Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters take part in a demonstration in Jerusalem against members of their community serving in the Israeli army. Photo by Reuters/Baz Ratner

Israel’s Charedi draft: The court as a pundit

Three rulings in one week on matters concerning religion and state relations: that’s the crop of Israel’s Supreme Court.

Ruling number one: the court refuses to compel the state to operate transportation on Shabbat.

Ruling number two: the court strikes down the legislation that exempts Charedi Israelis from military service.

Ruling number three: the court carves a way for businesses to present themselves as Kosher even without having a Kosher certificate from the official rabbinate.

Each of these decisions is interesting and complicated. Taken together, they tell a confusing story.

They tell a story of a court acting with caution. Its ruling on the draft, for example, gives the government a full year to initiate new legislation. But they also tell a story of a court impatient with the state’s lack of ability to make decisions and pass acceptable legislation. They tell a story of an Israel that repeatedly surrenders to the power of the ultra-Orthodox, but also of an Israel that is gradually eroding the power of Charedi-controlled institutions. They tell a story of an Israel still seeking pragmatic solutions — the ruling on public transportation is case in point; go talk to the government first, the court told the plaintiffs. They also tell a story of an Israel unable to bridge the differences in pragmatic ways.

Thus, on Sept. 11, the day after the first ruling, Charedi politicians praised the court for not ruling on transportation, and two days later, the day after the second ruling, when I visited the Knesset, they were holding a show of condemnation of the court’s overstepping its authority for striking down the exemption law. Thus, on Sept. 10 the court seemed conservative and restrained, and on Sept. 12 it seemed revolutionary and activist.

What can be said briefly about each of these decisions?

On transportation: This ruling is just the beginning of a long road. If the government, or the Knesset, cannot reach a reasonable compromise (this is not that difficult on principle, but it is politically tricky), the court will have to re-address the question. A restrained court will say that transportation policy is for the government to decide. A more activist court would find reasons such as freedom of movement, or such vague concepts, to force a new arrangement.

On Kosher certificates: Here we see another proof supporting my very old argument that the rabbinate is not gaining power, it is losing power, and all those who say otherwise are guilty of either ignorance or self-serving interests, as in they want your money to fight a battle that is already won. What the court did in this ruling is clever. It let the rabbinate keep what the politicians can give, as it remains the only body that can use the word “Kosher.”

But the court also made the obvious ruling that a restaurant cannot be prevented from sharing information with its costumers concerning the food it supplies. So, the restaurant can say that it only buys Kosher cheese. And it can say that it does not have meat on the menu and does not let meat into the kitchen. And it can say all sorts of other things that will serve as code signifying, “We are Kosher,” but “we” can’t say the actual word “Kosher” because Kosher is a rabbinate trademark in Israel — it does sound absurd, doesn’t it?

On IDF exemption: The court’s ruling means nothing but headache. Charedi men will not join the military because of a court ruling. That is to say, on the draft issue, the court is barely more than a pundit. It can say what it wants, but cannot force a draft. The year for government deliberation it granted is an indirect acknowledgment of this fact (I will expand on this issue a few paragraphs down).

These three rulings are all a prelude to more negotiation and maneuvering. The Charedi parties might be tempted to join with other members of the coalition in support of legislation that limits the power of the court to strike down laws. On Sept. 13, some of them, still angry because of the draft ruling, suggested as much. Such court-limiting legislation is a dream of many Knesset members, but never enough to let it pass. And Charedi legislators, when they are less angry, know that such a move could be problematic for them down the road. After all, they are the ones representing a not-well-liked minority and thus should be worried about strengthening the unchecked power of a majority.

What else is going to happen as a result of the rulings? Public transportation will remain an unresolved issue with the possibility that the big eruption will come when the Tel Aviv light rail begins operation who-knows-when. Kosher food will be served, with or without rabbinate certificate. In fact, the recent ruling will make it impossible for the rabbinate not to improve its services, as chief rabbi David Lau intends to do anyhow.

The draft is a 100-pound Gorilla at the center of the Israeli room. The draft debate reflects a true and meaningful difference of opinions concerning the value and raison d’etre of Israel as a Jewish State.

For the Israeli Charedi community, the study of Torah, enabled by the exemption from military service and by the parallel prohibition of work (those who do not serve have to stay and study for many years), has become one of the building blocks of Charedi society as a group separated from Israel’s secular society. “Torah study,” as a Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) report once explained, is “at the ideological heart of Charedi identity.”

