Fanning the Flames

Many of the violent and disruptive protests in the Haredi community are organized by a tiny group nicknamed the Sikarikim. Now members of more mainstream ultra-Orthodox sects are beginning to stand up to them

On a late summer's day toward the end of the Hebrew month of Elul, Shabbat Square in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood was full of heavily bearded men who had woken up early to recite the Selihot prayers in advance of the High Holy Days. This gathering, however, was a demonstration against the Zionist regime and against what is considered the "desecration of Jewish graves" - positions sanctified by the Eda Haredit, the umbrella group for the most extreme factions of the ultra-Orthodox community, which is centered in Jerusalem.

Sikarikim head Teitelbaum, David Cohen
David Cohen

During the past year, it has been the Eda that has waged a struggle, which has sometimes boiled over into violence, against moving bones in graves at building sites in Jaffa and at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. The campaign and the method by which it has been conducted have engendered another struggle, which is threatening to split the Badatz rabbinical court - the supreme legal institution of the Eda Haredit groups. At the nub of the tension is also the determination of the type of action to be taken in such key struggles as the fight against the desecration of graves and the Sabbath, or establishing the character of the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron.

Burning garbage receptacles and strewing their contents on the ground are routine actions in ultra-Orthodox rioting, and as punishment, the Jerusalem Municipality has more than once withheld garbage collection in times of crisis. In one of the recent incidents of this sort, when the contents of a dumpster were thrown into a side street, local residents came out against the rampaging young men and drove them away. This was the first indication in the Eda that there are people who are fed up with the damage to their quality of life in the name of the extremists' struggle.

This revulsion has a clear address: the "Sikarikim" - the nickname for a small but dominant group in the Eda that is leading the protest activity. (The name has its source in the Sicarii, an extreme group of zealots in Jerusalem and at Masada during the first Jewish-Roman war, in the first century C.E. ) Members of the group also recently attacked National Union MK Yaakov Katz at a Mea She'arim synagogue and threw stones at Interior Minister and Shas leader Eli Yishai when he came to visit a prominent rabbi in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim, a former editor of the Eda Haredit's newspaper Ha'eda, and until recently a "producer" of large demonstrations, explains that the ultra-Orthodox are fed up with the Sikarikim's futile struggles and the bad name they are giving to the entire Eda.

Ties behind the scenes

Traditionally, relations between the Eda Haredit and government authorities, the police and the welfare institutions have been based on contacts behind the scenes. There have always been rabbis from the Eda who cooperated quietly with social workers or the police commissioner, for example. But the Sikarikim do not recognize any dialogue.

They number no more than a few dozen people from a number of different Hasidic courts and factions - between 40 and 100 individuals, depending on whom you ask. Their considerable power comes to them, apparently, from the very fact they are violent, centrally controlled, and send the young men out to demonstrate.

"They are alienated from any rabbinical discipline," says R., an activist from the more moderate streams in the Eda. He asked to remain anonymous, explaining that he does not want to speak out openly against the Sikarikim.

The person considered to be the strongman of the Sikarikim is Amram Teitelbaum, who is in his 30s. He is also the right-hand man of Rabbi Tuvia Weiss, who in the Eda is known as the gabad (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning literally "genius rabbinical court head" ). One person from the extremist circles describes Teitelbaum as charismatic but also "very dogmatic." Teitelbaum and other activists in the group refused to be interviewed for this report.

The rise in the power of the Sikarikim is to a large extent attributed to the success of their politicos - headed by Teitelbaum - in winning the gabad's trust. Teitelbaum obtained this thanks to his association with politico David Shmidel, the chairman of the Atra Kadisha association, who until recently orchestrated the protest against the relocating of graves and is considered close to the gabad.

The relationship between Teitelbaum and Shmidel - who is old enough to be Teitelbaum's father - began about a year ago, during the affair of the "mother who starved her child" - the woman from the Eda Haredit whom Hadassah University Hospital accused of withholding food from her son and having him hospitalized on various pretexts. The gabad authorized Shmidel to deal with the affair and the Sikarikim, together with members of the woman's Hasidic sect, Toldot Aharon, held demonstrations together and waged a campaign against the hospital.

