Anglos Put Up a Fight Against ultra-Orthodox Encroachment on Israeli City

Beit Shemesh residents say extreme elements within city's ultra-Orthodox community are threatening the town's mixed religious-secular character.

English-speaking residents of Beit Shemesh - responding to what they say are new provocations from fringe elements within the ultra-Orthodox community and sweeping proposals by the city's Haredi leadership that could transform the region's demographic makeup for years to come - are getting organized.

"We're turning up the pressure," said says Dov Lipman, a 40-year-old rabbi, author and teacher from Baltimore, MD, who has formed the "Emergency Committee to Save Beit Shemesh." "The future of our city is at stake."

Beit Shemesh rally - Ruby Aharon - December 2011
Ruby Aharon

Though the city's 2,500-family native English-speaking community continues to thrive, with its high quality of life and robust communal, educational and religious institutions, a growing number of residents are mounting a defiant stand in the face of what they consider the steady encroachment of radical Haredi elements upon parts of the city.

"We're going to put up a fight," says Rachelle Goodman, a resident and committee member, who described how Haredim pelted her husband and small children with eggs and gravel as they walked along the thoroughfare linking the communities of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph and Bet on a Friday night. "We are not going anywhere."

"I regret to say it, but it's all about power and control," says the bearded, bespectacled Lipman, who considers himself Haredi, but with a "modern-Zionist" orientation. "This is the work of the Haredi political leadership, along with some of their rabbis, who want to establish Beit Shemesh - which has been a traditionally balanced city - as Haredi and impose their will."

Many English-speaking residents interviewed by Haaretz over the last two weeks expressed anger and frustration over what they called a seven-year Haredi "reign of intimidation" of local shopkeepers, pedestrians and riders of mass transit, with their demands for modest dress and separation of the sexes.

The spate of incidents and skirmishes reached a new low last September, when a group of radical Haredim held regular protests outside a newly-opened structure housing the religious-Zionist "Orot Banot" elementary school for girls. Citing what they called the girls' "immodest dress" and criticizing the city for relocating the school in close proximity to their community, the Haredim hurled insults, eggs and feces at young girls, calling them "shikses" (non-Jews ) and "whores."

Alisa Coleman, a British immigrant and mother of four whose children are not enrolled at Orot, was so outraged by the protests that she arrived at the school to help escort the children safely onto their buses. The fitness instructor-turned human buffer was spat at and cursed by the protesters. "We cannot allow this to continue," she says, adamantly.

For Lipman and other outraged residents across the ideological and religious spectrum, the Orot incident was the final straw. More than 1,500 English speakers, native Israeli members of the modern-Orthodox community and moderate Haredim took to the streets in a counter-demonstration that garnered national media coverage. Many have since joined Lipman's grass-roots coalition, Or Hadash (One Light ), while some observers are calling the united response a watershed moment for a community that in recent years failed to coalesce into a potent political force and stave off the 2008 election of Mayor Moshe Abutbul, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

The coalition is already gearing up for what Lipman considers the mother of all battles: What he contends are plans by Abutbul and his administration to double the city's size and construct 20,000 housing units for the Haredim.

"Remember, you heard it here," municipal spokesman Matityahu Rozenzweig declared, somewhat brazenly, in a video of a press conference with the mayor in 2009 that has since gone viral. "Beit Shemesh is going to eclipse [the Haredi city of] Bnei Brak in size."

That pronouncement, echoed by a series of similar statements by Haredi councilman Moshe Montag, who holds the construction portfolio, has sent tremors throughout the non-Haredi community. According to Lipman and members of the city's Likud party-affiliated Tagar youth group, it has made a mockery of Abutbul's signed campaign pledge to create equal housing opportunities for all the city's residents. Lipman says some disenchanted secular Shas party voters who supported Abutbul's candidacy have already joined the Or Hadash coalition - which he stresses is not a political party - as have some immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

Lipman's coalition has raised tens of thousands of dollars to mount a sustained legal and media offensive. With the support of groups like the Forum of Shemesh Yehuda, an environmental group, and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, the coalition collected 7,400 signatures last spring to protest municipal plans and the government's approval to build 1,800 housing units for Haredim in "Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 2," a project they claim was originally designated as a "mixed" neighborhood. Two weeks ago, the coalition organized a protest outside the home of Interior Minister Eli Yishai. The demonstration attracted wide media attention, and within days the group's request for an appeal was granted.

That decision has emboldened coalition members, but is not creating any illusions. Lipman insisted he will take the government to court should his group's appeal be rejected. In the interim, the coalition is lobbying the ministers who have representatives on the governmental National Planning and Building Committee, which will decide the matter.

In another development, the Tagar group this week escorted members of the Knesset's powerful Economic Affairs Committee - which oversees housing - on a tour of the city. Lipman and Zvi Wolicki, another Anglo community leader, were invited to accompany the tour and deliver presentations to Knesset members.

"We have learned not to be weak and merely protest, but to use the power of the courts, to lobby the Knesset and utilize the press," said Lipman. "People are donating money because they realize their homes are at stake. Now they also realize that we can win."

With municipal elections less than two years away, this lesson is not lost on Lipman and his coalition. A former adviser to Shalom Lerner, the city's National Religious Party-affiliated deputy mayor in the previous administration, Lipman would not discuss his future plans. He says his priority is to maintain a united opposition, not forgetting for a moment that the current mayor swept into office at the expense of two opposition candidates who split the secular and traditional vote.

For his part, Mayor Abutbul has unveiled a series of projects aimed at the non-Haredi population. "We are building housing in Beit Shemesh for all residents - religious and secular," he recently declared at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new shopping center, one of several planned for the city.

Rozenzweig, the city spokesman, noted city plans to construct several major projects for the non-Haredi population, including Sha'ar Ha'ir, a shopping mall and 300-unit apartment project for secular Israelis at the entrance to the city; Mishkafayim, a 1,000-unit project for members of the English-speaking and modern-Orthodox community; and a major pinui-binui ("clear and build" ) development project geared toward secular Israelis living in the old part of Beit Shemesh, whereby residential homes will be demolished and replaced with 1,300 apartments in high-rise buildings.

"There are two issues here that should not be confused," Rozenzweig told Haaretz this week. "The first - the issue of the continued violence by Haredi extremists - is a very serious one, and the mayor has filed a complaint with law enforcement in this regard."

Rozenzweig, who himself is Haredi, noted that he, too, has not been spared the wrath of the radical Haredim - his vehicles' tires were slashed - but branded their actions as "isolated." He described relations in the city between the various segments as "generally harmonious," and cited what he said were successful city initiatives aimed at integrating Haredim into the general work force.

"The second," continued Rozenzweig, "is the issue of housing. We are giving no preference whatsoever to the Haredim in terms of housing, nor are we allowed to by law."

The spokesman, who said his comments about Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak in the 2009 video were "taken out of context," attributed the motives of those he sees as impugning the mayor and misrepresenting his housing policies as "political." He noted Lipman's prior affiliation with former Deputy Mayor Lerner, who had challenged Abutbul for the mayoralty.

Lipman insists the mayor is determined to move ahead with plans for 20,000 housing units for Haredim. Not only does he believe the mayor's latest initiatives for non-Haredim pale in comparison, but he is convinced Haredi housing numbers will go even higher in the future.

For some in the English-speaking community and beyond who view the issues of violence and housing in stark terms, the battle lines are being drawn. "We have nothing against housing for Haredim," Lipman reiterated. "What we are against are housing plans for one sector at the expense of other segments of the community. We are here to stay."