Beit Shemesh Anglos Turning to Courts to Halt Haredi Harassment

Fed up with harassment from members of the ultra-Orthodox community, a group of Anglo parents in Beit Shemesh are hoping to use the courts to curb the yelling, insults and spitting their daughters are subjected to.

beit shemesh - Michal Fattal - November 4 2011
Michal Fattal

Based on their interpretation of the 2001 Prevention of Stalking Law, about a dozen families, all with Anglo backgrounds, are demanding a restraining order against several extremist Haredim who protest regularly at the national-religious Orot Banot high school for girls. Since the start of the school year, extremists have demonstrated against the school, mostly by gathering in front of the building and hurling insults at the girls. The protests also occasionally turn violent: Just last week, vandals reportedly threw bricks, feces and fish innards inside the building.

The extremists object to the school's presence near their neighborhood because the girls' dress code does not conform to ultra-Orthodox standards.

Residents say the police have done little to stop the zealots.

"Over the last two months, we've been very disappointed with the overall response of the police," said prominent U.S.-born educator and political activist Rabbi Dov Lipman, who heads the initiative. "Yes, the police do show up whenever there are problems, and yes, they have been patrolling. But their attitude has been, 'They're just screaming, that's not illegal.' But it's very clear that if the police wanted to arrest them for what they're doing, they absolutely have [a leg] to stand on."

Lipman told Anglo File that in the United States, harassment of this kind wouldn't be tolerated. "There's no place where they would let a group of goons come and scream at little children who are in school. They would find a law that would make it illegal."

"It may be legal to scream at someone in public, I don't know. But when it comes to a point where it's repetitive, it's harassment," said Rachel Weinstein, who moved with her family to Beit Shemesh this summer. "The first word we learned in [Hebrew class] was hafgana [demonstration]. I cover my hair fully, I wear long skirts, and anytime my daughter and I walk to the bus we run the risk of being called non-Jewish and whores."

"This is the farthest thing from Jewish behavior," she added. "We're teaching our kids to be afraid of our own. I didn't come from the U.S. to Israel to be afraid of my own people."

Representing the parents, Lipman, who grew up in Maryland and immigrated to Israel in 2004, handed a letter to the Beit Shemesh police Tuesday, accusing them of not doing enough to protect the girls at the schools.

lipman - Gil Cohen Magen - November 4 2011
Gil Cohen Magen

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said on the contrary, "a number of suspects" were arrested.

"The police have stepped up patrols in order to respond to these types of incidents and at the beginning of the school [year] our units were there on the scene," Rosenfeld told Anglo File. "We are continuing to coordinate with the municipality and the school as to the security arrangements."

Indeed, on Wednesday - one day after Lipman delivered his letter - a larger police force than usual patrolled the area around the school. The extremists did not appear at the school that day. But if the yelling resumes next week, the parents intend to take the Haredi protesters to court and have a restraining order put in place to keep them away.

"We know their names, we know their addresses," Lipman said. The parents are also seeking to sue the extremists for damages, claiming their daughters suffer immensely from the constant harassment and require therapy.

Several lawyers said the parents are right in referring to the anti-stalking law in this situation. "If individuals can be identified, or there is an identifiable group of people, then it would seem that there is grounds for the police, or the parents of the children, to ask for an order to prevent this threatening and intimidating behavior," Tel Aviv-based family lawyer Louise Borochov told Anglo File. The law specifically mentions the possibility of issuing an injunction preventing perpetraters from getting near a school or a bus stop, Borochov, who was born in Wales, added.

Clashes between the ultra-Orthodox and national religious or secular in the city are not new. The controversy around Orot Banot began this summer when some extremists tried to occupy the brand-new building before school started to thwart its opening. Violent clashes ensued.

Eventually, the Education Ministry decided the girls would move in as planned.

But the extremists did not give up. Dozens of protestors regularly turn up at the school gates, chanting Psalms and calling the girls "shiksas" and "pritzes," a Yiddish word for "sluts."

Before the High Holy Days, Beit Shemesh's national-religious community tried to reach out to the Haredi camp and held a "unity rally." But the move had no affect on the protests.

"My daughter's been going to school every day with a lot of anxiety and fear because of everything that's going on, the yelling the screaming and the throwing of human feces inside the classrooms," said Hadassa Margolese, whose 8-year-old daughter Naama attends second grade at Orot Banot. "Unfortunately, I don't see the police. These people are still out there."

"My daughter is definitely going to need therapy to get over this, because she's scared to leave the house," the Chicago native added. "Every small noise she hears she starts crying. If I leave the house for a minute, she goes onto the balcony and starts crying because she's afraid that they're going to show up at our house. Life has really become miserable because of these people. Someone will have to pay for this therapy and it definitely should not be the parents - that's why we want to sue."