Charedi extremism divides Israeli city

By Nathan Jeffay, September 2, 2010

"Someone is going to be killed," predicted Orthodox rabbi Natan Slifkin on his blog this spring. He went on to outline what exactly he thought would happen. "A religious Jewish teenager is going to be beaten to death by a gang of religious Jewish men for the 'crime' of being in their neighbourhood and not conforming to their idea of Orthodoxy."

The scene of the crime, he wrote, would be a few hundred yards from his home in Beit Shemesh, a heavily "Anglo" city of 80,000 people, 10 miles west of Jerusalem. Specifically, the new part of town, Ramat Beit Shemesh (Beit Shemesh Heights).

In the past decade Ramat Beit Shemesh has become home to people on the extremist fringe of the Charedi world, including a group of several dozen women who cover their faces with burkas. There is also a group of zealous Charedim, estimated at around 60 families, who are determined to see their benchmark in modesty and Sabbath laws observed publicly by all.

In the past six years there have been dozens of incidents of violence by these zealous Charedim against other Jews who have fallen foul of their standards. Most commonly, cars driving on Shabbat have been pelted with stones and nappies. There have also been attacks on individuals.

On Yom Ha'atzmaut, a large group of Charedi men attacked 10 teenagers who were walking home from a celebration and spraying Zionist graffiti. The youth were physically assaulted, some by men wielding metal bars, and some ended up in hospital.

At the shopping centre in a part of town called Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, which is around 60 per cent modern Orthodox and 40 per cent Charedi, signs demanding "modest dress" are everywhere, including in the shops.

The rabbis placing these signs have influence beyond their numbers. Privately, some shopkeepers say they put up the signs only up out of fear of vandalism to their stores if they did not agree. On occasion, the rabbis' followers enter the shops and harangue shoppers they deem immodestly clad.

But some residents say that the signs are less about a pious desire for modesty and more about creating an alternative narrative about the area's identity. The signs at the shopping centre call it a "Charedi centre" even though most shoppers are not Charedi, and signs on residential buildings categorise neighbourhoods as Charedi even in the large patches of Ramat Beit Shemesh where the majority is modern Orthodox.

There is intense frustration among mainstream Charedim. Out shopping this week was Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph resident Israel Schneider, a Chasid dressed in full traditional garb.

"Dogs have a propensity to urinate to mark their territories and Charedim have a tendency likewise to hang up signs," he said. Mr Schneider objects to rabbis "pushing people around".

The modern Orthodox residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh are also concerned. Rachel Kirshenbaum said that she stopped her daughter from travelling to school on a public bus that passes the most Charedi section, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, out of fear of violence. She now goes on a private bus that takes a different route.

Catriel Lev, a resident who has helped to organise demonstrations against the violence, said: "It's not about modesty, it's about power politics."

Both of the local rabbis contacted for this article declined to comment. But Jonathan Rosenblum, a rabbi who heads a Charedi advocacy organisation, Jewish Media Resources, said that the problems in Beit Shemesh stemmed from the fact that many families moved there from the exclusively Charedi Meah Shearim in Jerusalem.

He said that living there had "ill-prepared them" for life in the mixed city of Beit Shemesh and led to the assumption that the local norms would be based, as they were in Meah Shearim, on religious principles.

But Rabbi Rosenblum said that the behaviour of the Beit Shemesh extremists should not tarnish the Charedi community in general.

"This is a very specific community that doesn't constitute all or anything approaching a majority."

Last updated: 4:02pm, November 8 2010