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Religious harassment and police complicity in Beit Shemesh

Before the intimidation of school girls by ultra-Orthodox enforcers became a national and international story, the local police were determined to remain neutral.

If you meet the police in Beit Shemesh, you can understand why the town’s mainstream Jewish majority is afraid of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) extremists, and why the Haredi extremists are afraid of no one.

At the start of October, over the High Holidays, the stories of these Haredim harassing the not-sufficiently-Orthodox girls from Orot elementary school  were spreading through the country’s English-speaking religious community. (Many of the girls at Orot are children of American immigrants, such as Na’ama Margolese, the tearful, frightened “star” of last weekend’s TV news segment that set off nationwide outrage this past week.) But the story of what the zealots from the Neturei Karta and Toldot Aharon Haredi sects were doing to the girls at Orot was still unknown to the general public. I write for American Jewish newspapers, so I went to have a look.

The Orot parents told me what they’d been telling the police – that the Haredi activists scream “shikse” and “whore” at their 8-year-old daughters because their sleeves and dresses don’t cover every inch of their arms and legs. And when the parents tried to stop the attacks by photographing the Haredim in the act, things got rougher. Rocks were thrown from Haredi rooftops. One Orot father got kicked in the ribs so hard that doctors said he was lucky his lung hadn’t been punctured. A woman who came to walk her daughter home was screamed at, cursed and threatened with a rock by one of the zealots, The grandfather of one of the school girls, a man in his 70s, had his camera torn out of his hands and was surrounded by a crowd of enraged Haredim.

The day I was there, the parents were finishing up their after-school patrol; they’d convinced the police to show up, a couple of cops sat in their car, and this time there were no incidents. Afterward, they began trying to convince one of the senior police officers in Beit Shemesh, Ronen Ben-David, that their daughters were being traumatized by vicious men and that it was the police’s responsibility to stop it. “The last thing I want to be doing in the middle of my work day is running around here,” said one of the fathers.

Smiling and friendly, Ben-David tried to calm them down, saying they should leave it to the police, that the police were doing everything they could, and that everything would be alright. “If there’s any physical violence, we’ll deal with them. But yelling gevalt is not a crime,” he said.

In a vacant lot nearby, about a dozen Haredim were facing Jerusalem for afternoon prayers. A few cops were there, a few parents, and me, “the media.” The father who’d been kicked in the ribs identified a distinctively red-bearded Haredi man in the prayer group as his assailant. He started photographing the man and demanding that the police arrest him, and a cop told him that if he wanted, he could come to the police station and file a complaint. I asked the policeman if he intended to arrest the red-beared Haredi, or question him, or do anything about him. “We’ll arrest who we have to arrest. No need to stir things up,” he said.

One night there was a rally near the school demanding that the intimidation end. Maybe a thousand residents and supporters showed up, virtually all of them mainstream Orthodox, but a few black-coated Haredim were there, too, which took guts. Many Haredim in Beit Shemesh, maybe the majority, resent the maniacs among them, but they’re afraid to speak out. Numerous cops and cop cars separated the rally from the Haredi enforcers watching across the street.

A Rabbi Cooperman (I didn’t get his first name) told the crowd: “I appeal to police Commander Kobi Cohen – it’s your job not to be afraid of anyone. Verbal violence against little girls is violence. You have to protect them.”

Cohen was standing with his men in the middle of the blocked-off street. I asked him what he thought of the rabbi’s challenge.

“I’m not afraid of anyone,” he said, “I’m a man of the law. But I don’t know that rabbi.”

The Israel Police commander in Beit Shemesh is a very impressive-looking guy – middle-to-late 30s, tall, dark, Hollywood handsome, erect, broad shoulders. He speaks with total confidence, he has immediate command presence. In a macho, security-obsessed society like Israel, Kobi Cohen looked like a real comer.

“If anyone breaks the law, we will arrest him,” he said. The intimidation of the Orot girls had been going on for a month, since the school year began – had there been any arrests, any indictments? No indictments, the commander replied, but some of the activists had been questioned on suspicion of breaking the law.

“On both sides,” he stressed. There were Haredim who’d “pushed and shoved” the school parents, and school parents who’d pushed and shoved the Haredim. “One of the school parents threatened to sic his dog on them,” Cohen said.

This was interesting. The top cop in Beit Shemesh seemed to be saying that these Neturei Karta freaks who  hound elementary school girls on their way home, screaming curses at them, and who are known for their trash-burning, rock-throwing battles with police in Jerusalem, were no more of a threat to local law and order than the parents trying to protect their daughters from these attacks.

Softening my question, trying to give Cohen every chance to correct my impression, I asked him if he saw one side as being “more to blame” than the other, one side as being “more the aggressor” than the other.

“I don’t see either side as the aggressor,” he said. “I don’t see either side as being more to blame.” He explained that besides a little pushing and shoving, which, again, both sides engage in, all the Haredim were doing to the Orot girls was “usually saying gevalt and starting to pray. You can’t arrest them for that. Verbal expressions are not an issue for the law.”

