Thoughts on Beit Shemesh

I recently got a subscription to the easy Hebrew newspaper, Shaar L’matchil.  It was supposed to arrive on Tuesday for the first time, but after repeated calls to the office, it arrived this morning instead.  I was so glad to see it, until I opened it up and saw the first line of the front page article – “Recent events in Beit Shemesh have worsened the struggle between the secular and national religious parties – and the charedi public.”

This is so upsetting to me  because it’s misleading and untrue.  The issues in Beit Shemesh weren’t about anyone being against the charedim (religiously conservative Jews), but against the sickos who are perpetuating evil and saying they’re doing it because the Torah mandates it.  Until this point, those involved in Beit Shemesh have been careful to say ‘the extremists’, specifically not ‘the charedim’ because all of those who live there realize this is an issue with an extreme group of people who have no conscience who don’t represent the general charedi public.  But the secular media is having a heyday painting all religious Jews (ironically, even those who  were in the group that was attacked by the extremists) as intolerant, dangerous religious fanatics who are planning to take over the country and force their sick moral codes on everyone else.

It’s 9 am and I’ve been awake for hours.  I woke up in the middle of the night, trying to think about how to explain this situation here on my blog to a readership that is coming from vastly different backgrounds.  It’s actually more of a topic for a thesis rather than a post, but I’ll try to be brief and include the most salient points (as I see it).

The state of Israel has been characterized by extreme struggles between the secular and religious from before it’s founding.  This country was founded by those who were anti-religious to the extreme, and terrible things were done by these leaders (Operation Magic Carpet is one particularly horrendous widespread case that comes to mind) to eradicate religiousity.  Understandably, an antipathy developed on both sides and an extreme religious divide developed.

Many of us have moved to Israel who don’t have that common history, and haven’t grown up with this as our reality, so it’s hard for us to understand how deep this runs.  Those who have been living here for generations grew up with a much different reality, and it’s reflected in the way they interact with those they perceive to be on the other side.  Meah Shearim is the oldest neighborhood in Jerusalem (outside of the Old City)  that was established by very religious Jews.  It was filled with pious Jews of similar values, and has remained this way until now.

However, what was a physically isolated neighborhood when it began became part of the city center as the city grew.  It is seen as a quaint and historic area, and is a popular tourist destination.  However, the people living there never asked to be put on display and have people from very different walks of life come through their neighborhood.  Many years ago, they put up a large sign upon entry to their neighborhood, requesting that visitors show respect to those living there by dressing modestly when visiting – not according to their stringent standards, but for women to cover their necklines, knees, and elbows.    Some people respect this, many others take pictures with this sign, and others provocatively enter this area dressed very inappropriately, with the intent to show that they won’t endure religious coercion.

So what happens in an area where respectfully trying to ask others to respect you isn’t respected?  Some people became more aggressive over time about this, too aggressive, way too aggressive.  And since these people were seen as fighting for Torah values (and things started much smaller), they weren’t stopped early on, when it might have been nipped in the bud.  So the message that aggression works was adopted by some as a way to fight for their values.  It was from this neighborhood that a number of families moved to Beit Shemesh years ago, thinking to recreate the lifestyle they had enjoyed there.  There was just one problem – they were moving into a community that had been there for many years.

Now, if they were able to adapt a ‘live and let live’ attitude, there wouldn’t be any news today.  And actually, many of the people do have that attitude. But unfortunately a number of people weren’t content to enjoy their new more spacious surroundings.  As their neighborhood grew, it got closer and closer to the existing religious but more modern communities who had been there for many years.  And this is where the tensions began, as they tried to insist on their religious mores for everyone around them.

This went way beyond sharing Torah thoughts with their new neighbors (which is what the rabbi who sent them there to live said he expected them to do) – they began using fear and intimidation to get what they wanted.  When a religious woman in her fifties was sitting in the front of a public bus (this was about five years ago), she was beaten by a group of these hoodlums when she refused to move to the back.  Back then, I was so distressed and asked, “How are people allowing this?  Why aren’t people stopping them?”

I think there are two reasons: a) people who saw the danger for what it was, and were afraid.  Seriously, would you keep sitting in the front of a bus if you risked being beaten up?  (I did sit in the front of the bus when I visited Ramat Beit Shemesh a few months ago, and was a little apprehensive about it for this reason.)  b) Most charedi Jews who saw this viewed them as a group of radicals who weren’t connected to them, and saw it as incumbent on the group’s leadership to moderate it’s followers.  It was so clear to them that these actions were against the Torah, and that they couldn’t possibly advocate or approve of this, that it seemed unnecessary to state it.  And c) some people didn’t approve of the means, but did agree with the end goals, and were willing to turn a blind eye to methods used to  get to those goals.