More than 10,000 young Charedis are exempted from army service every year. Advancing the vision of a more equal sharing of the military service burden is not impossible. But it will require determination, planning and long-term implementation of new rules. The court can strike down laws, but it cannot plan and implement, and hence its ability to change the situation is limited.

Thus, its rulings serve as a reminder that the current situation is unsustainable. There must be a tipping point somewhere down the road when the number of Charedis, a growing sector, will be such that the IDF cannot function without them, or when other Israelis will no longer agree to serve when so many others don’t. Its rulings serve as a reminder that the current situation is unjust in the view of most Israelis (Charedi Israelis disagree and see their role as no less important than the role of soldiers). Its rulings serve as a catalyst of political turmoil, following which some change must occur, and hence, theoretically, a chance for positive change.

Change can come in many formats: It can come through the cancelling the people’s military and turning the IDF into a professional military; it can come through a policy that makes it impossible for Charedis to keep resisting the draft; it can come through a realization of Charedi leaders that their role can no longer be limited to taking care of their own communities — that, having such political power, they must think more broadly about Israel’s needs.

Whatever the case, whatever the change, it will not be the prompt result of a court ruling, but rather the result of a long, frustrating, enraging, political process. The court has the ability to carve short cuts when the ruling is simple as in “you can now tell your customers that you only buy Kosher food.”

But the court does not have the ability to carve short cuts when the ruling calls for a complicated, multi-layered alteration of priorities, policies, budgeting decrees and law enforcement directives.

Survey shows broad dissatisfaction with Israeli religious policy

Secular and haredi Orthodox Israelis differ on many things, but there’s one thing both sides agree on: When it comes to religious affairs, the government is failing.

That’s one of the findings of an annual survey of Israeli religious identification and attitudes toward religious policy released Friday by Hiddush, a 6-year-old organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel.

The survey found that 95 percent of secular respondents are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of religious issues, with large majorities favoring civil marriage or civil unions and official recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.

But the survey also reported dissatisfaction with religious policy among 81 percent of haredi Orthodox Israelis, despite the fact that haredi parties regained control over the Religious Affairs Ministry and the powerful Knesset Finance Committee following the March elections. Since then, the parties have set about rolling back several reforms adopted by the previous government by removing the teeth from a law drafting haredi men into the military and repealing a conversion reform passed last year.

“When the haredim are unhappy, they’re unhappy about something different than why the secular [Israelis] are unhappy,” Rabbi Uri Regev, the Hiddush CEO, told JTA. “To many of them, Israel is not giving them enough, not enforcing their prerogatives enough, not enforcing Shabbat observance.”

Covering a broad spectrum of questions on religious policy and identification, the Hiddush survey reported large majorities of Israelis supporting religious policy change, as it has every year since the poll began in 2009. Sixty-four percent of Jewish Israelis support recognizing Conservative and Reform conversions — not just Orthodox, as is currently the case. Nearly three-quarters of Israelis want public transit on Shabbat. And 86 percent of respondents support haredi men performing military or civilian national service.

“There is clearly a growing, solid, overwhelming majority of Israelis who are unhappy about the way religion and state are linked and impacting the lives of individuals and the state,” Regev said. “The public clearly does not like what the Israeli government has provided it with.”

The survey also found a rise in support for same-sex marriage — with 64 percent in support, compared to 56 percent last year. The jump follows national legalization of gay marriage in the United States and a stabbing attack at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in July that killed a 16-year-old girl. But a substantial portion of Israel’s governing coalition opposes same-sex marriage, making its passage unlikely.

Israelis’ long-held desire for religious reform hasn’t led to corresponding government action. According to Regev, that’s because Israelis, when voting, place less of a priority on religion than security or economics. That was especially true ahead of this year’s election following a war in Gaza and much public discussion about skyrocketing housing prices. Religious issues didn’t even register in a March pre-election poll that asked about the country’s most pressing concerns. Nor have issues like marriage and conversion been subjects of major public protest.

In 2013, religious policy briefly rose in prominence as Yesh Atid became the Knesset’s second-largest party, promising to draft haredim and push for civil unions. But those issues faded as Israel entered last summer’s war in Gaza. In this year’s elections, the new kingmaker was Kulanu, a party largely focused on economics. Yesh Atid, meanwhile, lost eight seats and joined the parliamentary opposition.

