Haredi dominance of Beit Shemesh 'is only matter of time'

Haaretz, Israel/December 1, 2007

"Hitler and the messiah. The two dominate the walls and souls here," Amos Oz wrote in his book "In the Land of Israel" after visiting the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Geula and Mea Shearim in the fall of 1982. "The battle has been won. Zionism has been pushed away from here, as though it had never existed."

In the next chapter, Oz stops at Beit Shemesh, where he meets a group of young men, "their faces distorted with rage" at Mapai (the precursor of today's Labor party), Shimon Peres and the elites.

Twenty-five years later it seems that the chapter on Mea Shearim could be transposed to a few neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, a city whose population now reaches 73,000. "Taking part in the profane elections is prohibited," and "Israeli women must dress modestly," declare posters around the city.

Local resident Nati Shauli did not even consider filing a police complaint two weeks ago after his car was vandalized. He and his wife came out of the grocery store in Ramat Beit Shemesh A, a mostly religious neighborhood, to find that their tires had been slashed. Shauli is convinced that whoever is responsible wanted to keep bare-headed women like his wife away from the ultra-Orthodox shopping center.

"Life has become insufferable here," he said in desperation.

A month ago, the neighborhood's national-religious residents held a demonstration vowing not to give in to the "hooligans." But a tour of Beit Shemesh shows that the fanatic element here also has complex and tense relations with the ultra-Orthodox community, which is identified mostly with Agudat Yisrael, Shas and Degel Hatorah.

The resemblance between Mea Shearim of days gone by and Ramat Beit Shemesh, one of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, is not accidental. Some 15 years ago the housing shortage in Jerusalem drove the extreme, anti-Zionist Eda Haredit sect of Jerusalem's Haredi community to seek housing for young couples outside the capital. They chose Ramat Beit Shemesh B. Today these people are even more fanatic than those in Mea Shearim.

These extremists comprise an estimated 2 percent, no more than 15,000 of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community. They are a minority in Beit Shemesh as well, but wield considerable power and influence.

The fanatics are mostly followers of Rabbi Shaya Rosenberger, a right-wing Satmar Hasid. Another group, a separatist group of Breslav Hasidim led by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Marmelstein, is even more extreme. In recent years these groups have conducted a series of campaigns - posting billboards calling for "modest behavior," introducing sexually segregated bus lines and recently protesting plans to open a state religious school near their neighborhood and opposing the sale of apartments in the neighborhood to people who are not ultra-Orthodox.

Two and a half weeks ago, police officers headed by Jerusalem police chief Aharon Franco and Beit Shemesh chief Oz Eliasi secretly met the leaders of the town's Eda Haredit sect. On their way to Rabbi Rosenberger's house the officers passed graffiti blasting Eliasi and branding him "the Nazi" and "evil."

People in the neighborhood described the meeting a "surrender," saying the police were now officially afraid of entering the neighborhood. They said the police had promised the rabbis to refrain from any activity in the neighborhood without the rabbis' prior authorization.

District police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the meeting was intended to "open channels of communication with the rabbis to restore peace to the neighborhood. Nothing was promised and no prior coordination was agreed on before any police activity."

However the fanatics' energy is mainly directed at the silent ultra-Orthodox majority. People in Ramat Beit Shemesh A say that men harass ultra-Orthodox women merely for walking in the supermarket with wigs, as women from the Gerer Hasidic group do. They hurl insults at other women because they refuse to send their small sons to the part of the bus earmarked for men.

"We operate our own bus lines to preserve our way of life," a Ramat Beit Shemesh B resident said.

Relations between the different ultra-Orthodox groups will be tested next year in the municipal elections. More than a year and a half ago in the Knesset elections, despite the fanatics' attempts to sabotage voting, the political strength of the ultra-Orthodox prevailed. United Torah Judaism received most of the votes, 22.2 percent, in a town that had been a Likud bastion in 1982. Shas came in second with 19.9 percent of the votes, while the Likud, Labor and Kadima lagged far behind.

Agudat Yisrael, Degel Hatorah and Shas are convinced they will obtain a solid majority on the town council, but may not field a mayoral candidate just yet. "It may take another term," a Degel activist said. "But it's clear that the ultra-Orthodox dominance of Beit Shemesh is only a matter of time."

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