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.


Published February 15, 2013.
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Ganot’s fears point to deep divisions that persist in the city, despite the reconciliation efforts. Secular and Modern Orthodox residents, like Ganot, blame the conflict on extremists within a growing haredi community that now makes up 45 percent of city residents.

“You can’t blame the haredim, but their rabbis don’t stop it,” said Dick Fisch, 73, a South African immigrant who has lived in Beit Shemesh for 11 years. “They have to tell them, ‘You don’t behave like this.’ These are gangsters. After this last confrontation, they understand that if you break the law, you suffer consequences.”

For their part, haredi leaders say the extremists are a tiny minority, comprising a few hundred people at most, and that the blame lies with Israeli media for polarizing the conflict and blowing it out of proportion.

“During the struggle, the whole haredi population supported the haredi side, and vice versa,” said Pappenheim. “Ninety or 99 percent of haredim wouldn’t have accepted the spitting, the demonstrations. But when the press was against the haredim, we came together.”

Many activists fear that, with municipal elections scheduled for October, the simmering tensions in Beit Shemesh easily could be triggered anew. A haredi candidate, Moshe Abutbul, won the last mayoral race in 2008, and his critics – roundtable participants among them – note that he has presided over an expansion of haredi housing in the city.

Abutbul counters that he has worked to calm tensions, supporting the roundtable and building entertainment venues for the city’s secular residents.

“Elections and tension go together,” Abutbul told JTA. He said he isn’t worried about an escalation.

Pappenheim is less certain. Residents “are still licking their wounds” from 2011, and that the next round may not be far away, he said.

“Now it’s on a low burner,” he added. “It can flare up with the next elections. When the fire breaks out, the rules change.”

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