Healing hands: how Israeli town riven by religious war is forging peace

By Anshel Pfeffer, April 11, 2012
Secular Israeli women performing a dance protest against the exclusion of women in Beit Shemesh

Secular Israeli women performing a dance protest against the exclusion of women in Beit Shemesh

Last year, Beit Shemesh was ground zero for the latest round of religious conflict in Israel, with regular reports emerging from the town of violent scuffles and the harassment of schoolgirls.

In recent months, however, the town may have turned into a symbol of communal engagement.

The pictures of young girls being heckled and even spat at by strictly-Orthodox men as they arrived at the Orot national-religious primary school caused a media storm and a spate of demonstrations against this and under instances of female exclusion.

However, it also brought about a deep feeling of shame within the local communities. "The media's interest made people on all sides very anxious," says Ilan Geal-Dor, executive director of Gesher, an Israeli organisation that has been working for decades to improve relations between secular, religious and strictly-Orthodox Israelis. He also has a daughter at the school. "The Charedim felt under fire and blamed the journalists for 'demonising' them. It also created an opportunity."

Together with Mayor Moshe Aboutbul, Gesher organised a meeting of representatives from the different religious groups living in the town. Despite high tension and the Charedi demands that the school be moved to a different location, they managed to agree to keep lines of contact open, and brokered a commitment from all sides to refrain from violence.

‘There were vile words but also an openness to talk’

"On the one hand," says Mr Geal-Dor, "there were groups around the school shouting vile words at these young girls, there were girls being spat at and parents were walking their daughters to school and getting into fights. But at the same time we realised there was an openness to talk."

Professional Gesher mediators who spoke with the local rabbis understood that they were in a situation whereby they had to play to the more fanatical elements within their community even though they themselves were against the violence.

"The Charedi leadership is continuously being forced to act between those who are against any kind of concession and the growing openness in the strictly-Orthodox community to a compromise with wider Israeli society."

Only when the media circus moved on could the talks begin in earnest. "We began talking at the height of the crisis," says Shmuel Papenheim, an unofficial spokesman of the Toldoth Aharon Chasidic group living in Beit Shemesh, "but we had to wait for things to calm down because of the general public atmosphere and the way the media blew everything out of proportion." Since then there have been a series of meetings between the different communities' leaders and, last month, for the first time, a "round-table" discussion was held with representatives from all the groups. Another is to be held immediately after Pesach.

"Even the most fanatic rabbis were represented and I think that the meetings have played a part in lowering the tensions in the town," says Mr Pappenheim. "Everyone now realises that this isn't just about solving specific problems. We need to have a permanent forum in which to meet so we can ensure good relations. I think the most important thing we did was that we kept the politicians out and involved just local people. Politicians just want to win battles."

Last updated: 4:38pm, April 12 2012