Now, you might be saying, but where are the rabbis?  Why don’t they stop them?  I’ve had the same questions.  I think these people shouldn’t be given an aliyah in shul (called up to make a blessing on the Torah in synagogue), and whatever social pressures that are brought to bear on someone who hasn’t given his wife a get (religious divorce) should be put on them.  This has to come from their community to be effective, though.  And they don’t have any rabbi that they follow, nor anyone whose directives they would listen to.  They make their own rules, they don’t care about anyone – they could care less that they are causing a huge desecration of G-d’s name internationally.  They could care less about the hatred that is being caused between Jews because of them.  They truly don’t care.  They are sick, abusive people, and unfortunately for us all, they are claiming to act in the name of the Torah to perpetuate their evil.

In my opinion, when you deal with abusive people, you have to fight might with might.  I know that doesn’t sound so nice, but I don’t think anything else works with people like this.  You have to show you’re stronger than they are.  Now that the media is involved, the police have finally taken action, like they should have been doing for months.  I saw a video months ago, where parents were asking the police to protect their daughters as the men were screaming at the young children exiting their school, and were told until there was a physical attack, they couldn’t do anything.  I also believe the mayor of this city is at fault, for empowering these evil people by letting them get away with this for so long.  He could have instructed the police to take action months – years – ago.  He didn’t.

But honestly, there are always going to be sick people in the world, and it’s not fair to place all of the blame for their behavior on the people around them.  So I  don’t think this can all be laid at the feet of others, but directly on those who do the actions themselves.

It looks like now, some people have been embarrassed into taking action.  That’s a good thing.  But what’s not a good thing is dragging an entire religious group through the mud, a population that has an extremely low criminal rate, that has an unusually high rate of family stability – for the sake of political gain (locally and internationally), and that’s what’s now happening.

Avivah

21 thoughts on “Thoughts on Beit Shemesh

  1. this is the first article i’ve read that explains what’s actually happening! there’s crazy stuff about beis shemesh all over facebook, but i didn’t get it until i read what you wrote. thanks!

  2. That makes sense. And suffice it to say I didn’t get any of that from the news articles in the US. I think once the NYT got a picture of an American emigrant girl any hope for nuanced coverage was over and done.

    1. estee, Anne, and r – I’m glad it was helpful!

      Unfortunately there was more craziness last night and it’s already hit Drudge so you’ll be seeing all of that soon. Sick, sick people who are anti-Israel and have marched with Palestinians against their fellow Jews; no surprise that this horrible stuff is coming from them. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Better to sigh than to cry. :(

    1. I don’t disagree, but please don’t use the term ‘charedim’ – these ‘people’ would be more appropriate. When people describe them in this way, they are grouping them with the 99.9 percent of charedim, who are just as disgusted with their tactics as you are. They are a group that no one agrees with or wants to affiliate with.

  3. avivah- do you have a sense of why/how a video came to be made? the rabbi here spoke about it in shul this shabbos (i wasn’t there, so i can’t say exactly what his take was…) but my first thoughts were: why would the former meah shaarim types have video cameras? or why would someone else be videoing little girls walking to school? was it just a coincidence? i haven’t seen the video either, but do you have any sense of how this was all orchestrated???

    thanks for the inside scoop! -and, and strangely enough one of my blog readers suggested your blog to me, thinking that i might like it based on some things that i had written. guess what? she was right!! LOL- small world…

    1. Julie, I know there were videos made by the religious Jews whose daughters are being spit and screamed at when they go to school (assuming we’re talking about the same video). I don’t know what aired in the US, but here in Israel on Channel 2, a reporter went in and interviewed and videoed there – I assume this is what was aired in the US with subtitles; it was pretty compelling. The people who are doing this don’t care who sees them, it’s not a secret that they act like this, and many people have cell phones with video capacity (in the video on Channel 2, one of these people was videoing or taking pictures of the the non-religious interviewer).

      They are known as the ‘sikrikim’ (Sicarii, I think?), which is what those who used violence to get their way in Talmudic times were called.

      Funny about one of your blog readers; I wonder what specifically you had written that made her think that? You’re right, it is a small world!

  4. Avivah, thanks for the analysis. My family was discussing this, and it is difficult to explain recent events in a vacuum, as there is so much nuance and historical precedence behind the current situation. BTW, one can get Shaar L’matchil in the States. I have read it for years. I find it to be a very good paper for what it is….which is a newspaper in easy Hebrew, designed for the recent immigrant. Do not expect nuanced reporting or editorial pages. The paper has a little of something for everybody but in general is a reflection of the Israeli press. I do enjoy the recipes, the parsha column, this date in Israeli history column and the advice column, which gives a cultural slant on the Israeli family dynamics. I do not especially care for the People magazine-like human interest page, but the paper must appeal to a wide audience of olim from many different countries and backgrounds.

    1. I remember you using it in the US with your oldest son when he was in high school, and mentioned it to my kids yesterday!

      It’s fine for practicing Hebrew reading and improving your vocabulary and sense of grammatical structure, but I felt it had an anti-religious slant. A couple of strategically inserted comments that weren’t appropriate or accurate led me to that conclusion. It’s in line with the fanning of the flames against the religious right now, though.

