After an 8-year-old girl was harassed by ultra-Orthodox men on her way to a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh, the condemnations started pouring in.
Israel’s prime minister and president vowed that Israel would not tolerate haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, violence against women, whether directed at girls walking to school or women riding on public buses. Israel’s opposition leader, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, attended a demonstration of thousands on Dec. 27 in Beit Shemesh.
In the United States, too, the condemnations came fast and furious: Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudath Israel of America (the haredi Orthodox umbrella body) were among the many groups that responded.
There appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent: Israeli haredim themselves.
That’s because there is some ambivalence among haredi Israelis when it comes to religious zealotry.
“The question isn’t how many haredim support haredi violence and how many do not,” said sociologist Menachem Friedman, an expert on haredi life and professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University. “The problem is that most haredim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them.”
The violent zealots come largely from the Edah HaCharedis, a community of anti-Zionist haredim that is particularly strict even by haredi standards and has strongholds in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The Edah is closely aligned with the Satmar Chassidic sect.
“Some, perhaps a small segment [of haredim] really do support the violence,” Friedma said. “The majority perhaps opposes the violence and knows that ultimately it’s bad for Judaism, but doesn’t have the courage to go out and oppose it publicly.”
At least one haredi leader in Israel had that courage.
“If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken,” said Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the Jerusalem-based leader of the Belz Chassidim.
Rokeach’s comments, made during a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at his synagogue on Dec. 25, were tepid by secular standards, but they marked a rare foray into current events by the rebbe, who has an estimated 45,000 followers worldwide.
But the roundabout way his message was delivered — and the scant media coverage given to haredi opposition to the violence — is indicative both of the difficulties outsiders have with discerning shades of gray in haredi society and the ambivalence within the haredi world toward using violence to achieve religious aims.
For one thing, Israeli haredi condemnations of violence are not delivered the same way as condemnations in the non-haredi world. They are generally directed inward, not outward; they tend to be delivered not in statements to the press but as words of Torah to followers; they are often spoken not in English or Hebrew, but in Yiddish; and they are expressed less as a reaction to current events than as calls for dignified behavior by Torah-observant Jews.
Rokeach’s speech was unusual both because it referred to current events and because it was aimed, at least in part, at a wider audience. Most haredi leaders stayed silent.
There are haredim who oppose extremism but fear speaking out because they do not want to be seen as lax in matters of religion.
When Rabbi David Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon sect of Chassidim, spoke out a few years ago against religious violence (via a Yiddish-language Torah exegesis of the story of Pinchas the zealot in the Book of Numbers), he quickly was condemned in placards posted around his Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.
Other haredim don’t speak out because they see fights like the one in Beit Shemesh not as a battle between extremists and moderates but as part of a broader Israeli assault on haredi life led by the mainstream Israeli media.
“The source of the pollution is in halachah [Jewish law] itself,” former Knesset member Yossi Sarid wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Sarid called for the disqualification of haredi parties from the Knesset. On Ha’aretz’s English-language website, the article was headlined “Orthodox Judaism treats women like filthy little things.”
Facing such hostility, some haredim say, why get involved at all?
And then there is the large segment of haredim who see themselves as totally apart from the haredim perpetrating the violence. Their attitude is that if it’s not their community members, it’s not their business and they don’t need to get involved.
While to an outsider all haredim may look alike — with their black coats, hats and beards — the haredi community is as fractured as the Jewish community as a whole. It is Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Chassidic and non-Chassidic, moderate and extremist.
But in a world seen by outsiders as monolithic, all haredim inevitably are associated with the extremism of a few, and haredi silence is seen as affirmation of haredi bad behavior.
When the main haredi umbrella organization in America issued its statement condemning the Beit Shemesh violence, it also took a shot at those denigrating haredim in general.
“Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended,” Agudath Israel of America said in its statement. “It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many.
“Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.”