What’s Going On In Bet Shemesh?
By Menachem Lipkin
January 15, 2012

So, you’ve been reading these “Aliyah Updates” of mine for the past seven-plus years and you envision Bet Shemesh as this quiet suburban town not far from Jerusalem where we live an almost idyllic existence. Or maybe you even visited us here and you saw our quiet little neighborhood with its neat little cottages and kids happily playing in the streets. Then... BAM! After the airing of a news segment on a popular Friday night news show here in Israel, Bet Shemesh is suddenly leading the news all over the world; The New York Times, CNN,... you name it, and there’s the story about our little neighbor Naama Margolese who has to walk to school in terror as if she were a black girl living in Little Rock in 1957. What’s going on?

For starters, I have to come clean. There obviously wasn’t a sudden, one-time event that generated all the news. This issue has been brewing for years. However, I made a conscious decision when I began writing my updates to keep things positive and light. That’s not to say that we’re living in some sort of “war zone” (well actually we ARE in a war zone but that’s not what we’re talking about right now). By and large our community and life here are very much as I’ve been representing it. In fact, it’s because we like it so much here that our entire community is fighting to hold on to we’ve got.

I guess a little historical background is in order. The “modern” city of Bet Shemesh was founded in the 1950’s primarily by Sephardic immigrants from North Africa. As a relatively poor city it had the classification as a “development town”, which made it eligible for additional government funding. (A classification that remains to this day.) In the 1990’s Bet Shemesh absorbed waves of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. Also, during that time an entrepreneurial real estate agent began marketing a new neighborhood to ideological US immigrants as THE place to be. Bet Shemesh’s location midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv made it ideal for Anglo Olim, many of whom worked in high-tech and were in need of easy commutes to both of those cities. So the Givat Sharet neighborhood, as our area is known, became a magnet for Anglos during the 1990’s and 2000’s. Up until around 2002, our neighborhood was the southern most developed area of Bet Shemesh. Then, boom! A new neighborhood, Ramat Bet Shemesh Alef (RBS A) sprang up over night. RBS A, a few kilometers south and up a mountain, was originally planned as a mixed religious/secular neighborhood. It quickly became a mostly religious neighborhood with a mix of National Religious and Anglo Ultra-Orthodox (Chareidi). While RBS A was experiencing rapid growth, another neighborhood popped up between Givat Sharet and RBS A, uniquely named Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet (RBS B). Unlike RBS A, RBS B was attracting large numbers of Israeli Chareidim, many from Jerusalem Chareidi strongholds which could no longer keep up with the rapid growth of their populations. (The average Chareidi family has 8+ children.)

In a span of less then 20 years, Bet Shemesh had grown from a population of 40,000 to nearly 90,000. The demographic mix was also greatly altered. From a hodgepodge of Sepharidm, Russians, Ethiopians, Anglos, and Chareidim, the city is now nearly 50% Chareidi. And growth is continuing unabated. Work has already begun on, you guessed it, RBS C. Plans are to again double the population to nearly 200,000. The vast majority of this growth is expected to be from the Chareidi sector. And, in fact, much of the new building is being specifically designed and marketed to Chareidim. (This is one of the many points of contention.)

With that background I can now attempt to explain our local issue. In the fall of 2006 a row of apartment buildings was completed on the Northern most border of RBS B directly across the street from the Southern most buildings in Givat Sharet. (Which happens to be at the end of our block. Here’s a little map.) Among the Jerusualemites who moved in were a few people with very extreme ideology. They have extreme views on modesty, religion, and ... well you name it. Within a week after moving in, lime green signs started appearing on their terraces, facing us, saying “Daughter of Israel: The Torah obligates you to dress modestly”. Next, many of the people in the apartments on our block that faced these new folks received threatening notes warning that they could see the TVs in their homes and they had better move them so they can’t be seen from the street. There was “modesty” graffiti scrawled on our sidewalks. Israeli flags were ripped from our cars on Israel Independence Day. In general there was a constant low grade chain of such incidents. I’m not going to detail every one, but suffice it to say that there was a problem. Some of these people were so uncomfortable living in a “mixed” environment that they needed to act out every so often.

In the fall of 2007 a boys’ National Religious school opened at the end of that row of apartments. (“National Religious” is mostly closely associated with what is called “modern orthodox” in the US). The extremists protested, drew graffiti and did a few other nasty things, but eventually they gave up and left the school alone. Two years later ground was broken for the adjacent girls’ school. And, you guessed it, right away our buddies were out lying down in front of the tractors! Somehow they were convinced to give up. I firmly believe they were told that the school building would end up being given to them. As the new building neared completion in the summer of 2011 I would say to myself whenever I passed it, “This is going to be war”. Now it didn’t take a prophet to guess that, just a little common sense.

