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Back to Beit Shemesh, where non-haredis are fighting another battle of retreat

by Shmuel Rosner

2 weeks ago

Ultra Orthodox and secular Israelis clash in Beit Shemesh. Photo by Oren Nahshon/Rueters

The city of Beit Shemesh has become a symbol of tensions between Israel's Haredi communities and its non-Haredi (secular but also Zionist-religious) communities. Three years ago, the city received headlines because of an ugly incident in which radical Haredis harassed young school girls. Later there was a controversy concerning gender segregation signs; and a controversy when the Haredis were victorious in the municipal elections; and a controversy when the court ordered a repeat election; and the second victory of the Haredi candidate; and the realization – unpleasant as it might be for many of the non-Haredi residents of Beit Shemesh – that the city is going in a certain direction, and that there is not much they can do about it.

There is now a new round of controversy, this time over the forced division of a school by the municipality. The school is secular, and the mayor decided to cut it in half by implanting walls inside the school and giving the other half to a school of haredi girls.

It was a brutal action. "The municipal construction workers broke locks in order to gain access to the premises of the Safot Ve’tarbuyot school in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph neighborhood, erected a 2.5 meter wall in the school yard and separated off an entire floor of the school building for use by the haredi girls’ school, Mishkenot Daat". This was done at the last minute without much consultation with the parents of the school or the Education Ministry.

The parents, on Monday, decided to go on strike and didn't send their children to school today as well. They claim that the haredi mayor wants them to shut down. "This is a creeping conquest of the institution whose ultimate goal is closing the school, as Haredim are not capable of learning together with the secular", Moshe Sheetrit, a municipality board member said. The municipality has a different version: the school is half empty, as there aren't enough secular students to fill it up. The parents were offered to move to a different location but refused. The Haredi girls need to study somewhere and have nowhere to go.

Which of the versions is more in line with reality? Conversations with several players in this drama raise the suspicion that both narratives have some truth to them. The number of secular students studying in that school is small. Close to 150 in a building that can accommodate 500. The haredi girls do need a place to stay, and they can't go on studying in provisional quarters as they have in recent years. As for the offers to move – the parents say they were not adequate, the city says the parents are spoiled and their standards are higher than reasonable. I did not personally examine any of the buildings they are talking about.

Of course, the parents are right to claim that the city was brutal. But truth must be told, had the city made an offer earlier this summer and politely asked the school to move, the result would most like have been the same – that is, a battle rather than an agreement. The city is right to suspect that the parents have high standards for their children, but I don't see anything wrong with that. The city is also disingenuous in not explicitly saying that having a secular school in the middle of a Haredi neighborhood is also a reason for it to want the school to move. And the parents are not exactly telling the truth when they say that they need the whole building.

The Education Ministry sides with the parents. It plans to issue a closure order for Mishkenot Da’at, the haredi school, "because it was opened illegally on the grounds of another school". That is a technicality. The Education Ministry doesn't have a proper solution for the haredi school and will not be able to guard the secular school from the city for very long (update: the Education Ministry issued the closure order against the Haredi school on Tuesday afternoon). It is important to remind all grumbling non-haredi Israelis and non-Israelis – those concerned and outraged by haredi power – that haredi schoolgirls also have rights, that they also need a place to study in, and that they also have values to guard and a way of life to preserve. This is not an evil alien invasion, it is a fight very much like the fights that communities in all countries and of all stripes have over resources and priorities.

The parents of the secular school say that they are "willing to talk about moving to a new place, but not through a coup like this", as Tatiana Illouz, head of the secular school’s parents committee said today. That means that the battle for the current location of this school is over. This building will ultimately become a haredi school. The battle is for the terms of evacuation and the quality of the alternative location. For the non-haredi residents of Beit Shemesh the battle is a battle of retreat. A fort is lost. A new fort needs to be found.

There are many sad aspects to this story. It shows you that haredi and non-haredi Israelis currently can't accommodate one another and find meaning in, and reasons for, living together. Haredis don't want secular schools in their midst, and seculars are no more enthusiastic about having haredi schools coming to their neighborhoods. To have peaceful coexistence, communities currently, sadly, need to keep a distance from one another, with few exceptions.

Of course, the bigger question for Beit Shemesh is not about the separation of neighborhoods, it is about whether haredis and secular Israelis can live in one city. The answer here is not easy to swallow: they can, as long as the city is governed by non-haredi forces, or when the city has a significant and strong non-haredi population. It works well with the small haredi communities in central Tel Aviv. It works reasonably in Jerusalem, where non-haredi neighborhoods are many and strong. But when haredi communities take over, politically speaking (and it should be restated, in case people forget, that they have every right to take over), they have a tendency to scare the non-haredi communities away by imposing new conditions that they can't tolerate.

Some of this haredi instinct to overplay a political hand has to do with a communal sense of isolation and even persecution. Some of it is also because the leaders of this community have too little regard for the sensitivities of other Israelis. In practice, it means that when a city becomes a haredi city, the other residents, if they are smart and if they can, should run for their lives. The tragedy of Beit Shemesh is that many people just cannot leave. The value of their property would not take them very far in other centrally located cities in Israel. So they have to fight for a place, and as they do that they have to use all available means, including claims that have little substance. My five-cent advice for them is to focus on preserving a decent environment in non-haredi areas and not to insist on keeping their forts in haredi areas. Like in real battle formations, avoiding a long supply line is essential to victory.

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