Orot Lebanot. Orot Lebanot is a religious Zionist school, meaning it is Orthodox but not ultra-Orthodox.

Yesterday, Ultra-Orthodox extremists blocked the path of the Orot Lebanot schoolgirls while they were on their way home. They surrounded the girls and shouted insults at them. Some residents and parents accompanying their children responded, and a fight broke out. It took nearly 45 minutes for the police to restore order, which they did without detaining or arresting any of the troublemakers.

Meanwhile, before the fight broke out, a fourth-grader at the nearby boys school, Orot Lebanim, also was injured while he was playing in the school yard during recess. According to the school principal, an ultra-Orthodox man threw stones at the boy, causing light injuries to his leg.

Montag, a leader of the Degel Hatorah branch of ultra-Orthodoxy, the main branch in Beit Shemesh (with roots going back to Lithuania ), sharply criticized the extremists and asked police to get tougher with them. According to Montag, "For them, I too am considered secular."

One week after the beginning of the new school year, there was no compromise on the horizon, and the level of hostility was rising. Orot Lebanot's new building was filled as planned with female students only, at the order of the education minister and the interior minister, who imposed the condition on the mayor, Moshe Abutboul of the Shas Party. Abutboul, who has been abroad (for a meeting between Shas members and Palestinians in the framework of the Geneva peace initiative ), said that the girls had to be kept at a distance to prevent a "blood bath," since the neighborhoods where the extremists live are like "Arab villages" that police are afraid to enter. According to Montag's deputy, if the municipality had been allowed to handle the crisis, a compromise would have been reached - for example, having the girls school trade places with the religious Zionist boys school.

As the events unfolded, one of Abutboul's coalition partners, a Likud member, resigned. Another, the chairman of the modern Orthodox party Tov, Eli Friedman, criticized the mayor in the ultra-Orthodox paper Kikar Hashabat. Friedman blamed the mayor for not respecting agreements and called on him to "defeat the Sicarii [extremists named for Jewish zealots in Roman times] in Beit Shemesh once and for all."

The Orot school serves religious girls from the Sheinfeld, Ramat Sharet, Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph and other neighborhoods. Residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit, populated by anti-Zionist extremists who are opposed to the new school, are demanding that the girls be removed. They claim that the girls, who range from 6 to 12 years old and who wear skirts, bring promiscuity to the neighborhood. The small police force guarding the school did not make much of an impression on the 40-or-so ultra-Orthodox Sicarii, who ambushed the girls after school at the top of the street, 300 meters from the school gate, and blocked both sidewalks.

They shouted "shiksa" [non-Jewish girl], "pritzas" [prostitute] and "gevalt" at the terrified girls. Parents who accompanied their daughters quarrelled with the Sicarii. Within a few minutes, some of the drivers who were passing by joined in, and a fistfight broke out.

Moshe Friedman, one of the organizers of the protests against the schoolgirls, told Haaretz that he was confident the school would be removed.

"They won't be here," he said. "According to Jewish law, it doesn't matter that they are girls. The laws of modesty are an obligation from the age of 3. Their goal is to ruin the neighborhood; we won't agree to tolerate it. They are backed by the government, but from our point of view this is a long-term battle. Even if it takes years, we'll win in the end. Neither the government nor these girls will be here."

Friedman promised further protests, including a large rally by the ultra-Orthodox population and daily marches through the neighborhood that would create, in his words, "victims on both sides."

This week, the religious Zionist community began to take countermeasures. Some of the parents started accompanying their daughters to school with dogs. "They're not afraid to attack girls, but they are afraid of dogs," one mother explained. Others hung posters on the gates of schools in Rama Beit Shemesh Beit, including pictures of the Sicarii with the caption, "He likes to look at virginal religious girls."

This conflict is another chapter in the war between the various communities of Beit Shemesh, mainly in the new areas around Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph and Beit. In recent years, the city has been plagued by wrestling matches among Orthodox religious circles, causing constant tension sometimes to the point of physical violence; Abutboul has been unable to relieve the tension, and his enemies claim he hasn't even tried.

Paradoxically, in religious Zionist circles - where children, as someone recently remarked on the group's Facebook site, actually face a more serious threat than children of Israeli settlers on Shuhada Street in central Hebron - there are signs of optimism. After a series of blows in recent years - including the removal of fitness equipment from a public park, difficulties in establishing a hesder yeshiva (for army service combined with Orthodox religious studies ), and the restriction of many housing units to the ultra-Orthodox - the desire to open a school in spite of opposition by extremists and the mayor gave a new sense of power to members of the religious Zionist population.

"I hope that this is the beginning of the end of Abutboul's coalition," said Shalom Lerner, a leader of the opposition from the Mafdal Party. "What is happening today is a watershed in terms of the public's will to act in Beit Shemesh and its understanding that it can't rely on anyone."

Another activist in the religious Zionist community remarked, "The extremists understood for the first time that no one is counting them," and an ultra-Orthodox resident said that, "All the ultra-Orthodox deep down in their hearts hope that the religious Zionists will wield a fatal blow to the Sicarii."

"The extremists are a very specific group that mainly causes damage to the ultra-Orthodox public," said Zeev Moskowitz, the spokesman for the parents association at Orot Lebanot. Moskowitz is convinced that the school will remain where it is. "The way to win here is to unite the forces of the ultra-Orthodox, the religious Zionists and the police," he said. "People always say that the extremists are strong and they don't mind suffering, but that isn't so. Their lives can be made difficult."

Montag believes that the city's hands are tied because of the developing conflict, and that it was prevented from taking quiet steps against extremist leaders. He has called on the police to deal with violence "with a firm hand," and says that the fire eventually will die down. Meanwhile, he is concentrating on building plans.

"While all over the country people are involved with tents, with talking, in Beit Shemesh, we aren't talking, we are doing," he said.