  5. Yes, it’s awful and upsetting business all of this. i just wanted to point out that as horrible as all of this is, the reports and the coverage it received were grossly exaggerated. It’s very unfortunate that when things like this happen there are those that exploit it for political or other nefarious reasons. I think that this whole episode is very much a law enforcement issue. These thugs should have been dealt with appropriately long time ago. however in Israel the police is not subordinate to the municipality but governed by police central command in Jerusalem. So a mayor of a city cannot really tell them what to do, he can request but in the end of the day the people in charge of law enforcement are the law enforcement authorities. Another point I wanted to make that for every Mehadrin “segregated” bus there are at least three non-mehadrin buses where everyone can seat wherever they want and it’s not an issue. Mehadrin buses serve primarily the neighbourhoods where these chumras (stringencies) are the norm, in other places where this is not the case, other transportation options are available, so there is no reason for anyone to be intimidated or afraid. The media tends to hype this kind of things up as well as to lump all the various parts of Beit Shemesh and its suburbs all together while these issues have cropped up only in one particular place. In general, Beit Shemesh has a good record of peaceful coexistence between various populations that live here and the people here including the mayor would like to keep it that way. May Hashem bless us with genuine peace and love and there should be no more strife and wild incitement.

    1. (Would you please choose a name to comment under? I don’t allow anonymous comments. Let me know what you want it to be and I can edit this comment for you. I can’t put in initials because there is another poster with those initials who already comments.)

      I addressed this point in my post, when I mentioned the incident five years ago with the woman on the bus – it was a non-mehadrin bus.

      1. I have to say- that lady in that incident, Miriam Shear, actually has been proven to be a mentally unstable wacko abusive woman who ran the seminary Shir Bamidbar and abused the girls there, etc… (You can find more details on that on imamother.) So I’d take the story about her on the bus with a huuuuge grain of salt. I don’t really believed it happened as stated, if at all.

  6. Very interesting, Ronit. Let’s assume it was totally falsified – do you believe that this scenario was unlikely and didn’t happen to anyone else?

  7. hi avivah- i had written 3 posts in a row about taking more responsibility for ourselves medically, educationally, and in food choices. i’m quite sure they were inspired at least in part by you!! (but any istakes i made are totally my own…)

    and i’m not sure how you feel about people commenting to other people on your blog, but i just wanted to say to ronit that i know miriam shear, and while i can’t say for sure that she didn’t change a lot after she moved to israel, i will say that she was not “mentally unstable” or a “wacko” when she lived in my town, and i think people who celebrate a woman sitting on a bus being beaten up by a crowd are themselves a little sick. i do believe what happened to her- because i was at the home of some people who knew her who thought she “had it coming” for being the type of person to make waves… they weren’t exactly her friends who were taking her side…i don’t know anything about her seminary or any allegations, but let’s not assume that what one person hears is torah m’sinai but what someone else knows should be taken with any grains of salt…

    1. I know quite a few women who have been harassed, physically abused, and stalked by Miriam Shear, among other things, so much that she had a restraining order put on her. Yea, so maybe she used to be normal and became a crackpot here, but at the moment, she’s not all there.

      1. Ronit, please, let’s get away from the micro focus on one person and look at the overall picture. That’s the point and that’s what matters. Maybe this person isn’t reputable and faked the entire story. Fine, if it’s never happened to anyone else, then end of story. But it’s not the end of the story.

        The point is, whether it happened to her or not, we definitely know extremists are using violence to get compliance to their way of doing things, and putting aside this example, I personally know of examples going back almost twenty years in a different city. Same struggle for the same reasons, just different players but coming from the same worldview.

        And don’t pretend you don’t know this is happening. And don’t try to justify it as someone deserving it for some reason. Just don’t.

    2. I absolutely am not accepting negative assertions about this woman’s character – they may be true, they may not, but to me, the question isn’t what she is or isn’t like personally. The question is if something like this did or could have happened, and how is that justifiable?

      It is known that people have been physically attacked in RBS by the extremists. Ronit, you don’t have to ‘imagine’ physical abuse. It’s happening there. Teens of both genders have been attacked in recent months and some even hospitalized. Adults have been attacked as well. Only the girls school is in the news but we had a guest last week who lives a block away from all of this, and her brother is in the boys school. The boys are also being yelled at and have things thrown at them – I think she mentioned stink bombs are being thrown into the school yard. Her father and a friend of his were jumped by a small group of these thugs (though when they saw he was able to defend himself they got scared and ran away).

      It’s a great thing to give others the benefit of the doubt, and in this post I’ve tried to be rational about where all of this is coming from. But from a moral perspective, a person must oppose evil and recognize it for what it is, not to minimize or even worse, to justify it. The evil these people are perpetuating in the name of the Torah must be opposed without equivocating.

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