For a large part of the past school year, my daughter and her classmates went to school under police protection. The border patrolmen’s assault rifles juxtaposed with pigtailed girls and their Dora the Explorer backpacks no longer seem as jarring as they did last September. No, the police were not protecting them from the danger of Palestinian terrorism, like so much of the security apparatus here in Israel, but from other Jews—in particular, a group of Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) associated with the extreme Edah Haredit. This is not what I thought I had signed up for when I cheerfully immigrated to Israel some two decades ago.
In retrospect, one can see the troubles in Beit Shemesh started years ago, when a group from the Edah Haredit stopped the construction of a shopping mall not far from my house. After determining that the mall would lead inevitably to mixing of the sexes and immodest behavior in the increasingly ultra-Orthodox city, they smashed the windows and vandalized the construction site. The building’s unfinished frame remains abandoned at a local intersection, a silent testimony that intimidation can be effective.
The incident should have been a warning sign that our city was in trouble, but there was little reaction, and the abandoned construction site has become an unnoticed part of the city’s landscape. Shortly after the vandalism, the city elected its first Haredi mayor, who ran on a platform of moderation, insisting that a temperate, Sephardic Haredi rabbi could and would serve all constituencies equally.
Almost immediately upon taking office, the new mayor attended my synagogue’s annual fundraising dinner. He described from the podium a beautiful, symbiotic relationship between the segments of the city’s population: The non-Haredi community contributes its municipal taxes to support the Haredi community’s full-time Torah study, and the Haredi community contributes to the spiritual well-being of everybody rather than paying taxes.
He wrongly thought that this message would echo positively with the hardworking, middle-class, observant congregants. Since then, many bus lines in the city have become gender segregated, with men and boys in the front and women and girls in the back. Municipal information pamphlets, in addition to advertising circulars and some local newspapers, refuse to print pictures or even drawings of women.
With this changing atmosphere, no one was particularly surprised when members of the Edah Haredit protested the opening of a modern-Orthodox elementary school for girls not far from their neighborhood. The little girls who would attend the school and the mothers who would drop them off do not dress up to Haredi standards of modesty. In the late summer, the group threatened violence should the school open, and, assuming that the generally quiet modern-Orthodox community would continue its pattern of political passivity, the mayor decided that the school should relocate.
The parents (including my wife and me) and the school administration refused. Police chained the doors of the school shut, but agreed to let us remain in the schoolyard. Teachers, administrators, and parents remained there around the clock, setting up concerts, activities, and trampolines for the children. City officials threatened to shut off the electricity to our extension cords, but one of the parents, an administrator at the electric company, was able to pull rank.
We organized protests, signed petitions, attracted national and international media attention, met with government officials, and threatened lawsuits. Representatives of the religious-Zionist community formed alliances with activists from other segments of Beit Shemesh’s multicultural population, such as Russian immigrants and secular student activists. Eventually, with the help of some reporters and the minister of education, the school opened in the original location.
Not to be dissuaded, groups of Haredi men continued to congregate around the building, screaming at parents while spitting on the girls and calling them sluts. Someone spread manure on the walls of the school, and rocks were thrown at the playground. The school could not have functioned without active police protection, at times through the night. Problems still flare up periodically. As I write, the media are reporting that a group of Haredi men have attacked a young woman with uncovered hair as she posted advertisements in a Haredi neighborhood, smashing her car windshield with a brick before police arrived to whisk her away.
Some Haredi newspaper editorials, rabbis, and public activists have spoken out against the violence, calling it a violation of Torah, but others have not. Even those who do condemn the violence generally spend most of their energy blaming the secular press for inciting hatred of the Haredi community, insisting that the whole community should not be treated as if they were all extremists.
But the mainstream Haredi community, normally fantastically adept at rejecting and expelling those it does not like, has taken little or no concrete action to combat the violence. They could, for example, threaten an economic boycott of the kosher certification that pays for so many Edah Haredit activities. Yet when a neighbor, a prominent medical doctor who had worked in the Edah Haredit parts of town, met with the city’s leading Edah Haredit rabbi, the rabbi asked her, “If you don’t like it in our city, why don’t you just move?”
Needless to say, the battle over the school has little to do with the “presenting problem,” that the eight-year-olds don’t wear socks in the hot Israeli Septembers and that their mothers don’t all cover their hair. This is not about the allure of nine-year-old ankles or the eroticism of the graying locks of a middle-aged mother, but about power and real estate. Some of the Haredi population, which has many children and a shortage of classrooms of its own, cannot stand to see a new, well-supplied school building go to another group.
A school in which girls are encouraged to gain top-level religious and secular educations so that they can go on to be learned and confident mothers, diplomats, or Torah scholars, threatens Haredi attempts to limit women’s social roles and educational possibilities. Also, a religious-Zionist institution on the edge of the Haredi neighborhood threatens to stop the expansion of that neighborhood.
No doubt, part of the problem is unchecked religious extremism. Another is the unhappy merger of religious fervor and violence. But the problem really stems from religion being used as what the Talmud calls a kardom lahfor bo, "a spade to dig with," a tool for worldly self-interest. And this is true not only of the Haredi extremists but, in a softer way, of all the players involved. This situation is an example of self-interest disguised as sanctity.
I certainly do not mean to imply moral equivalency between attackers and victims, but each set of players in Beit Shemesh, convinced that God’s will is on its side, has acted in ways perfectly consistent with its short-term political interests. The Edah Haredit sees its immediate political needs met through violence, and the mainstream Haredi community would lose a great deal were it to publicly split the camp by rejecting the Edah Haredit. The Haredi mayor, who will never again get any votes from non-Haredim, has joined sides with his own natural consistency.
Secular politicians joined the fray when presenting themselves as crusaders against Haredi imposition served their interests, and the media was happy to sensationalize everything in order to sell newspapers and increase television ratings. Even my own community failed to react when the Edah Haredit stopped the construction of the shopping mall or committed other early acts of violence, springing into action only when violence extended into our own communities and schools.
Given the realpolitik of institutional self-interest, what does “doing the right thing” have to do with it? Religious Jews have long imagined and hoped for the possibility of religion emerging as a force for justice and good in the Israeli public sphere, something that certainly has been realized in some contexts. But the events of the past year have made me too sad and doubtful for such optimism.
Yoel Finkelman lectures in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University and is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.