Police make peace with modesty patrols

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 4, 2008

the Jerusalem police and the leaders of the Eda Haredit, the extremist camp in the ultra-Orthodox community, have reached an unofficial agreement to end the latest cycle of unrest on the streets of the Mea Shearim neighbourhood in Jerusalem.

The sporadic outbreaks of violence, arson and clashes with police, followed the arrest of a member of the so-called "modesty patrol", Shmuel Weispish. As part of the agreement, Mr Weispish was released and the rabbis promised that the violence would cease.

The police are currently investigating two cases connected to the modesty patrol which occurred last month. In one, a divorced woman living in North Jerusalem was beaten by a group of vigilantes who claimed that the formerly ultra-Orthodox woman had been entertaining married men in her flat.

Another case was the burning down of an electronics shop that had been accused of selling MP4 players, banned by the rabbis since they include a screen for watching video clips.

The modesty patrol is a generic term for various groups of ultra-Orthodox activists who have enforced moral standards within the Charedi community for decades.

Some of these groups, such as the Committee for Purity of our Camp, headed by Rabbi Yitzhak Safranovich, who directed an offical Modesty Patrol in the 1970s as well as the Guardians of Holiness and Education, are concerned mainly with warning the community against entering shops and entertainment centres which are deemed immodest.

Other more shadowy groups such as the Sicarii - the title of an extremist Jewish group that existed during the Second Temple era in Jerusalem - use more violent tactics and often set up on an ad hoc basis to deal with specific targets.

Since the Eda Haredit members do not cooperate with what they view as the "Zionist" police, the modesty patrol groups act also as an unofficial community police, meting out punishment to suspected thieves, adulterers and sex offenders.

Two men were arrested in connection with the attack on the woman and Mr Weispish was arrested on suspicion that he had taken part in the burning of the storage area of the Space electronics shop in Shabbat Square.

Police are convinced that the three men are members of the modesty patrol groups. Following the arrests, especially that of Mr Weispish, who belongs to a prominent Eda Haredit family, small incidents of stone-throwing and bin-burning broke out in Mea Shearim.

The police tried to convince the Eda leaders to order their followers to stop the unrest, and last Wednesday, Weispish was released pending charges.

He was greeted by a victory procession of Eda members. The police denied that his release was part of a deal, but this week, peace had returned to the streets.

On Tuesday evening, about 20 men picketed the Space shop, handing out leaflets on the "corrupting" MP4 menace, but shoppers entering were not attacked, and two policemen who stumbled on the scene left without incident after two minutes.

Last updated: 11:19am, September 4 2008