Beit Shemesh, Israel's Town of Ultra-Orthodox Hate, Steps Back From Brink

Tenuous Calm Where Haredi Radicals Taunted Schoolgirls

Stepping Back: The Israeli town of Beit Shemesh nearly exploded after ultra-Orthodox men taunted schoolgirls for not dressing ‘modestly’ enough. A year later, calm has returned as the town has taken a step back from conflict.
Stepping Back: The Israeli town of Beit Shemesh nearly exploded after ultra-Orthodox men taunted schoolgirls for not dressing ‘modestly’ enough. A year later, calm has returned as the town has taken a step back from conflict.

By JTA

Published February 15, 2013.
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Meeting in Geal-Dor’s home, the 11-person roundtable includes leaders of the city’s various haredi sects, Modern Orthodox activists like Geal-Dor and secular representatives like Zvi Zameret, a professor at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. Participants say they have successfully prevented brewing conflicts from escalating.

Last year, haredi leaders dissuaded their followers from tearing up Israeli flags on Israel’s Independence Day – previously an annual practice. And the group has collaborated on efforts that benefit all city residents, like pushing for renovations on the city’s main road.

The young men’s study group, run by the nonprofit organization Be a Mensch, aims to replicate the roundtable’s formula at the grassroots. Modern Orthodox, haredi and secular boys gather on Friday and Saturday nights to sing, dance, study Torah and pray. Boys also meet during the week for discussions on interreligious issues and have held large communal events during the High Holidays and Sukkot. Plans are in the works to create a similar girls’ group.

“We felt like we had the same common values,” said Yehuda Schain, the group’s haredi leader. “The people who are coming to the meetings are already open to understanding. People come out and say, ‘We want to meet again.’”

Wonderful Women, the film group, is trying to defuse conflict by producing documentaries. So far, the group has produced three films touching on the underlying divides between the group’s participants: one about a reunion between secular and haredi childhood friends, another on differing views of women’s prayer, and a third about two grandmothers, one a kibbutznik and the other a chasid.

“It allows people to create and meet, not just talk,” said Hila Timor Ashur, Wonderful Women’s founder. “I wanted people to really get to know each other. We’re all women, we all have the same kitchens. Our kids have the same problems.”

For the Beit Shemesh women’s council, which has existed for almost five years, the central challenge of the conflagration in 2011 was preventing ongoing conflict within the group. After months of lingering tension, the women brought in mediators last year for three months of weekly meetings.

Brenda Ganot, a Modern Orthodox council member, said that while the sessions were generally conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, they are unlikely to solve much.

“People are still afraid,” Ganot said. “The greatest fear is that the city will become a haredi city. There’s not a day I don’t wake up and say, ‘Why am I still in Beit Shemesh?’”


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