Beit Shemesh — The haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh “Bet” has clean, wide streets and neat white residential buildings that house large families devoted to Torah study. Wherever you go, it seems, mothers in long-sleeved, below-the-knee dresses and dark headscarves push single or double strollers, their children well fed and smiling.
Despite the outward appearances of calm, Bet, the most religious section of Beit Shemesh, a thriving municipality between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has been dealing with a war that shows no signs of abating.
For at least the past three years — some say longer — a small group of local haredi families have been trying to impose stricter standards of religious observance on their Beit Shemesh neighbors, including ones in their own community.
The men spit at women not dressed to their standards or who simply walk on their side of the street. They throw rocks and eggs at Egged buses because the public bus company has not established a mehadrin line that would separate male and female passengers. This despite the fact that the neighborhood already has a private mehadrin bus line that requires women to sit in the back of the vehicle.
Their signs, as well as graffiti — repeatedly whitewashed by frustrated municipal workers — warn people all over this city of 85,000 to dress modestly, as if they were living in Geula or Meah Shearim, two of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhoods.
Three weeks ago, five haredi men from the neighborhood physically and verbally attacked a woman because she refused to move to the back of an Egged bus, and when the police arrived on the scene, the attackers slashed the police cars’ tires, enabling the men to flee.
Fed up with the harassment, 1,500 non-haredi residents of Beit Shemesh staged a demonstration last week to protest against the violent acts. For the first time, the violence gained national attention.
Residents and officials say the demonstration marked a turning point for the suburbanites, who until now have dealt with the problem by quietly lodging individual complaints to the police.
“It wasn’t until 1,500 people stood on a street corner that the police and the municipality began to take us seriously,” said Sharon Raanan, who recently created the “Action Committee Against Violence in Beit Shemesh,” what she called an “activist organization to fight haredi violence.”
Raanan decided to form the committee after “several awful incidents” during the summer.
“Regular, innocent people were driving through Bet — not on Shabbat — and they were stoned,” Raanan said. “Mobs of people threw things at them. Signs went up both in Bet and in the neighborhoods adjacent saying ‘Anyone who walks here must be wearing modest attire.’”
Raanan, who lives in a Modern Orthodox, pro-Zionist neighborhood, said she was verbally abused by a man in a fervently religious black coat and black hat.
“I was going for a walk at 6 a.m., in sweatpants and with my hair uncovered, and the man hissed at me and threatened me.”
The activist stressed that “the vast majority of haredim in Beit Shemesh are peaceful and law abiding. What we’re dealing with is a group of hooligans who used to live in Geula and who, we’ve heard, were kicked out because they were thugs. Now we have to deal with them. They’re not successful kollel students, they don’t have a lot of money and some are mentally unbalanced. They spend a lot of time targeting women.”
“Shlomo,” a 30-year-old haredi real estate agent who asked that his real name not be published for reasons of religious modesty, said he recently moved away from Bet largely due to the violence.
“They slashed all my tires,” he said.
He estimated that some 50 other families had also left the neighborhood, many for the same reason.
Wearing a tallit under his black vest, Shlomo, whose chasidic garb included black knickers and knee socks, called the troublemakers “extremists who use religion as an excuse to terrorize people. They insisted that people dress exactly the way they want them to dress, despite the fact that different people follow different traditions. Surely, surely, no one should ever be coerced through violence.”
Shlomo recalled how a secular mother and daughter were attacked during the summer, after their car broke down in the middle of Bet.
“A couple of the extremists threw rocks and eggs at them. Other residents helped them and gave them shelter.”
City officials admit they initially tried to minimize talk about the violence, a fact that undoubtedly emboldened the extremists.
“In the beginning we didn’t want to admit there was a problem,” acknowledged Shalom Lerner, one of the city’s two deputy mayors, during an interview at City Hall. “We didn’t want the city to get a bad name, so we didn’t publicize it too much. We didn’t want people to be frightened of moving here, or of staying. It’s a beautiful place and we thought, ‘Why put the emphasis on this since it’s not a main part of our lives?’”
The municipality and local people decided to go public after the attack on the Egged bus passenger.
“It was the proverbial straw,” Lerner, who wears the knitted kipa of a Modern Orthodox Jew, said of the incident. Lerner said the demonstration was organized “to send a message.”
“First, to the people doing this to tell them we won’t tolerate this behavior. Second, to other haredim to let them know that these acts bother us more than we have let on in the past and that they can’t just sit on the sidelines, because it’s their problem as well. It was also a message to the police, telling them that we want them to take every incident seriously, not just the ones that get reported by the media.”
The deputy mayor went to great pains to stress that the violence is being committed by “at most 60 families,” but acknowledged that they have the implicit support of many other families. “This is a case where a small group of people is affecting the lives of a lot of people.”
This has been especially true during the last couple of months, since the municipality has cracked down on the rioters. “About two months ago the extremists put up signs everywhere demanding people dress modestly, and burned trash bins. We decided not to replace the trash bins for two weeks, and when we did, we brought in large metal ones the neighbors say are very ugly. After this, and the demonstration, the asimon fell,” Lerner said, employing a favorite Israeli expression evoking the image of a coin dropping into the slot of a public pay phone.
“It was a wake-up call. Something clicked,” Lerner said.
Raanan says she is still waiting for the community’s haredi rabbis “to come out with a public statement that the hooligans are rodfim”— pursuers who threaten the lives of others — “and to require their followers to photograph the hooligans who are perpetrating the violence.”
She noted that “some” haredi rabbis “have quietly signed a petition” against the violence, “and that is a good first step.”
Despite Lerner’s prediction that no one in Bet would be prepared to speak to a journalist, and that a female journalist risked being attacked in the neighborhood, some of the female residents actually seemed quite eager to talk, albeit in hushed tones.
“I was on an Egged bus with my husband and my baby when the extremists started throwing things. They’re against mixed buses,” said a haredi woman in a fashionable blouse and skirt, wearing stockings that were skin-colored, not the regulation black demanded by the “hooligans.”
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she lives right next to the area where the riots have been taking place. “What do you tell your children?” she said, glancing down at one of her children, a baby resting in his stroller. “They see the violence and ask questions. They ask whether the rabbis endorse this and I say, ‘Ours don’t.’ Whether theirs do is something I can’t answer.”