While there is nothing new about the existence of a “cultural divide” between the Chareidi (fervently Orthodox) and secular Jewish communities in Israel, recent weeks have witnessed a significant escalation of tensions in this regard. In addition to altercations with government representatives and journalists, Chareidim in Beit Shemesh have squared off against Modern Orthodox residents, prompting statements of outrage from both Orthodox leaders and prominent government officials.
The focal point of the latest upsurge in religious-based conflict has been the issue of tzniut (modesty), which specifically entails that women dress in modest fashions, and that they do not unduly mix with men in public. The implementation of this halachic directive – or a maximum interpretation of it – has played itself out in a number of headline-grabbing scenarios. Several weeks ago, a group of 100 Chareidim in Meah Shearim – using a baby carriage, apparently with a baby inside, as one of the obstacles – blocked an Egged bus from traveling through the area, in protest of the mixed-gender seating policy on the bus line.
In Beit Shemesh, an ongoing dispute between the local Chareidi community and Modern Orthodox residents over the latter group’s allegedly more relaxed standards of modesty turned even uglier when an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, attending the Modern Orthodox school Orot Banot, was cursed at and spat on by a Chareidi man for supposedly not being dressed properly.
Subsequently, dozens of Chareidi men in Beit Shemesh surrounded police officers and municipal inspectors who were attempting to remove – for the third time that week – a sign in a Chareidi neighborhood mandating that men and women use separate sidewalks. The men who sought to prevent the sign’s removal called the police officers “Nazis” and danced around them in circles. Later that day, two Israeli television production crews were separately attacked while trying to film news reports in the area, leading to violent clashes between groups of Chareidim, and the journalists and police officers who arrived to control the situation.
As if all this were not enough to raise the social temperature, a large crowd of Chareidim gathered in Jerusalem on Saturday night to protest alleged incitement against the fervently Orthodox by Israel’s secular media and government officials. In a vivid depiction of their feelings of persecution, many of the demonstration’s participants wore a yellow badge with the word “Jude” written on it, and a number of children in the crowd dressed in striped uniforms – both symbolic references to garb worn by Jews being oppressed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Reactions from public figures to these latest events have ranged across the spectrum of opinion. In Israel, the Belzer Rebbe clearly condemned such extremist tactics. “If there are those among us who believe they will spread the light of Judaism through violence, they are mistaken,” he stated. Rabbi Aryeh Deri of the Sephardic Shas party called for the use of force if necessary against Chareidim who take the law into their own hands. Rav Ovadia Yosef, generally regarded as the chief spiritual leader of Sephardic Jewry, sent out a message of conciliation toward Israel’s secular population. “Even the journalists have a holy spark,” he said this past Saturday night. “We must work to bring people back, towards unity.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking in the Knesset, proclaimed that the government will act against “anyone who harasses women in the public sphere.” At the same time, though, Netanyahu cautioned against negatively stereotyping the fervently Orthodox as a whole, describing them as law-abiding, and saying that the recent clashes were caused by “violent, lawless, fringe groups.”
This last point has been echoed by the many observers who insist that that the recent acts of violence have been perpetrated by a minority group within the Chareidi community, known as the Sikrikim. The group’s name is derived from the Sicarii, Jewish zealots who attempted to rid Jerusalem of the Romans prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. On the Talkline with Zev Brenner radio program this past Saturday night, an expert on extremism within the Israeli Orthodox community stated that there are at most 500 members of the Sikrikim, and that their actions are not sanctioned by any of the recognized leading Orthodox rabbis in the country.
Israeli commentators have likewise weighed in on this latest social crisis. “It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle… a challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge,” said Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus of sociology at Bar Ilan University. In an editorial in Haaretz, Bradley Burston suggested that the “survival mechanisms” used to maintain religious Jewish life in the Diaspora have produced “credos of superiority” regarding those Jews who do not observe Judaism on the same strict level as its most fervent practitioners, thus generating “ethnocentric extremism.”
American Jewish leaders have offered their own perspectives on the current religious turmoil. “The general Orthodox community, including the chareidi one, condemns all such violence, verbal or physical,” Agudath Israel of America’s Rabbi Avi Shafran stated in an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice. “These actions violate halacha — they violate the most basic concept of menschlichkeit (decency).” Shafran went on to note that different communities have their own particular standards regarding modesty, calling such determinations matters of local custom rather than strict halacha. “It’s proper for a community to state community standards,” he said, “but not for individuals to impose their personal standards on others.” Shafran added that the mere presence of media contributes to the negative atmosphere, but he credited many media outlets for emphasizing that the “crazies” committing the acts of aggression do not represent the overwhelming majority of mainstream chareidim.