“Yes, the majority of Israelis don’t like the way things are. Yes, they want religious freedom and equality,” Regev said. “But should that be the condition for sitting in the government? No. The challenge is how do you translate passive support and understanding of the issues into mobilization.”

For Hasidic Jew who consults for Google, no college degree required

When Issamar Ginzberg enters his Jerusalem office on a sweltering summer day, he’s wearing a long black coat tied at the waist and a black hat. His long, scraggly beard and sidecurls, or payos, offer no relief from the heat.

The office — thank God — is air conditioned, and Ginzberg offers kosher candy from a bowl on his desk. Nearby sit his laptop and LG phone, complete with a “kosher” filter that restricts it from many websites. While some haredi Orthodox men do without any smartphone, Ginzberg has two. He also keeps a Blackberry handy for U.S. business trips.

On a nearby shelf sits a series of Yiddish audio CDs on how to succeed in business that Ginzberg produces and sells. The room, which has an interior that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tel Aviv office building, is on the parking level of his apartment building in a haredi neighborhood about where the building superintendent might sit.

A scion of a Hasidic rabbinic dynasty, Ginzberg lives in Jerusalem’s haredi world, attending synagogue daily and spending hours every morning learning Torah. But by afternoon, evening and night, he is a marketing consultant to more than 100 clients, among them Google and Oracle.

“My key clientele is the corporate world and entrepreneurs in the non-Jewish, non-Orthodox world,” said Ginzberg, 35, a father of four. “One of the reasons I’m trusted so much by the Orthodox community is because they know I’m legit, because I actually work in the real world.”

The Brooklyn native moved to Jerusalem five years ago, just as the movement in Israel to integrate haredim into the army and labor force was gaining attention. Labor force participation rates for haredi men have risen in recent years and now stand at 45 percent; many haredi men still opt to study Torah full time rather than work.

Many haredim see a contradiction between secular workplace culture and their own, but Ginzberg says his black hat and beard are a feature, not a bug. He emphasizes his religious background on his promotional materials, calling himself “Rabbi Issamar” and “a character who just stepped out of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.”’

“It’s harder to be taken seriously, but the novelty that you look different gives you 10 seconds of, ‘Let me see what this guy has to offer,’” he said. “If you meet 20 WASPs and one guy who looks like me, which one will you remember six months later?”

Ginzberg grew up speaking Yiddish and English in an Orthodox neighborhood of New York, and had an early appetite for business. As a teenager, he used classified ads and the early Internet to buy 386-model computers in bulk and resell them for profit. He became a mortgage broker 15 years ago and parlayed that into a consulting business. He now has 120 regular clients that pay $3,000 for 10-hour packages.

To accommodate his haredi lifestyle, Ginzberg begins his days at 7 a.m., responding to late emails from U.S. clients before attending morning prayers at 8 or 9 a.m. He then studies Torah with a partner until 1 p.m., when he moves back to consulting, generally switching between clients in one-hour shifts. Aside from spending two-and-a-half hours with his family in the evening, Ginzberg works well past midnight with West Coast businesses, getting five hours of sleep at most.

“He and I as well think it’s better to learn [Torah], but you can’t learn all day because there’s no salary,” said Moti Feldstein, director of Kemach, an organization that has helped 7,400 haredi men find work. “You have kids. You need to make a living. He says, ‘Look at me: I go around with my suit, with my hat, I learn Torah and I work.”

Clients say what makes Ginzberg valuable is his ability to quickly understand a diverse set of topics despite having no professional training in them. Ginzberg says that comes from being an autodidact with a work ethic formed by learning at yeshiva. He doesn’t have a college degree, but has taught himself, he says, by voraciously reading books and papers on business and psychology.

“I like that he can get to the point,” said Yael Sela-Shapiro, a Hebrew-English translator who consulted with Ginzberg and helped set up a seminar he gave to Google’s Israel office in 2013. “He talks for a few minutes and manages to pinpoint the exact question that can get the information he needs to give you the best advice.”

Since moving to Israel, Ginzberg has become involved in increasing the employment rates of haredi men. He interfaces between Kemach and potential employers like Google and Intel, helping bridge cultural gaps between the high-tech and haredi worlds. And he lectures at yeshivas in Israel and America, introducing students to the fundamentals of business.

“He explains what it is to work, professionalism,” Feldstein said. “You work with a staff, you have a manager, you have to come on time, how to work when there’s someone different next to you.”

