A Multi-vocal Conversation

I’ve been trying to gather information, from 6,000 miles away, in order to form some opinions on what appears to be a complex situation in Beit Shemesh. I’m still in the midst of absorbing what I’ve read and heard, so for the most part, I’ll let some others doing the talking for now. To gain a broader perspective, I’ve been reading widely, giving equal time, you might say, to Hamodia and Ha’aretz, the newspaper of Israel’s liberal, secular elites. Gideon Levy, an Ha’aretz columnist who sits on its editorial board, writes:

As expected, the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox, all of them, went beyond all proportion. But we can relax: The scandal of the week will quickly die down. The trendy word “exclusion” will return to its obscurity…. It was an artificial fuss: The signs had been there for years until the television cameras captured them. The spitting incident was shameful, but the scandal was overdone.… The fury that erupted on Monday in Beit Shemesh, with one policeman injured and two ultra-Orthodox men arrested, broke out only because the media showed up.
This incident too will be forgotten. I was there. Eggs splattered around me, and the ultra-Orthodox shouted “Nazi, Nazi” at me, too. Still, I didn’t get angry at them or hate them. The secular population attacked them with raging and sweeping hatred, and they reacted with similar emotions.

So what’s left to do? Beit Shemesh is becoming more ultra-Orthodox. It’s the right of the ultra-Orthodox to settle there and live as they wish, as long as they don’t force their lifestyle on the secular and don’t hurt them. In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, I got the impression there are many people who just want to be left alone. I met quite a few people there who… expressed a wish to live together in harmony.

They too are the victims of the violence and terror of a handful of extremists, and these extremists, and only they, are the ones who must be dealt with. Lumping all ultra-Orthodox people together, stirring up the basest instincts against them, is no less deplorable than stirring up hatred of the secular population.…Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox are not the only enemies of enlightenment and freedom around, and it’s doubtful they’re the most dangerous. But they’re a convenient and easy punching bag.…

Levy had yet more to say in another column:

Oy, how good and how pleasant to find an issue worthy of protest from time to time, the kind that won’t make too many people angry, the kind that almost everyone can identify with, the kind that we can even be proud of: Look at us, the Israeli fighters for democracy and equality. How good and how pleasant, too, to single out Israel’s public enemy number one: the Haredim, the “black hats,” all of them. We are allowed to blame them as much as we like; nobody will pay any price for that. We enlightened liberals won’t tolerate exclusion.… The exclusion of Haredi women really is infuriating, but the exclusion of other injustices from the agenda – the kind that are not as good and pleasant to oppose – is far more infuriating.

[E]ven if 10,000 Haredi women arise and say leave us and our religious practices alone, we won’t surrender and we won’t give in. Tanya [Rosenblit]will sit in the front seat, in spite of them.… Israelis will furiously oppose discrimination against Haredi women, but won’t do the same when it comes to discrimination against secular women, which is sometimes far worse, even if they are permitted to sit wherever they please on the bus.… But the battle against the Haredim is terribly trendy as well as selective. Tanya will sit in the front seat of the bus at all costs, and we will continue to avert our gaze from what is happening in the back seat of society.

Ha’aretz columnist Israel Harel echoed Levy on the rank hypocrisy of selective outrage:

From the strident tones of the past few days, one can safely assume that the goal of most of the critics, including the religious ones, is Haredi-bashing, pure and simple.
But the Haredim are subject to different laws than everyone else – except, perhaps, the settlers. How easy it is to unite against them, especially during Hanukkah, and sing with great feeling that old holiday favorite, “Banu Hoshech Legaresh,” “We have come to banish darkness”.… Problems similarly in need of eradication, but on an incomparably greater scale, also exist in other communities. But political correctness accords greater import to the segregation of women in Haredi society than to emotional abuse, [physical] abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and pornography in other communities.

This political correctness certainly bars open discussion… of Arabs and Bedouin enticing Jewish girls from peripheral communities and poor homes to leave their parents and move to Arab villages, though this is kidnapping in every sense of the word when the girl is a minor. Although this phenomenon is well known, it is rarely reported, and the police and welfare authorities rarely take action even when parents file complaints. Nor is anyone as interested in the stories of those girls who manage to flee… as they were in the story of Naama Margolese last week.… Why?

Are other writers in Ha’aretz and elsewhere taking far different positions from these fellows? Sure. Are the politics of Levy and Harel on a host of issues repellent to me? Yes. But don’t we broad-minded people like to sample what others are saying in all sorts of places, even Ha’aretz?

But here’s what’s curious. These writers, who are far from Chareidi, come across as far more savvy, far less credulous about what this tempest is really all about than, for example, a well-regarded American Orthodox commentator who wrote in rather overwrought terms of how the “future of our charedi community is quite literally in existential danger as the tension in Beit Shemesh plays itself out in the international media” and of how efforts to combat the scourge of child abuse in the frum community “took an enormous step backwards over the past days and weeks as our children rightfully wonder if the adults around them can keep them safe.” He concludes with this: “We have two choices. We can continue to blame the secular media for its campaign against our charedi community or we can admit the painful truth – that we collectively have allowed ourselves to be abused for many years now by a small and violent group of uncontrolled kanoim.”

Sorry, but no; that’s a false choice. We can, indeed must, do both. And that’s apparently what the gedolei Torah who guide Agudath Israel of America’s policies believe, as evidenced by a statement issued by that group, stating:

Reports of recent events in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh are deeply disturbing. Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally.…
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.

The reason this is important is simple: if not confronted about their cynical posturing and their anti-religious agenda, the militant secularists and their abettors in the media and government will continue to dishonestly mix all of the various issues that have arisen in recent weeks into one mishmash labeled – or is it libeled? — as “degradation of women/religious coercion.”

Yet, in truth, these issues are completely distinct from each other, and anyone with a smidgen of intellectual nuance will understand they must be addressed individually. The events in Beit Shemesh are about a minority of self-righteous crazies run amok, with various other factors such as secular incitement, political manipulation and perhaps a fight over municipal turf, complicating the picture. The question of separate seating on buses raising its own set of issues, both real and imagined, but at its core, it involves a perfectly legitimate goal of law-abiding religious citizens, albeit also made more complicated by the sporadic actions of crazies.

As to the flap over soldiers walking out on women’s singing, that’s an unvarnished case of religion-related coercion – of the secular variety, that is. The secular journalist and playwright Amnon Levy (who in 1988 wrote a book titled The Haredim, which I haven’t read but somehow doubt is a paean to that community) writes:

Another, much more blatant issue, is the latest controversy over female singing. What did we have there? Women sang at a military base, and several national-religious cadets, not even haredim, felt a need to walk out in line with a religious edict. Their faith pushed them out. The secular base commander dismissed them from the course. For him it’s very simple: If they are not like him, they can’t be there at all.

The entire religious-secular story can be found in this blatant tale of dismissal. The debate today is not whether women will be singing or not, as nobody asked them to stop. The debate today is over the secular demand that the religious too stay in the audience and listen to this singing. Zero tolerance to the faith of others. What’s good for us must be good for them. And if this is how national-religious troops are treated in the army, how much tolerance can there be for non-Zionist haredim? …

Another version of this article appeared in Mishpacha.

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