Proportionality in Bet Shemesh

I was contacted yesterday to ask if I would be willing to participate in a BBC panel of Beit Shemesh residents, to discuss the situation at Orot Banot.

When the Israel Defence Forces undertake operations against terror groups, Israel’s critics throw the word “disproportionate” into their (knee-jerk) condemnations.

As in: The top UN human rights official says Israel's military response to the firing of rockets at its territory by Palestinian militants is "disproportionate."

Here in Beit Shemesh, the dispute between the ultra-orthodox “Sikrikim” and the Orot Banot school, has indisputably become the main news-story in Israel.

Whereas the news abroad is full of human-interest stories, here in Israel's corner of the Middle East we’ve got existential threats from Iran's Nuclear bomb, the Syrian civil-war, Islamic Fundamentalists elected to power in Egypt, Hamas joining with the PLO… Some reasonably serious news items.

Nevertheless, literally half of the morning news on the radio and hours of TV, has been taken up with discussions about the behaviour of the “Sikrikim”, and other gender discrimination issues in wider Chareidi society, such as gender-segregated buses, and “Modesty” signs posted in Chareidi neighborhoods.

Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, publicly encouraged people to attend this week’s demonstration in Beit Shemesh.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised the prospect of dividing Beit Shemesh (100,000 residents) into two cities – a Chareidi city, and a non-Chareidi city.

The title of the proposed BBC Forum discussion was “Are Ultra-Orthodox Extremists a Threat to Israel’s Democracy?”

A reasonable question, in light of the wall-to-wall press coverage of the Orot Banot story in Israel.

Of course the answer to the BBC’s question is a straight “No”.

That’s why I said I wasn’t interested to participate, and probably why the panel discussion idea didn’t get off the ground. Such a daft question, doesn’t justify a panel discussion.

Of course, the issues raised by the sikrikim have wider relevance in Israeli society, but, actually, it is a very focused territorial squabble between a couple of hundred extremists neighbors, and one local girls school.   

The Beit Shemesh Parents leaders, particularly Rabbi Dov Lipman, have organized an outstanding campaign, and have succeeded in getting this local dispute front-page national and even international exposure.

Literally, beyond our wildest dreams.

At this point, it’s now time to re-adjust the balance, and to examine whether the proposed solutions to the problem, such as turning Beit Shemesh into Cold-War Berlin, may be "disproportionate".


  1. When it comes to Israel, BBC stands for "Bash, Blame, Criticize"

    At any rate, here's an interesting argument. When Yugoslavia fell apart the three main nationalities, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia went to war mainly because of their ethnic brothers living in the other states. For example, the Serbs did what they could to grab Serb-heavy areas of Croatia, and the others did likewise.
    Now, what would have happened if, instead, there would have been forcible migration of the population to their "home countries"? Yes, it sounds reprehensible to remove people from their homes based on nationality but if all the Serbs had gone back to Serbia and all the Croats, etc. might 7 years of war all that death and destruction been averted?
    Sometimes people cannot live together and forcing them to mingle just doesn't work.

  2. David,
    As always, thanks for taking the time to blog!
    I believe that in of itself an isolated incident, however disgraceful, cannot be described as an existential threat to anything.
    However, taken in the wider context of other attempts by not just the extremists, but others, to take control of the public domain, is a matter that deserves grave thought and action.
    Don't underestimate the bigger picture (which I know you don't)
    I think that we also have a golden opportunity as a result of the last few months to look carefully at the "status quo" that has been eroded and the wider implications that these questions have for us a community, both from a practical point of view within Beit Shemesh, but also from a broader perspective as we look forward to how society will look and feel in the next 50 years of the State of Israel.
    This requires proper and open debate, and an ability to look afresh at certain axioms that we have accepted for the last 50 years.

  3. Garnel - Israel has done a pretty amazing job, over the past 60 years, of merging Jews from all over the world (Ethiopians, Russians, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Temanim, chiloni, dati, chareidi...left wing, right wing, anarchist, rich, poor, etc) and even a million Israeli Arabs, into a functioning, even thriving, State.

    And that's aside from the devastating external threats.

    We're not talking a disintegrated Yugoslavia here, PG.

  4. Daniel - the 'bigger picture' is surely important.

    But here's the crux.

    If the extremists were to agree to lay-off Orot, no more demonstrations, no more spitting and cursing, simply go home and back to kollel - has the campaign achieved its aims?

    Or are we after bigger changes, deeper fixes, a broader sweep? Stop the segregated buses? No more Livush Tzanua signs? Abutbol to resign?

    I leave it as an open question.

  5. David,

    You of all people should understand the deeper implications of which Daniel speaks.

    As an early "pioneer" in RBSA I have seen what the Charedi drive for control has done to Lema'an Achai.

    Years back everyone knew that Lema'an Achai was the premier tzedaka organization in town. Anyone wishing to support or benefit from true tzedaka and chesed would turn to Lema'an Achai.

    Today you guys have to pay second fiddle. Not becuase you are any less..if anything you (and Lema'an Achai) have improved with age.

    You now have to compete with organizations that have endless financial resource and Charedi rabbinical backing.

    Their be the ONLY show in town by any means that it takes.

  6. Good post, David. I agree. It's all about a struggle over the school. I think "disproportionate" is an accurate depiction of the coverage.

  7. Yes, this began as a dispute among neighbors.

    And Beit Shemesh has seen plenty of these border-disputes over the past decade.

    However, it has now spun into something far beyond that.

    It is now about "Harediism" vs Israeli Democratic Values.

    If the extremists pack-up their protests and go back to kollel, leaving Orot Banot, I think we would see this as a failure. A missed opportunity.

    We're now after much larger goals.

  8. Miriam: "You now have to compete with organizations that have endless financial resource and Haredi rabbinical backing."

    You are absolutely right. The Kupa Shel Tzedaka must have spent well over 100,000 NIS cash on their Chanuka campaign. (And don't believe the lie that "sponsors" paid that).

    And their campaign was clearly "100%" directed at Lema'an Achai.

    "Rehabilitation of families", "putting them back on their feet", "financial work...employment counseling..etc" - they're cutting & pasting from Lema'an Achai's (much lest costly) PR.

    And meantime, over half the shuls in the neighborhood forbid Lema'an Achai from fundraising, under direct instruction from their rabbis.

    David - It's not just about Orot Banot.

    Don't fool yourself, the same goons, in litvish dress, are leading the "moderate haredim" in RBS Aleph too.

  9. It's clear that the Charedim are attempting to turn Bet Shemesh into a Charedi city. And they're well on their way in doing so. They probably have close to a majority of votes already, and certainly will after the next bunch of apartments are populated or if they move in a bunch of full-time yeshiva students at permanent residents. This whole issue with the sikrikim and Orot banot is just a sideshow (as far as Bet Shemesh is concerned, not necessarily as far as the nation is concerned).

    And the Charedim have no choice. They simply cannot bring their children up in a place where they can see other types of frum people living different kinds of frum lives.

  10. Efi at Best Market told me he did not pay for the sponsorship on the kupa shel Tzedeka huge banner


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