Judging from Ginzberg’s Facebook page, he doesn’t just use the Internet to make a living — he also enjoys it. In addition to business advice, he posts links to articles on the Middle East, Shabbat and, in one case, being mistaken for an Amish man. Ginzberg maintains it’s all part of the effort to promote his work.

“You can’t run away from social media,” he said. “Business is three-dimensional. People are three-dimensional. When I say have a good Shabbos, I’m basically proud of the fact I’m a religious Jew. I’m reminding people, whether they’re religious or not, Shabbos is coming. I’m showing everyone that I’m lucky to be who I am and do what I do.”

A year of haredim taking to Jerusalem’s streets

A bus of black hats, whispered prayers and gender-segregated seating.

A mass of haredi Orthodox men — and some women — walking slowly together, packing the streets of northern Jerusalem.

Hundreds of thousands of voices wailing prayers of penitence, portraying a recent event as a tragedy beyond measure — and vowing to rededicate themselves to their way of life.

Something told me I’d been there before.

Since last spring, mass gatherings of haredi Israelis in Jerusalem have punctuated Israel’s news cycle. Last May, thousands of haredi men and women packed the Western Wall Plaza in a show of force against a ruling to allow Women of the Wall to pray there undisturbed. In October, some 800,000 people — 10 percent of the country — turned out for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic sage.

And on Sunday, 300,000 haredi Israelis filled Jerusalem’s streets, shutting down its roads and transit, to protest the advancement of a bill that would require them to join Israel’s mandatory military conscription in three years.

Each of these gatherings was different — the Western Wall protest was much smaller and grew violent, while today’s was large and peaceful; the funeral wasn’t a protest at all.

But all the gatherings shared key characteristics:

They all carried a feeling of dire urgency. Be it the death of a leader, the purported misuse of a holy space or the endangering of a core communal privilege, the haredim who showed up acted as if what was happening threatened not just the haredi lifestyle but the core of Jewish tradition.

They all centered on prayer. Both the funeral and today’s conscription protest included saying psalms and penitential prayers usually reserved for the High Holidays. And while a faction of the Western Wall protesters acted violently, the vast majority prayed quietly or as a group. In fact, months ago leading haredi Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman advocated prayer over protest to fight the conscription law.

They all alluded to Jewish history. No matter the cause, the attendees portrayed themselves as another iteration of previous Jewish tragedy. Signs today compared the conscription law to slavery in Egypt, the Purim story (before the happy ending) or even the Holocaust. A few Western Wall protesters also had no problem calling Women of the Wall “Nazis.” And several eulogizers at the funeral compared Yosef’s death to the prophet Elijah’s.

They all had the endorsement of leading haredi rabbis. Leading rabbis from several haredi sects endorsed the Western Wall and conscription protests — turning out their followers in large numbers. All stripes of the haredi community paid tribute to Yosef’s memory. Several protesters at today’s demonstration said they came because their grand rabbis told them to.

Finally, none of the predictions made at these gatherings are likely to happen. Protesters at the Western Wall said they would not allow Women of the Wall to pray in peace; now, the group has the legal right to pray at the site and encounters minimal protest at its monthly gatherings. After the Yosef funeral, expert observers predicted a rift in the rabbi’s Shas political party that has yet to break open. And despite the haredi protestations today, the conscription law is expected to pass.

Haredim can exercise significant communal solidarity, and turning out large numbers for protests is one of their principal strengths. It’s likely due to the strength of their potential activism that the conscription bill is relatively cautious — not enforcing the haredi draft until 2017. Whatever happens, today’s protest demonstrated that while they may not be able to change a law, they can shut down Israel’s largest city for half a day.

Haredim hold prayer protest of draft

Thousands of haredi Orthodox held a prayer rally to protest the forced enlistment of yeshiva students.

The early Monday morning demonstration by men, women and children was organized by the Eda Haredit organization in Jerusalem. Participants reportedly read psalms and lamentations.

The protest came as the Plesner Committee was meeting to find an alternative to the Tal Law, which grants military exemptions to haredi Orthodox Israeli men. The law is set to expire next month, and it is believed the committee will call for the required draft of haredi Orthodox men.

Eda Haredit leader Rabbi Tuvia Weiss told rally participants, “We will not allow yeshiva students to be taken to the army or police, and will not be fazed by their seductions.” He added that forced army service or designated service are being required by the government “in order to destroy the Torah world.”

