People of What Book?

Ultra-Orthodox zealots are running riot in Mea She'arim, targeting a book shop they say traffics in heretical tomes - and the rabbis are doing nothing to stop them.

At first glance, it seemed like we were witnessing a riotous debate about books, which, as was the case in the Middle Ages, had gone too far and had now devolved into violence. But today, when books are often sold merely as complementary accessories for the design and layout of the living room, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She'arim real angst is boiling up because of books, and what is contained in them: A local bookstore known as the Or Hachaim Center is stubbornly continuing to offer certain books despite the opposition of a certain conservative group that is forcefully promoting its own constrictive censorship rules on the store.

A romantic interpretation, perhaps; it may have only the loosest connection to a story in which the zealous conservatives, who call themselves the "Sikarikim," are using the books merely as an excuse for them to make a show of force: smashing store windows, tampering with door locks and flinging bags of excrement into the store interior. The menu of offenses includes planting malodorous fish oil and other stink bombs. Bodily harm? Not yet, but a bodyguard was recently spotted guarding Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, who felt the need for a security guard for the first time in his life. Mea She'arim residents are convinced it has something to do with an escalation of the bookstore affair.

Or Hachaim Center book store in Mea She’arim

The zealots claim their objections to the store stem first and foremost from the sale of "books of apostasy and heresy." The reference is apparently to titles published by the pro-Zionist Mossad Harav Kook publishing house, for example, or to books written by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Beit El. The venom of the zealots has also been vented at the store's clientele, which includes women, who the critics charge are wearing insufficiently modest "harlot" clothing, as the zealots put it. They have demanded that the bookstore owners hang up a sign that would restrict entry to those in modest dress.

Nevertheless, it could be that what rankles the zealots above all is the too-modern atmosphere that reigns in the store. Or Hachaim Center may not be the first shop to bring to Jerusalem the Haredi-but-glamorous store design that is more commonly found in the ultra-Orthodox Borough Park section of Brooklyn. But for whatever reason, it - like the Zisalik ice cream shop and the nearby Greentec computer store - has become a target for the holy wars of the zealots.

One of the latter explained to Haaretz: "The problem is that they are offering not only a purchase, but a 'shopping experience.' This is alien to Mea She'arim, where there have always been only small, humble shops."

Local mafia

The stalking of the store, which has resulted in significant property damage, began a year and a half ago, shortly after it opened with a dazzling "gala opening," as befits a new-generation Haredi business.

There are 350 square meters of books in various departments, and everything is well-lit and sumptuously designed. Important public figures like Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, a leader of the extreme Eda Haredit religious council, responded to the invitation to put up the store's mezuzahs and have their picture taken, and positive PR pieces appeared in the press. Everything looked very promising until the first of the zealots congregated outside the doors of the store and began to shout "Gevalt."

Marlene Samuels, an Orthodox religious woman who manages the store together with her husband Manny and another partner, has preserved a collection of the 'pashkevil' wall posters that condemn the store. A visitor to the store's office can read on the wall about "those who are causing the masses to sin," and how the owners are "collaborating with the Zionists to destroy everything that is holy." She is trying hard to keep her spirits up, and declares that the shop will not close, but confesses that at times she, too, is "being destroyed by this whole story."

Last week, after the store's display windows were smashed for the fourth time, heavy metal doors were installed. "They are dressed like Haredim, but they aren't religious. They use the scare tactics of hooligans," Samuels said. "The greatest rabbis of the generation are living in this neighborhood, but this mafia is able to act without disturbance. Where are the rabbis? Why isn't their voice being heard?"

She related that in the course of the attempts to reach a compromise with these "Sikarikim" (in the late Second Temple period, the Sicarii were the most fanatic group of Zealots; they carried sica - daggers - and were wont to use them against fellow Jews who did not share their extreme views ), they were told to comply with several conditions in order to bring the violence to an end: One condition was that Or Hachaim would have a paid "kashrut inspector" on the premises, who would act on behalf of the zealots.

"What is that if not a protection racket?" she asks rhetorically.

Fear of the Sikarikim

The store owners say that the police disregarded their calls for help, but recently, with the interest that the media has shown in the recent wave of violence, the police have been shaken out of their apathy. Police spokesmen say, however, that only now has the intelligence data that was being gathered over a long period of time finally been amassed; this has been done without, they say, the cooperation of the owners, who were held in check by their fear of the Sikarikim.

There is also a possible connection between the storm surrounding the store and a wider dispute that is taking place a few dozen meters away. It involves the homes of the Batei Warsaw neighborhood. In this controversy, the anti-Zionist zealots are pitted against their arch-enemies, the Gerer Hassidim, who are part of the Haredi mainstream. Batei Warsaw is a crowded ghetto whose homes are an old "hekdesh," (consecrated property - a charitable landholding institution ) that were given to Torah scholars who originally came from Poland. The zealots are currently waging a struggle in the name of neighborhood residents versus the real estate plans of the Gerer Hassidim, which has in recent years controlled the council that administers the hekdesh.

The Or Hachaim Center is part of a chain of stores that is partly owned by Rabbi Yaakov Bibla, a Gerer Hassid. Another member of this religious group is Haredi political figure Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, mentioned above. Last June, Litzman said in an interview with Haaretz that in Batei Warsaw, "The Sikarikim are conducting an uprising. They decided that this is not Israel, that this is their territory. They decided to use force, because they want a free apartment. They are nothing more than thieves."

Whatever the case may be, a connection may also be found in the identity of five Mea She'arim residents, all of whom have been arrested in the bookstore-stalking affair. One of them, Shalom Baruch Rosset, is among the leaders of the Sikarikim faction that was arrested last May on suspicion of assault and threats in the Batei Warsaw affair.

A week and a half ago, Rosset was arrested again, this time along with two of his sons, Moshe and Menachem, on suspicion of carrying out acts of violence in the neighborhood, including the bookstore harassment. Their arrests come on the heels of that of Motti Hirsch, son of the late Moshe Hirsch, who was a cabinet minister in the government of Yasser Arafat. Motti Hirsch is considered one of the more high-profile Sikarikim. He, too, was arrested on suspicion of harassment of the store. Other individuals who were arrested include Ze'ev Frank and Naftali Borenstein, who was captured by the store's security cameras at a late-night hour as he smashed its display window.

The five men were interrogated and then released under restrictive conditions. The police are assuring that severe indictments will be issued for issuing threats and causing property damage, and even for extortion of protection money.

"These methods are characteristic of a criminal underworld," the police said. They then referred to the "negative elements that we are determined to uproot," a declaration of war that those in Mea She'arim are mocking derisively.

"They've got nothing," said one of the zealots in response. "At most, they can give someone a fine because he broke a window. They won't find any association; they won't find anything."

Attorney Yair Nehorai, representing the recently arrested Sikarikim, says: "It seems to me that their speedy release by the courts speaks for itself, and tells you something about the gap between the manner in which they are being portrayed and reality."