Orthodox Growth Tests Multiculturalism in Flashpoint Beit Shemesh

Scandal-Ridden City Is Test Case for Israeli Society

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By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 26, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.
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Likewise, in the bureau of Greenberg’s ally Abutbul, who represents another Haredi party, Shas, there is denial of any push to make the public sphere more religious. Questioned by the Forward, Abutbul’s spokesman, Mati Rosenzweig, claimed that the politician’s comment about Beit Shemesh’s importance as a Haredi city pertained only to the number of Haredim it would accommodate, not to the ratio of Haredim to others or to the city’s character.

Out on the streets, Greenberg’s contention that only one sign remains is patently untrue. Some of his supporters insist that the signs are legitimate, while the imposed Haredi-ization of public space is shown to go deeper than 20 individuals. And there is something that grates with the non-Haredi public even more than Sabbath road closures would — an attempt to create a frum, devout, sidewalk.

On a street with two large kollels, talmudic institutes, that have dozens of students between them, signs mounted on lampposts ask women to cross the road to allow a few yards of sidewalk to be for male-only use. A teacher from one of the kollels — a hard-liner who refuses to vote in elections because he wants nothing to do with the State of Israel — told the Forward that the idea is that men studying there will not need to see or encounter women. “Of course it’s right,” insisted the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People need to understand our outlook and their place in the world.”

For this man, who is in his 20s, the multiculturalism that Cohen believes hangs in the balance was never an option. Asked about the gulf between the Haredi and non-Haredi populations, he said: “It’s not a problem, it’s a good thing. We need separation.”

There are many Beit Shemesh Haredim who take a very different view, enjoy good relations with their non-Haredi counterparts and hope for coexistence. “We have a good chance to live together; people just need to calm down a little,” said Rafael Perlman, 52, a Haredi real estate broker.

But the questions still to be answered are what is the strength of the more extremist Haredim and to what extent will they set the tone in the city? Avrohom Leventhal, a rabbi who describes himself as occupying the line between the Haredi and the Modern Orthodox community, said that while he believes the extremists to be in a small minority, the reticence of rabbis and politicians to stand up to them means that they wield strength far beyond their numbers.

“The problem is anyone who tolerates it — anyone that approves it with their silence,” said Leventhal, director of a local charity and candidate for council with a moderate religious party.

Leventhal believes that the correct leadership can rein in the extremists, but some Beit Shemesh old-timers say that the past few years have brought them to the same conclusion as the teacher from the kollel. Max Rodriges, a 44-year-old native of the city who works in transport, said: “Build them separate towns; it’s the only answer. The average Haredi can’t live with people who are different, because of their way of life.”

Broadening his comments to the national Israeli context, Rodriges commented: “In reality it’s not possible to work together. Here’s the classic example: We’re 20 years together, and then it explodes.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com

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