Right Is wrong

Much has already been written about the horrifying scenes of violence, extremism and chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) taking place in Israel these past weeks — indeed these past years; but something more needs to be said. 

The images and reality of grown men, extremists, wrapped in tallit and kippah, black hats and beards; shouting, hitting, spitting at, chasing school girls because they wear skirts that do not cover their ankles, shirtsleeves that do not cover their wrists, because they dare to walk with their mothers on the same sidewalk as men, sicken me and tarnish Judaism for all of us.  

These “religious men,” a small but not insignificant percentage of the ultra-Orthodox (or Charedi) community, are physically forcing women to the back of Israeli buses, engaging in vandalism against Israeli army bases, calling female soldiers “prostitutes,” all in the name of “true” Judaism. I want to make it clear that not all ultra-Orthodox Jews behave like this or believe like this, but a vocal and powerful minority certainly does. This vocal minority and their rabbis believe their religion demands they exclude women from public and religious life, that to even look at a picture of a woman on a billboard, or to hear a woman sing, let alone read Torah or sit beside them in synagogue, is a sin. 

I say their religion, and not my religion, because the Judaism they promote is not my Judaism, nor is it any kind of Judaism that most modern Jews would ever associate with. Yet the majority of Jews in America and Israel have remained silent in the face of this fundamentalist wave sweeping through Judaism today. 

We are silent because many liberal, progressive Jews are conditioned to think that Charedim are the “real Jews.” They look the most religious, the most committed, the most traditional. Our heads fill with visions of Tevye dancing down the streets of his shtetl, and we get a feeling the ultra-Orthodox are guaranteeing the Jewish future.

They are not guaranteeing the Jewish future. They are undermining it. Sure, by having very large families, they are producing more Jews. But the future they would create looks more like Islamist Iran than any future the vast majority of Jews should want for themselves or their children.

It is not enough to say, as most leaders of the Orthodox community have, that these people are radicals, a tiny bunch of fanatics who represent no one. Because they are not a small group, and they have support.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics is predicting that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community will make up nearly one-third of the country’s population within 50 years. Other Israeli Jews are expected to become a minority in Israel, squeezed between the growing ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations. Even in America, Charedi Jews represent the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish population.

A serious if gradual integration of Charedim into the Israeli workforce, as well as a firmer separation of synagogue and state, would, as Gershom Gorenberg points out in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” go a long way toward taming the extremist behavior and rhetoric.  

But, in the meantime, we must not be silent. Now is the time to speak up, as progressive Jews, as modern Jews, as authentic Jews. Our tradition demands it of us: “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done. Silence is assent!” (S’forno, Nedarim) We must speak out against fundamentalism and extremism everywhere, especially in our own Jewish community.

Moreover, we must go to Beit Shemesh, we must go to Jerusalem, and if we can’t go physically, then we must send money ahead to support progressive Jewish institutions in Israel. Institutions like the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of Reform Judaism and Women of the Wall, the leader of which, Anat Hoffman, is even now visiting American synagogues seeking our support. 

We must demand, through the purse strings of the American Jewish community, that our federations and organizations publicly withhold funding from these extremist groups that have turned a beautiful religious tradition into an ugly mob cloaked in religious garb, who spit on women, attack Israeli soldiers and policemen, and would just as soon send most modern Jews to the back of the bus, if not under it.

We must stop thinking of ourselves as inauthentic Jews. Our Judaism is real, it is vibrant, it is authentic, it is inclusive, and it is the future. Tevye was fiction. The real story is why our great-grandparents left the old country and its backward ways. We don’t need to apologize for being modern Jews, and we should give no license and no support to extremists of any ilk, Jewish or other, who demand we conform to their fundamentalist worldview.

If your interpretation of Judaism means that you don’t want to sit on a bus with a woman, then get off and walk. But if your Judaism teaches just the opposite — and Reform Judaism, progressive Judaism does — then stop apologizing and climb on board this movement. You can sit anywhere you like — you can even drive.

Dan Moscovitz is rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

Where do Israeli haredim stand on haredi violence?

The cascade of condemnations started pouring in almost as soon as the Israeli TV report aired. It’s subject was an 8-year-old girl harassed by haredi men on the way to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh.

The Israeli prime minister and president vowed that Israel would not tolerate haredi violence against women, whether directed at schoolgirls or women on public buses. Israel’s opposition leader, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, went to a demonstration of thousands held Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh.