Sure enough, like clockwork, a few days before school started our extreme friends “occupied” the building. Our bumbling mayor, with all the wisdom of Billy goat, said he was not going to allow the building to open for fear of what these cretins might do. This, rather than asking the police to enforce the law and make sure the school opened peacefully. The school and community appealed to the Ministry Of Education which overrode the mayor allowing the school to open on schedule.

From the first day of school, a group of 20 or so extremists gathered on the sidewalk a couple of blocks up from the school and shouted at the kids as they walked by. One day they threw eggs from a roof top (see my video) another day they threw tomatoes. The police were present, but basically took a hands off approach, preferring to “keep the peace” rather than rock the boat by making arrests. Because I work at home and live nearby I was able to be out almost daily to help escort the students and to take pictures. (You can see me taking pictures in this video, which was taken on the first day of “festivities”.) There was a group of 5-10 of us who came out daily to photograph, escort, alert the police and in general let these hoodlums know that we’re not giving in. This went on pretty much unabated until the High Holiday vacation. After vacation they came out more sporadically. Altering their tactics and times. But for the most part we managed to stay on top of them. This is something these extremists are not used to. For some reason, Israelis, who are known for being so tough, generally stand down in the face this type of bullying, which occurs in many locations. As Americans, which most of us are, we have such an ingrained sense of personal liberty that there was, and is, no way we are going to back down let these people walk all over us. We’ll defend your right to practice your religion however you want, but if you don’t let us do the same then we will be in your face big time.

Since the story broke into the mainstream media a few weeks ago, it’s been quiet. The media attention forced the politicians to take notice, which in turn forced the police to become more aggressive. Arrests have been made and people have spent time in jail. We know this is not the end of it, but for now we’ve scored a small victory and we hope the media attention has acted as a tipping point for the entire country. The media embarrassment has also forced some religious leaders and organizations, both in Israel and around the world, to finally speak out against this insanity. Going to the media was a last resort, but clearly it was necessary. Unfortunately, there are still some leaders and media, who, rather than stand up and denounce this behavior and work to figure out what within their ranks has generated it, would rather circle the wagons and pretend that they are being persecuted. The first step in solving a problem is realizing that you have one.

Now just a little analysis.

If you ever watched the TV Show “24” you know that there’s always a bigger fish. What’s going on here is about much more than the sleeve lengths of 8 year old girls; it’s about politics, control, and limited resources.

On the political level, it’s no secret that, as part of the coalition agreement between the Likud and Shas parties, several cities, including Bet Shemesh, were designated as areas set aside to accommodate increased growth of the Chareidi population. This is actually written into the agreement! (See item #57) This has a created a sense, among some, that Bet Shemesh is destined to become entirely a Chareidi city and most, if not all, of the new building in RBS C is being designed for, and marketed to Chareidim. As such, some of the Chareidi leadership, both religious and lay, are using this sense of entitlement to exert greater control on all areas of the city. Combine this with an acute shortage of new schools caused by the rapid growth, high birthrate, and ridiculously poor city planning, and you can begin to to see why a brand spanking new school could be a source of contention. This particular school had been designated to serve the National Religious community nearly 10 years earlier, so in effect what’s going on is a classic attempt to “cut the line”.

Leaving out much of the gory detail, that’s pretty much it. You’re up to date. Now it’s very important that I make something crystal clear. While the particular issue we’re dealing with here is extremism from the Chareidi community, these people in no way represent all Chareidim. Most of the Chareidim that I know personally are among the finest people you could imagine. Also, this type of extremist behavior is not limited to Chareidim. In our own National Religious camp we have extremists setting fire to mosques and vandalizing our own army bases. And in the big picture, we live in a part of the world where Moslem extremists are about to get their finger on the button of a nuclear arsenal; where our extremist neighbors would much rather blow themselves up in a pizza parlor in attempt to destroy our state rather than build one of their own; where people who have been dying for freedom from Arab dictators are in the process of electing religious fanatics to rule them. And we won’t even talk about political, environmental, and so many other types of extremism plaguing the world because, well, all these extremists know, just know, they have THE truth.

Um, OK, getting a little too carried with the open and honest thing here... Don’t want to scare you people off.

Let’s talk about the positives.

