On Tuesday, ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman had no mention of the religious clashes in Beit Shemesh on its front page. Instead, the headline trumpeted a letter signed by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered the leader of the non-Hasidic, “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox.
“We must protest and warn of all sorts of trends from outside to strike at the cruse of pure oil, to alter the spirit and the essence of the ultra-Orthodox public,” blared the headline. The letter called for boycotting all the new study tracks designated for Haredim in academia, and employment programs in the army and civil service, since they were intended to form “a group of ultra-Orthodox subordinate to persons who have thrown off the burden [of obedience to the commandments], their rule and their culture.”
The missive was written three weeks ago, but intended for publication during Hanukkah. It had no connection to this week’s events, but it does cast new light on them.
The gender-segregated bus lines have been plying the country’s roads for several years now, the fanatic ultra-Orthodox ghetto in Beit Shemesh is not new and the modesty signs urging women to avoid places where men congregate or walk are a part of the landscape there. The city’s extremists, known as the Sicarii, have been harassing little girls from the modern-Orthodox community for four months now. Why did this flare into a storm at now of all times?
While some among the secular would say that it’s due to growing ultra-Orthodox extremism, which is only now being exposed in the media, Knesset members from United Torah Judaism believe the timing is entirely cynical, a result of the race heating up between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud ), Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ), opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni (Kadima ) and Labor Party chair MK Shelly Yachimovich. Netanyahu knows he does not have a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties UTJ and Shas, and that both parties will leave the government if he launches a conflict with the ultra-Orthodox, even though they have no better coalition option. And in one month, the test period set by the High Court of Justice for determining whether gender segregation on buses is being done voluntarily (rather than by coercion ) will come to an end.
There may be another explanation behind the ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ exhortations about the unseen hand reaching for the “cruse of pure oil.” Are the rabbis – and the Sicarii – sensing dramatic internal changes within ultra-Orthodox society itself?
This is not the first time Rabbi Elyashiv has denounced higher education, but it’s unlikely that he has ever before issued such a sweeping prohibition of participation by the ultra-Orthodox in any kind of framework beyond Torah study. The rabbi is denouncing vocational training, ultra-Orthodox colleges and military and civil service because their initiators “acknowledge openly that the aim of all these trends is to alter the spirit and essence of the ultra-Orthodox public and to introduce all kinds of aspirations, national and ‘enlightened,’ of which our forefathers never conceived and to promote integration with secular and sinful people.”
Fanning the hatred A broader reference to current events can be found in the remarks of another Lithuanian rabbi, which also appeared in Yated Neeman. Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach wrote, “The spirit of rapprochement with the general [secular] public is causing the great hatred.” It is generally believed, or at least said, that the answer to hatred is reconciliation and dialogue. Actually, the Lithuanian leadership believes the answer is distancing and separatism. A more radical approach, both separatist and anti-Zionist, characterizes Those who have sanctified separatism and anti-Zionism are the extremist ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit, which is descended from descendants of the pre-Zionist Jewish community in Palestine, and which today controls Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. Most extreme are Unlike the mainstream ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Auerbach, the extremist Sicarii: They do not even want to dissipate the hatred.
“The more you disparage us, the better,” they told us in Beit Shemesh this week. This is the essence of the fanatic ideology, which has drawn attention due to several cases in recent years – the ultra-Orthodox mother arrested for starving her child, the fight over opening Jerusalem’s Karta parking lot on Shabbat, the ancient graves alongside Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade and more. Two decades ago, Eda rabbis were already permitting young fanatics from Mea She’arim to move to the increasingly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh. The extreme Lithuanian courts of Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, Toldot Aharon and smaller groups like Torah Veyireh and the Pharisees are all sending members to the new neighborhoods there. They have done a remarkable job of establishing a fanatic ghetto. The Sicarii within this ghetto are terrorizing Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet as well as the rabbis. No one in the ultra-Orthodox camp is willing to clash with them.
Yet winds of change are blowing even among the most fanatic camp. Once, former Eda Haredit spokesman Shmuel Pappenheim was frequently dispatched to represent the official, extreme anti-Zionist line and to defend his sect, Toldot Aharon. But Pappenheim, a Beit Shemesh resident, recently came out of the closet as a sworn reformist: He is studying for a degree at Bar-Ilan University and heads an office encouraging ultra-Orthodox employment in Beit Shemesh, on top of his other public activities.
Pappenheim thinks that in the ultra-Orthodox’s clash with outsiders, the extremists on both sides are failing to see the powerful processes underway in the ultra-Orthodox mainstream: The ultra-Orthodox are irreversibly opening up, he believes.
“This week I spoke before a Scout troop in Jerusalem, alongside a representative of Yisrael Hofshit [Be Free Israel, an organization that works to advance religious freedom and other democratic values], who denounced ultra-Orthodox extremism,” says Pappenheim. “I told her she was missing the entire point. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox public has begun to understand that it needs to take its fate into its hands. There are thousands of ultra-Orthodox in the army, in academia, in the free professions. Are they telling us we’re in a religious war? On the contrary. The religious public is heading toward something great, and the rabbis’ attempts to stop this are like the rooster running in circles after being beheaded.”
