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Throughout the world, images of a dusty, unremarkable Israeli city have been sparking debate and controversy. How did Beit Shemesh become a national tinderbox, and a symbol for secular-religious tensions?
Unlike the organic housing process familiar to Jews in the US, where residents slowly and subtly leave their mark on an area, the new neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh were planned and marketed to attract specific populations. The Sheinfeld neighborhood, for example, was earmarked as a national-religious neighborhood, and marketed aggressively to potential immigrants in the United States beginning in 1992. The neighborhood known as Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit, or Ramah Beit for short, was planned as a chareidi area. This is typical of building trends in Israel today; contractors are charged with creating communities, not just houses.
Considering that the Israel Lands Authority controls some 90 percent of Israel’s nearly five million nonforested acres, land for residential development is scarce. Israel suffers from a chronic housing shortage, and competition for land allocations between competing contractors, or buyers’ groups representing different religious sectors, is fierce.
That’s why many locals claimed there was an agenda fueling former Beit Shemesh mayor Daniel Vaknin’s decision to allocate land for the Orot girls’ school in Ramah Beit. Orot is a state religious school serving girls from the national-religious sector who reside in the Sheinfeld neighborhood, which abuts Ramah Beit. Vaknin’s decision to situate the school past the border, about 300 meters from Ramah Beit’s residential area, was seen as an attempt to curb chareidi expansion.
According to Matti Rosenzweig, a resident of Ramah Beit and spokesman for the municipality of Beit Shemesh, this wasn’t the only time Vaknin utilized the tactic. Rosenzweig claims that the exact same scenario played out in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, which was not officially declared a chareidi neighborhood; most of its residents are dati-leumi. At the time, then-mayor Daniel Vaknin designated a plot of land in the center of Ramah Alef’s chareidi section for a “school for languages and culture,” with the express purpose, in his own words, of curbing the growth of the chareidi populace in the town. “The students in this school are bused in to the school from their homes in the Old City at the municipality’s expense,” Rosenzweig says. “The minister of education refuses to make any adjustments to this arrangement.”
Ramah Beit may not be the only neighborhood struggling with the aftermath of the Vaknin era. But it’s the most infamous, because a group of locals, known as sikrikim, decided early on to combat what they saw as an affront to their religious sensitivities.
The sikrikim were given their name by more moderate chareidim in these neighborhoods, who view them as the modern-day counterparts to the Sicarii sect — the “men of the dagger” at the end of the Second Beis HaMikdash era, who were prone to violence, opposed any form of compromise with the Roman occupation of Eretz Yisrael, and were willing to harm fellow Jews to advance their agenda.
The sikrikim, who according to current Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul number no more than 30 activists out of perhaps 100 families identifying with the group, have taken it upon themselves to dictate standards for anyone entering their neighborhood.
The Orot girls and their families are all from shomer Shabbos backgrounds — although their dress codes differ from the standard and far more austere Yerushalmi garb of the sikrikim, most of whom are originally from Jerusalem and moved to Ramah Beit for affordable housing. In the Middle East, quiet and cultured diplomacy is seen as ineffective and as a sign of weakness. Riots, protest, and sometimes violence are widely viewed as the only real bargaining chips of the masses. So two years ago, the sikrikim began to “bargain” by forcibly blocking the first tractor heading toward the Orot construction site.
Mayor Moshe Abutbul, a chareidi who was then at the end of his first year in the position, brokered a shaky peace agreement, urging the Orot network to house the girls’ school in a different facility. The ensuing quiet lasted for a year and a half, until the beginning of the current school year, when the “offending” facility was opened for girls. The sikrikim leapt into action in response and began perpetrating acts of violence against the school. This time, they targeted the students as well, putting them through a vile gauntlet of name-calling and spitting as the hapless girls headed to and from school.
Then the media discovered the story. Last Friday night, a widely viewed and expertly filmed television report told the story of Naama Margolese, an eight-year-old Sheinfeld resident who’s palpably, pitifully afraid to walk to the Orot school. The story proved to the secular viewer beyond a shadow of a doubt that Beit Shemesh had been overtaken by masses of belligerent, black-clad aggressors.
But beyond that, the media conflated the reprehensible behavior of the fringe group with the greater chareidi community’s strictures and standards. Suddenly, this was not the story of a mayor’s blunder, a poorly placed school, or an untamed group of extremists. It became the frightening story of a Taliban in the making, of the chareidi masses coercing innocent Israelis to adhere to rigid laws, suppressing women’s rights, and disregarding democratic procedures.
Even though Beit Shemesh locals are aware that the sikrikim do not reflect normative chareidi perspective or behavior, the local media, international media, and government officials have linked the story to chareidi ascendancy. As the New York Times reported, “For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women … The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly ‘kosher’ buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back.”
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