Through this short term pain, we are hopefully looking at some important gains. The national response to our story has been incredible. Within minutes of seeing the original newscast about Naama, a young actor in Tel Aviv started a facebook group in support of her. Within a couple of days there were 10,000 people in that group. Within a week, instigated by that group, there was a rally held here in Bet Shemesh near the school. Thousands of people from all over the country showed up. Politicians and religious leaders came and spoke. Every single speaker hit the same basic message; we want this city and country to be a place for ALL its citizens, no one group should be favored or persecuted. There is now a national conversation going on about issues of religion and state, women’s issues, and religious extremism. It’s painful at times, but as a Jewish nation that is also a democracy we have to be vigilant about maintaining the precious balance between those, often conflicting, ideals.

Many believe that the increasing extremist behavior we’re seeing is actually a reaction to a broader moderation that’s going in the Chareidi world here in Israel. More and more Chareidim are joining the army, getting college degrees and going to work. As the demographics I mentioned earlier weigh heavier on the economics of this segment of our society, it’s becoming ever more clear that the broader society will not be able to sustain their voluntary unemployment rate in the range of 60%, much longer. There is even a new political party in formation led by an outstanding Chareidi Rabbi, Haim Amsalem, who is making this very moderation a cornerstone of his platform. Here’s an article that gives a glimpse into this man’s ideology. He’ll be someone to watch in Israeli politics.

Our daughter, Etana, has become an activist through this ordeal and we’re very proud of her. She jumps to help the cause whenever she can. She’s written blog posts and letters to the editor. She has become an articulate spokeswoman, giving video and newspaper interviews. (Even in Hebrew!)

For me, the past few years have been a tremendous growth experience. I’ve always felt that one can learn so much by being exposed to and having to cope with bad behavior. Understanding, first hand, what is hurtful to you can make you so much more sensitive about not being hurtful to others. Being exposed to such extreme religious ideology and behavior has helped me see clearly what it really means to be religious. While ritual behavior is important in creating a sense of purpose and allegiance, in excess it can also be like an addictive narcotic. So much emphasis is placed on religious “growth” that, like a drug, one can quickly reach a “tolerance” and require a higher dose. Ideally, growth should reflect a balance between ritual and interpersonal behavior, but there is often pressure to look and act more religious, which places undo emphasis on the ritual side. Beyond that, having been exposed to so much extreme ritual behavior and seeing how, in contradiction to what religious observance is supposed to lead us to, it becomes a wedge to divide, rather than means to unite, I’ve learned to allow ritual to defer to national, communal, and interpersonal needs whenever at all possible.

As an added bonus I’ve had the opportunity to take my photography hobby to a new level. If you’ve seen the YouTube video taken on those first days of the protests against the school,yYou’ll see me out there with my camera in people’s faces. I’ve had the opportunity to take over 1000 pictures related to this situation and some have appeared in print and online, with photo credits! Unfortunately I still haven’t figured out how to monetize this endeavor yet.

I’ll leave you with this beautiful excerpt from a book by the UK’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called “The Dignity of Difference”. Though I highly recommend the entire book, this excerpt crystalizes both the source of the problem of worldwide extremism and its solution.

Rabbi Shimon said: When God was about to create Adam, the ministering angels split into contending groups. Some said, ‘Let him be created.’Others said, ‘Let him not be created.’ That is why it is written: ‘Mercy and truth collided, righteousness and peace clashed’ (Psalm 85:11).

Mercy said, "’Let him be created, because he will do merciful deeds.’

Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will be full of falsehood.’
Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.’

Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarrelling.’

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do?
He took truth and threw it to the ground.

The angels said, ‘Sovereign of the universe, why do You do thus to Your own seal, truth? Let truth arise from the ground.’

Thus it is written, ‘Let truth spring up from the earth’ (Psalm 85:12)

This is an audacious theological interpretation. God, it suggests, was in two minds before creating mankind. Yes, humanity is capable of great acts of altruism and self-sacrifice, but it is also constantly at war. Human beings tell lies and are full of strife. God takes truth and throws it to the ground, meaning: for life to be livable, truth on earth cannot be what it is in heaven. Truth in heaven may be platonic – eternal, harmonious, radiant. But man cannot aspire to such truth, and if he does, he will create conflict not peace. Men kill because they believe they posses the truth while their opponents are in error. In that case, says God, throwing truth to the ground, let human beings live by a different standard of truth, one that is human and thus conscious of its limitations. Truth on the ground is multiple, partial. Fragments of it lie everywhere. Each person, culture and language has part of it; none has it all.