“I am dismayed at what is happening in Beit Shemesh,” said Rabbi Elie Abadie MD, of Edmund J. Safra Synagogue in Manhattan, in an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice. “Though I have yet to assemble all the facts, general awareness of what is taking place shows me that a lot of work needs to be dedicated to increasing ahavat achim (brotherly love).” When asked about what could be done to reconcile the extremists with more moderate religious perspectives, Rabbi Abadie was doubtful. “I don’t think—well, I really don’t want to think—that these extremists receive sanction from a rabbinical authority. They defy religion in their violent undertakings.”
On the other hand, the founder and president of the Israel Project, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, told the Jewish Voice that she has a sense of optimism about the current religious debates. “The protests against religious extremism serve as a vital sign of democracy in action, where individuals can freely express their views,” explained Mizrahi. “This is a subject that is way overdue, and it’s about time that Israelis took notice of it.” When asked about how she believed Israel could resolve the cultural divide, Mizrahi firmly asserted that Israel would inevitably achieve peace. “I expect more protests in the future, but it will all work itself out in time.”
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, director of an Agudath Israel of America program dealing with at-risk youth in the Orthodox community, spoke out strongly against Chareidi-based acts of aggression, calling such behaviors a “colossal Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) and distortion of genuine Torah values.” Speaking on the Talkline radio network, he went so far as to note that students of Lithuanian-style yeshivas do not typically commit such acts, and he called for the Eida Chareidis – the chief rabbinical body of Jerusalem’s Chareidi community – to unequivocally condemn the violence apparently perpetrated by some of their most extreme adherents.
The Jewish Voice also conducted a special interview with a prominent rabbi in Ramat Beit Shemesh, the neighborhood in Beit Shemesh where Orot Banot is located. Rabbi “C” asked not to be identified because he fears retaliatory harassment from the Chareidi extremists. “The friction here is caused by both sides,” he elaborates. “Certainly, the ultra-Orthodox extremists are at fault for not allowing others to live their Jewish life as they wish, and for stating that they will not rest until they cause either the State of Israel to become totally Chareidi or drive out all those who defy their dream.” On the other hand, Rabbi “C” says, “the secular Left has a long-standing anger at the Chareidi Jewish world, based on the facts that many Chareidim do not work or engage in army service, and take welfare from the State while hating those they are taking from.”
According to Rabbi “C,” the secular community in Israel is responsible for provoking the fervently Orthodox, through such situations as when non-religious women have boarded buses traveling through Chareidi areas and purposely sat next to Chareidi men. “A woman once got on one of these buses, started singing and acting in a lewd manner – just to attract the police and the media,” he relates, “and cause a rift between the two communities.” But Rabbi “C” heaps great scorn on the Sikrikim for stirring up the most trouble. “The police are afraid to arrest the agitators because they fear that the friction will get worse,” he claims. “Either the police must arrest these misfits, or the Chareidim must start policing themselves.”
Rabbi “C” feels that the Chareidim are responding in an extremist fashion because they are having their own problems within their communities. “Many of their children, who manage to see the outside world, do not want to be part of an extremist lifestyle,” he says. “The secular Israelis are going to have to adopt a higher level of tolerance, as the Chareidim will comprise a larger segment of the Israeli population as time goes on.”
Part of the issue also lies with the rabbinic leadership of the generation. Great Torah Scholars, such as Rav Shalom Elyashiv, who feel that Chareidim should stay in yeshiva, not work and certainly not expose themselves to the secular Israeli world by doing any type of Army or National service. The laws in Israel state that if one does not do some sort of army or national service, he may not assume a job or legally work.
Many of Israel’s more moderate Jewish leaders argue that the solution to the current schisms affecting Israeli society is the teaching of tolerance. While this is no easy task, there is precedent to which one may look – prominent rabbanim who advocate tolerance among factions, while earning the respect of all sides.
One such example is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (z”tl). Rabbi Auerbach, who passed away in 1995, was venerated and loved by Jews of all stripes, and considered of the greatest Torah scholars of the 20th Century. Auerbach said that it is permissible for men and women to sit in adjoining seats on a bus, but realized that there are those who may feel they want to be “machmir,” more stringent. His biography relates a story that took place in his later years, where Rav Aurbach got off of a bus midway to his destination and walked the rest of the way. When asked why, he stated that an immodestly dressed woman sat down next to him on the bus and he thought that could create a chilul Hashem, he didn’t want to hurt her feelings by moving to a different part of the bus, so he got off and walked.
Some have suggested that in our days, a paragon of both stringent halachic observance and the ability to relate to religious and secular Jews alike, can be found in Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman of Israel’s Migdal Ohr institutions. He has launched a program that promises to change the future of relations between the secular and Chareidi worlds. The Jewish Voice intends, in the weeks to come, to share with our readers some of Rabbi Grossman’s bold new initiatives.
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