'A Red Line Was Crossed': In One Israeli Town, Religious Tension Turns Into Violence

It all started with a single poster

An ultra-Orthodox Arad resident. In the background: Signs against the town's mayor
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Rivers of frustration and enmity flowed into a narrow street in Arad Saturday night. For more than two years, secular and ultra-Orthodox residents have waged an emotional battle for control of the city. Saturday, for the first time, it spilled over into violence.

Eight people were arrested, including three Haredi demonstrators suspected of rolling burning tires at a home, and the other five of attacking police officers, nudity and disturbing the peace. During the confrontation, secular demonstrators shouted, “Arad is ours.”

The impetus for the violence was a single poster hung up over the weekend bearing a picture of the Gur Hasidic sect’s rabbinic leader, Yaakov Aryeh Alter, and the caption “Alter and Litzman, you’re playing dirty; Arad isn’t for sale,” referring to Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a Gur Hasid. But the violence was preceded by dozens of nonviolent clashes born of disputes between Litzman and Arad’s secular mayor, Nissan Ben-Hamo.

As part of this broader battle, the ultra-Orthodox began plastering the city with religious posters. But after a court ruled that those posters needed a license, which the municipality refused to give, they switched to political posters, which don’t need a license. Soon, the city sported hundreds of posters denouncing Ben-Hamo.

Secular residents, who considered this both an eyesore and an insult to their elected representative, decided to fight back, albeit not without trepidation, secular activist Merav Leiba said. They printed 100 of the Alter posters, and to gauge the reaction, they initially hung them outside their homes, posted pictures to Facebook and then removed the posters.

Confrontation between ultra-Orthodox and secular residents of Arad.
Almog Ben Zikri

Next, the activists decided to hang the posters for a week. But one family on Hagilad Street jumped the gun and hung their poster last weekend.

Shortly after Shabbat ended Saturday night, tires were burned outside their house. Soon afterward, hundreds of Gur Hasidim gathered. The Hasidim were separated from the house by hundreds of secular residents whom the family hastily summoned.

For hours, the crowds stood on opposite sides of the narrow street, hurling insults, spitting, throwing things and sometimes punching each other. There were also fights between Gur Hasidim and policemen trying to keep the two sides apart. A small group of Hasidim sat in the street to block traffic.

The incident only ended at about 4 A.M., when the family removed the poster. The Hasidim, who had sworn to stay until the poster was gone, then departed. But all day Sunday, a police patrol car stood outside the family’s house.

The battle between Arad’s secular and ultra-Orthodox residents heated up during the last municipal elections two years ago. Until then, Gur representatives were part of the city’s governing coalition under Mayor Tali Ploskov. But many secular residents felt Ploskov’s government gave the ultra-Orthodox excessive benefits. Thus when Ploskov left to become a Kulanu party Knesset member, Ben-Hamo campaigned to succeed her on a pledge that the ultra-Orthodox wouldn’t get more municipal funding than they deserved.

According to municipal data, some 5,000 Gur Hasidim live in Arad – 20 percent of the city’s population. Since Ben-Hamo’s election, disputes have erupted over issues ranging from the allocation of funds and public buildings to cultural events and Sabbath observance.

Mayor: Hasidic minister gave him ultimatum

“When I began my term,” Ben-Hamo said, “Litzman summoned me to his office and said, ‘It’s nice that you’ve been elected, but I’m the one who decides what happens in the city. If you help me, you’ll get [state] funding, and if not, I’ll stymie every possible allocation.’”

Litzman and Ben-Hamo made one unsuccessful attempt to reach agreement on how to allocate the city’s budget. Since then, Ben-Hamo said, they haven’t spoken.

Sunday morning, Ben-Hamo told reporters it was unacceptable for “those who are violent thugs to get whatever they want,” adding that he’s the only person “looking Litzman in the whites of his eyes and telling him no.” He said he was open to dialogue, but only as “an equal among equals.”

Ben-Hamo realizes that his confrontational stance has a price. Last year, a construction project he had pushed failed for lack of bidders. His effort to rebrand Arad as a young, vibrant, secular, tourist city has also failed. “It’s true this whole story is taking us backward,” he acknowledged.

The biggest battle so far has been over the city’s main Ashkenazi synagogue, which used to serve religious Zionist and traditional Jews. In July 2014, Gur Hasidim led by a prominent Gur rabbi, Zvi Bialistovsky, were captured on camera breaking the glass in the synagogue’s doors to get in. The footage showed policemen present, yet nobody was arrested. The city has pressed charges. But the Gur Hasidim took over the synagogue.

Since then, secular activists have periodically gone there on Fridays to try to regain control of the building. But disturbances broke out, and criminal cases were opened against the activists.

Secular residents were also outraged by the disappearance of pictures of women from the advertisements in the local Super-Pharm pharmacy’s shop window. Asked if the branch has officially banned pictures of women, a young man who was changing the ads on Sunday replied, “Yes, it’s considered an ultra-Orthodox branch, so all the ads here are without women.”

Leiba, the activist, said Saturday’s incident “crossed a red line.”

“Residents received telephone threats in the middle of the night, at all hours of the day,” she said. “They were harassed and their lives were threatened. ... The Gur community was violent and aggressive toward an Arad resident, throwing burning tires at their house, threatening their lives and children.”

“It’s a cult, it’s a mafia,” she added. “They follow orders; they’re loyal to one man; they haven’t a smidgen of independent thought in their lives, and they’re dangerous.”

Like many residents, she fears for the city’s character. She says she has never been this afraid before, even though Arad has absorbed many diverse groups in recent decades, including Ethiopian immigrants, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and thousands of African asylum seekers.

“All these groups came and integrated into society ... except the Gur Hasidim – or more accurately, the Gur Hasidic cult – which wants to change it,” she said.

She and Yoram Katz, the city’s other main secular activist, said that since Saturday, dozens of residents have asked them for the controversial poster and plan to hang it. But Litzman, interviewed by Radio Darom on Sunday, said that if the posters reappear, “We’ll bring thousands of people there every day.”

“I won’t forfeit my honor,” Litzman said. “I told the police unequivocally – politics, no problem, we’ll compete. But we won‘t permit insult to what’s most important to us.”