If This Is Love, Then What Is Hate?

Because of his job as a debt collector and a quarrel with his neighbors, Shalom Segal has been threatened and severely beaten. He says the harassment was approved by Bnei Brak?s Vishnitz Hasidim.

At 9 P.M. last Saturday evening, two masked men waited for Shalom Segal, a member of the Hasid community, beneath his home in Bnei Brak. They started beating him, all the while calling him a moyser - an informer. Before they left, the attackers sprayed Segal's face with a gas that burned his eyes and skin. The victim, who lay on the sidewalk writhing in pain, cried out for help. However, none of his neighbors or other passersby responded to his pleas.

The incident occurred on Ahavat Shalom - Love of Peace - Street in Bnei Brak's Vishnitz neighborhood. If this is love, then what is hate? Segal's wife, who heard her husband's cries, went down to the neighbors and asked for help. She had been expecting the worst: Ever since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which is celebrated in early autumn, Segal had received several explicit death threats by phone. And he was certain that one day those behind them would come to realize their threats.

"Call an ambulance," the neighbor told Segal's wife equably. When she went outside and saw her husband, she fainted.

The couple spent the night at the hospital. They have been too scared to return home since the attack and have gone into hiding, at the home of relatives. This latest incident is only one in a series of harassments and attacks on Segal in recent weeks. As such, a week before the beating, the vehicle of attorney Elkana Bishitz, who represents Segal, was set alight under Segal's building. Two weeks before the arson, Segal's home was broken into. And all the while the threats continued. Some calls even came through the lawyer's office. Bishitz says someone who identified himself as Ron Marciano, speaking in a heavy Yiddish accent, had threatened his client. To date Segal has filed eight complaints with the police, but so far the perpetrators have not been found.

Segal is tall and thin; his bird-like appearance recalls a figure in a painting by Yosl Bergner. He could be called naive. One doesn't have to search hard to discover who hates Segal. As someone whose job it is to find people who write bad checks and to collect debts, Segal is by definition hated by those who owe debts in Bnei Brak. In addition, he is embroiled in a prolonged quarrel with the neighbors in his building, which has recently culminated in a compromise. He maintains that those neighbors want to wreak vengeance on him. "There are lots of people who would like me to disappear from their lives and move somewhere else," he says.

Segal is a kind of entrepreneur when it comes to debt-collection. A few years ago he started buying bounced checks from private individuals with small businesses. As the owner of the checks, he opened files at the Bailiff's Office or tried to close existing cases. Segal also located debtors for two companies and worked together with the Bailiff's Office.

Over the years he acquired more and more skill in the field and also acted on behalf of several rabbinical courts on financial matters in Bnei Brak - receiving authorizations in rabbinical law for his activity. He also opened a Bailiff's Office charitable fund, and people began applying to him for help.

"At first he thought he could earn a living from this," says Bishitz, "but he never saw a single shekel because these procedures take years." The problem is that in a town where paying debts is no priority, his debt-collection business did not flourish. And he added insult to injury when he applied to the courts concerning the quarrel in his building.

Denounced as an informer

According to Segal, a few months ago, the neighbors with whom he was embroiled, Vishnitz Hasidim, went to complain to the neighborhood rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, the eldest son of the elderly Admor of Vishnitz. Segal says that one of the neighbors is the rabbi's hevruta (Torah study partner). About a week before Rosh Hashanah, Segal says, Rabbi Hager summoned him and demanded that he close his cases against debtors. "I told him that this was my living and I had received rabbinical authorizations. But that didn't help."

During the days of slichot - special prayers recited during the High Holiday period, five days before Rosh Hashanah, specifically, on September 25, Rabbi Hager declared in the Vishnitz Synagogue that there is "an evil man who is torturing people" in the neighborhood. That was part of the Shuva Yisrael (Return, O Israel) sermon, the most important sermon before the High Holidays. According to Segal, even though the rabbi did not mention his name, the gabbai (synagogue manager) took care to clarify to whom he was referring, and worshippers were given copies of pages of a book written by Rabbi Hager's grandfather, discussing din moyser, the sentence for an informer: death. Segal says this sermon is the basis for him being persecuted. Indeed, a Web site affiliated with Vishnitz calls Segal a moyser, socially denouncing him.

After the sermon, Segal sent a letter to Rabbi Hager in which he asked to defend himself before a neutral rabbinical court. But to no avail. Then the spate of telephone threats began - Segal was told that if he did not close the cases, he would suffer the sentence for informers. Several weeks later, on November 7, his home was broken into on the Sabbath and all the Bailiff's Office files that were in the apartment were stolen.

Some 10 days ago, Segal's wife went to the rabbi's wife. According to Segal, the rabbi's wife told her to threaten her husband with divorce, to convince him to close the cases. Several days later, Segal was beaten.

Segal has a problematic relationship with Vishnitz Hasidut. He has lived in the neighborhood all his life and was educated in Vishnitz institutions. However, after his divorce 13 years ago, he abandoned the Hasidut and became a member of a smaller Hasidut, Nadvorna. Segal has two children from his first marriage. His son studies at the Vishnitz Yeshiva and suffers from his father's ostracism. His two children from his second marriage are still little.

Segal says that Vishnitz followers have put out a contract on him and he feels like his life is in danger. According to him, the rabbis of the rabbinical courts for which he has worked are not prepared to intervene in his conflict with Vishnitz. He also claims that he is not getting any help from the police, because the long arm of the Hasidut has led the cases to be closed. Apparently his claim that the police are impotent is correct. Segal has explicitly named the culprits, but the police have not arrested them.

Bnei Brak - a wild place

Police consider Bnei Brak's Vishnitz neighborhood a wild place. In recent years, street battles have been raging between two rival factions of the Hasidut, the Srulists who follow the elder son, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, and the Mendelists, the followers of the younger son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager. Maybe that is why the authorities are not paying too much attention to threats made against an individual, Shalom Segal.

"It's obvious that he has succeeded in annoying people," says Bishitz. "The police aren't doing anything. They are dealing with the matter like an internal quarrel among the ultra-Orthodox."

Segal has filed an administrative petition for the clarification of his claim that the police are investigating his complaints. The reply will be submitted today.

The response from the Tel Aviv Police: "Concerning the complaints submitted by Shalom Segal, a number of suspects were arrested and one of them was arraigned. At this stage we have no suspects. The investigation is ongoing."

From Menachem Eisenberg, the head of the Vishnitz institutions: "This is a personal story of someone who is not connected to the Vishnitz Hasidut. He does not know who is harassing him. Vishnitz has never been involved in violence in these matters.

"With respect to the sermon: Every week the rabbi talks about all kinds of things. That week he spoke about din moyser. The rabbi did not mention his name at all. According to what I have heard, he has a conflict with secular people."