That was nearly two months ago. This week the Orot parents told me that after the Rosh Hashana rally, the enforcers laid off their girls, but started up again a few weeks ago. If the parents hadn’t interested Channel 2 in coming over and talking to Na’ama Margolese and filming all those wild, outraged Haredim, there would have been nothing and no one to stop this organized child abuse from continuing. Certainly not the police.

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    1. Piotr Berman

      I have a “weak spot” for “Naturei Karta freaks”. First, they are regularly vilified because they are anti-Zionists. Second, they are sooo Jewish! Which forces religious (and non-Religious) Zionists to some contortions. For example, there was a law proposed that a non-Jew cannot be naturalized (and perhaps issued some other permissions) without swearing loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. But why only non-Jews? Because “Naturei Karta freaks” and other non-Zionists religious Jews would refuse.

      Second, they are living proof of superiority of European culture. Just compare all those Mizrahim with the scions of European cultural centers like Slonim, Ger or Satmar.

      Third, they are pacifists.

      Forth, for pacifists, they pack decent punch. All those hours spend studying books and wow! And what can IDF veterans do? Call the police. And what the police can do? Call UN peacekeepers?

      Fifth, I think I recognize the source of their theology. My favorite: “Hitchhiker Guide to The Galaxy”. One of the stories in the Guide is the quest to find The Last Message of G..d to His Creation. (Well, without dots). After much travails, the heroes found and deciphered letters that were tall as mountains and blazing like suns and so hard to look at (on a far away planet). S O R R Y F O R T H E I N C O N V E N I E N C E. It would be an act of folly to view this message flippantly. Something HAS to be inconvenient. So Halacha has to be interpreted as G..d wishes, in the most inconvenient way imaginable. Of course, we will make it gradual. Note for example that they do not strip mixed-thread cloths from people on the street, verily, one has to proceed one step at the time.

      Reply to Comment
    2. don mac namara

      This is very reminiscent of the situation in N Ireland during ‘the troubles’
      On one occasion the polie and army had to provide a cordon sanitaire between th heckling mobs of Catholics and Protestants , while the little girls, petrified made their way through a veritable tunnel of sectarian hatred.
      We look back on this period with great shame and speak of it now as if it were an historical event existing only in the minds of doddering octogenarians. But it all happened in the past 10 years .
      I have visited Israel many times . I was never aware how the ultra orthodox had infiltrated schools to the extent that they have . Nor was I ever aware that they took a particular interest in children’s apparel and more shockingly that they should terrorise children over their zealous code of modesty.
      I read somewhere that the ultra orthodox constitute 15 % of the population of Israel , and that they are fearless of authority figures because Netenyahu needs their support in the Knesset to hold his majority there .
      It is a sad tale and can only get worse if the children grow up with that vehemence of hatred imbedded in their hearts.
      Since she spent so much of her endeavors making Israel a State , Israel will never become a society cohesive with all the trappings of a democracy ; that the State should treat all her citizens equally

      Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      I think that phenomena of opposing women at the bus fronts and opposing “immodest school girls” are somewhat different because there are different groups of “ultra-Orthodox”.

      The particular groups that oppose girl’s school in Beit Shemesh are a non- (anti- ?) Zionist minority among the “ultra-Orthodox”, and they get into fights with the other “ultra-Orthodox”. These people care only about being properly prepared for the coming of Messiah and their rabbis issue “more strict” edicts to be “on the side of caution”. E.g. one of them advise followers not to use woolen cloths at all to avoid the remote danger of mixing threads. This is a bit weird because there are specialists who can quickly analyze any particular fabric specifically from that point of view. This is not the return to Middle Ages but “progress”, new, “more advanced” interpretations.

      There is some trend in Israel that “everybody” is getting more extreme but in at least 3 different ways. One is “halachic strictness”, one is “purity and completeness of Eretz Israel”, and the third, perhaps rare, is “one state”, forms of opposition to the current state.

      Opposition to the state can be combined in two ways with religious strictness (Halacha and Sharia). Some combine religious zeal with “Eretz Israel”, but they are usually less, or MUCH less particular about Halacha. Some just go for “Eretz Israel” and try to cleanse the Land from trespassers and heretics of secular kind (“Radical Left”, if you read Arutz Sheva, there is no normal left but only capitalized and either Radical or Extreme, usually Radical).

      Some call this phenomenon “Jerusalem Disease”. Jerusalem as a spiritual notion is an ideal, and imperfection cannot be tolerated. Perhaps the capital should be moved to Beer Sheva.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Borg

      Q) What the difference between Neturei Karta and Larry Derfner
      A) Larry Derfner blogs on Shabbat

      Reply to Comment
    5. Have a look at a posting I put on the Blog. Its too long to cut & paste here. I must stress that I am dead against any form of thuggery or intimidation, on both sides.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Gideon Yavin

      Have a look at a posting I put on the Blog. Its too long to cut & paste here. I must stress that I am dead against any form of thuggery or intimidation, on both sides.

      Reply to Comment