In Toldot Aharon, they claim that the Sikarikim garnered political capital at the mother's expense, and suggest that if there had been contacts behind the scenes with the state prosecutor and the hospital, the affair would have ended sooner and the mother would not have been sentenced to the harsh punishment of house arrest for three years and sequestration from her son.

'Wars of the Jews'

The Sikarikim are also represented on the committees concerned with administration of the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai in the Galilee, where for several years, intra-ultra-Orthodox "wars of the Jews" have been raging over the character and management of the site. According to R., the moderate Eda Haredit activist, the Sikarikim want to take over the power that is today in the hands of the Badatz - the 23 members of which represent the various factions in the Eda - by means of becoming the exclusive mediators between "the street" and the gabad.

A few weeks ago, on pashkevilim (wall posters ) in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, in ultra-Orthodox Internet forums and in statements by spokesmen of several Eda Haredit factions, claims began appearing that Teitelbaum has been photographed surfing pornographic sites.

Y., a Hasid observing the struggle against the Sikarikim from the sidelines, says: "The fact that he [Teitelbaum] might look at pornographic sites is not the problem. A person who has urges - he should go to a prostitute. If he is looking at films, he should live and be well. But if he is a power broker who presumes to preach to us, to that I won't agree."

Teitelbaum turned down an offer from Haaretz to give his version of events, or to respond to the accusations against him. However, the so-called Committee for the Energetic askan (a Hebrew term meaning politico or wheeler-dealer ): "Who allowed those interested parties to penetrate the privacy of the individual with the aim of smearing him and exposing the sites of abomination on the Internet, where he surfs? What rabbi permitted them, while they were maintaining surveillance of him, to look at those forbidden sites that were watched for many hours by the politico?" the pashkevil demanded.

Further on, it stated: "Your imbecilic attempts will not deter the energetic askan from his activity ... Even when you place obstacles in his path, and just as he has no fear of rabbis, sages and persons of high degree ... He will persevere in his struggle to purify religion from obstacles."

"He [Teitelbaum] is crossing red lines," says R., the activist from the moderate stream. "He is destroying the Jewish people with baseless hatred. There has never been hatred like there is among them. This is a negative force. We are also now afraid the youth will be corrupted by the Sikarikim's activities. The moment they take boys of 13 and 14 to throw stones and call a policeman 'Nazi' - this corrupts them. To come and recite Psalms - that doesn't corrupt, but they are blocking roads and making people's lives hell."

As the unease with Sikarikim increases, so does criticism of the gabad, who was brought from Belgium to uplift the Eda and to introduce another style of leadership. Now, however, many see him as a disappointment. "It turns out his moderation is flaccidity," says R.

When the gabad fell ill and went to Switzerland for prolonged treatment, the extremists only flourished. Today, even after the campaign against Teitelbaum, the head of the Eda continues to back him.

"The power of the wall poster has decreased," explains R. "It is no longer able to raise someone up or bring him down."

On one Shabbat during Elul, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, head of the small Dushinsky Hasidic sect, paid a visit to the head of Toldot Aharon to receive some encouragement after he had been slandered by the Sikarikim with accusations of child abuse. Among the moderates of the Eda, some point to the young and energetic Dushinsky as a candidate to be the next gabad.

Before the Sukkot holiday, the Sikarikim nearly caused the cancellation of the recent Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations among the large Hasidic communities - the only opportunity during the year for Jerusalem Hasidim to play and enjoy instrumental music. The event, which is celebrated every year at the Toldot Aharon synagogue, attracts thousands - ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox and tourists - and spills over into the street so there will be space for all the visitors. A year ago the Sikarikim charged that Toldot Aharon "brought licentiousness to Mea She'arim." That very day Toldot Aharon erected a separation barrier on the street forcing men and women to walk separately.

This year the Sikarikim threatened not to allow women and "marginal" youth to attend the celebrations at all (the High Court of Justice prohibited the separation and the police removed the barrier ). However, among the Hasidim, they yielded, preferring to cancel the street events.

"There are things against which it is still illegitimate to fight, but people have begun to lift their heads up, without a doubt," says an observer close to the moderate factions. "Another wretched Shoeva celebration like this, and we will have lost."