The Sicarii are acting out of frustration, not ideology, he says. “They see society around them progressing and are frustrated. They do not really think; they just act violently for the sake of causing action and chaos.”
Pappenheim believes the rabbis’ attempts to turn back time are destined to fail. “I’m not seeing any students dropping out of ultra-Orthdox colleges” due to Rabbi Elyashiv’s letter, he says. “That isn’t going to help anymore. Maybe this is the rabbis’ job, to try to stop the flow so that 16-year-old boys know their only aim in life is to study Torah, but this process is reality.”
Pappenheim himself is being smeared by wall posters declaring, “Greeks have ganged up on us!” and draws condemnations from his extremist neighbors, but as the son of an aristocratic Toldot Aharon family, he retains access to the top.
“A married yeshiva student from Toldot Avraham Hasidut is serving in Shahar [a prestigious Israel Defense Forces technology program for married yeshiva students]. Things are happening. I told my rebbe and he asked: ‘What? Do you think our married yeshiva students will also be there?’ I said it could happen. He said, ‘Such a thing should not come to us,’ and I told him that while his role may be to prevent it, this is the process. We need to understand this and not shut our eyes. He knows this well. A month ago President [Shimon] Peres visited [Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s daughter] Adina Bar-Shalom’s ultra-Orthodox college in Jerusalem. In the first row were three married yeshiva students from Toldot Aharon.”
Conflicting changes Pappenheim’s remarks show that the discussion about “growing ultra-Orthdox extremism” ignores the fact that this sector, like the national religious sector, is going through conflicting processes. The public at large is now noticing the modesty revolution, which includes the segregated buses, the “Taliban” women in black cloaks, the gender segregation at the health clinics in Beit Shemesh and the advertising companies’ reluctance to post outdoor ads with pictures of women in Jerusalem, but it has been going on for years.
But there are only a few dozen women in cloaks and a few hundred hot-headed Sicarii. Even if we generalize and include the thousands of Gur Hasidim – the largest Hasidic faction, known for its obsessiveness on matters of sexuality and whose functionaries have been pushing segregated buses for years – this is still only a minority within the ultra-Orthodox sector.
This minority certainly is smaller than the large group of ultra-Orthodox women – including women from Gur – working in the free professions and high-tech, the thousands of men and women studying at ultra-Orthodox colleges and the men volunteering for special ultra-Orthodox programs in the IDF and civil service. And many more ultra-Orthodox use computers, smartphones and the Internet, despite the rabbis’ loud but futile war against these technologies. Even if these people are still a minority, they are a much larger minority than the extremists.
Economic distress alone is enough to push the ultra-Orthodox to reform, which in turn damages the supreme ultra-Orthodox value of separatism, “the pure cruse of oil.” The change in values is keeping the rabbis awake at night. The more openness there is, the more they seek to close things off. That is how Orthodoxy was born 200 years ago, that is how the “Taliban” sect in Beit Shemesh was born and that is likely how innovations like “kosher electricity” will be born – out of the growing push for strictness and the ultra-Orthodox representatives’ intoxication with political power – as well as the secular politicians’ ignorance.
The segregated buses were not intended to exclude women; they were intended to exclude secular people, to create a sanctified ultra-Orthodox space detached from the threatening outside world. The new ultra-Orthodox suburbs of Beitar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit were intended as sacred ultra-Orthodox ghettoes, sometimes with the help of secret “acceptance committees” that filtered out the newly observant, the national religious and sometimes also Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox. The Lithuanian girls’ schools make a point of accepting only students “like ourselves,” meaning no Mizrahim. Likewise the Haredim developed their own transportation system under the nose of Egged, Dan and the High Court of Justice.
The radical idea that came out of the Prime Minister’s Bureau this week, to split Beit Shemesh into two municipalities based on sectoral affiliation, no doubt appeals to some of the ultra-Orthodox extremists. But Pappenehim says that in order to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into workplaces, colleges and military service, they need unique frameworks that allow for gender segregation. “There is no other way,” he says.
Aryeh Goldhaber is an activist in the ultra-Orthodox reformist movement “Tov,” in Beit Shemesh. He says ultra-Orthodox people like him are suffering both at the hands of the extremists and from the authorities’ blind eye. He, like Pappenheim, favors tough police action against the fanatics, because the “violent campaign against the ultra-Orthodox” is driving moderate members of his community to close ranks with the Sicarii.
Unlike Rabbi Elyashiv, he says, “We are happy to be active partners in the larger Israeli society – in employment, the army and studies, but the more openness there is, the louder the extremists shout.” Pressure from Shas and UTJ is pushing the establishment to ignore ultra-Orthodox reformists, “and this is making things difficult for us.”
Failed Messiah continues with his own assessment of the situation.