In America, 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 the haredi Orthodox umbrella body Agudath Israel of America were among the many groups that responded.

There appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent about the violence: Israeli haredim.

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. “In all the conflicts involving haredi violence in Israel, from the British Mandate period until today, violent haredim were always a small minority, and I believe that the vast majority feel uncomfortable about them.

“The problem is that most haredim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them,” Friedman continued. “Some, perhaps a small segment, really do support the violence; some, perhaps a larger segment, do not support the violence but understand the extremists, believing that actions like these, even if they are not pretty, at the end of the day are a true expression of religious sentiments,” he said. “And 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.”

There were one or two notable exceptions this week.

“If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken,” the Jerusalem-based leader of the Belz Chasidim, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, said Sunday during the nightly Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at his synagogue, which holds upward of 6,000 people.

Rokeach’s comments, though tepid by secular standards, marked a rare foray into current events by the rebbe, who has an estimated 45,000 followers worldwide.

But the roundabout way the rebbe’s message was delivered, and the scant media coverage given to haredi opposition to the violence aimed at non-haredim, 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.

“The Belzer rebbe is one of the few people who has the guts to say something,” Tuvya Stern, a haredi attorney who lives in Beit Shemesh, told JTA. “But he’s not going to condemn the extremists; that’s not his way. He’ll just advocate for a different approach.”

Rokeach’s speech, which was reported in haredi media and noted by Israel Radio, was unusual both because it referred to current events and because it was aimed, at least in part, at a wider audience: The rebbe had invited an Israeli Knesset member, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to be with him when he delivered his speech on Chanukah’s sixth night. Because Rokeach made his remarks in Yiddish, it’s not clear whether or not Sa’ar picked up on their significance.

Rokeach’s reaction, however, was exceptional. Most haredi leaders stayed silent.

The violent zealots are drawn largely from the Edah HaHaredis, 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 Chasidic sect.

Haredi support for fighting a culture war against secularism extends beyond the Edah HaHaredis, but most haredim who espouse such views won’t go so far as to become defenders of the faith themselves. Haredim often invoke a classic metaphor to describe this approach: You may not want to live with a cat, but you need cats around to eat the mice if you want to prevent infestation.

This week, the “infestation” is the presence of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, adjacent to a haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. At other times, it has been the mixing of sexes in Orthodox neighborhoods, the operation of parking lots or roads on Shabbat in haredi neighborhoods, and attempts by women to pray with the Torah at the Western Wall.

Similar behavior can be found in certain Islamic societies and fundamentalist Catholic and Protestant communities, Friedman said, noting that a key difference with haredim is that any violence is relatively limited in scope, not involving serious injury or death.

Then 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 Chasidim, 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 neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem.

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 a column published Friday in Israel’s daily Haaretz. Sarid called for the disqualification of haredi parties from the Knesset. On Haaretz’s English-language website, the article was titled “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. In Israel, the haredi community is divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Chasidic and non-Chasidic, moderates and extremists. Within the Chasidic community, too, there are multiple sects—and sometimes even competing grand rebbes within the same sect.

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.

It’s something that may irk haredim who are engaged with the outside world, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to haredim who aren’t.

That nonchalance is alien to the non-haredi Jewish world, where organizations and leaders go out of their way to denounce ideas, people or actions they find distasteful. That goes for everything from terrorist attacks to the bombing of churches in Nigeria, which at least four Jewish groups issued statements condemning this week.

When the main haredi umbrella organization in America issued its statement this week condemning the 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,” the 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.”

Until haredim take to their synagogue lecterns, the airwaves or the streets, however, that’s a message that’s unlikely to be heard by the Jewish public.

To be sure, there were a few haredim who joined Tuesday’s demonstration in Beit Shemesh against the violence. Some were members of a new local haredi party called Tov (Hebrew for “good”) whose platform espouses moderation and open-mindedness.

“It was a very hard decision” because many of the protesters were engaged in anti-haredi sloganeering, explained Stern, the haredi attorney from Beit Shemesh, who is a leading Tov activist. “There were signs at the rally saying ‘Haredim leave Beit Shemesh.’”

Nevertheless, he said, it was important to make a public statement.

“There are rabbis in the haredi world who believe in violence as part of a religious duty,” Stern said, “but they are not a large group of people.”

Brooklyn DA claims record number of child sex-abuse charges vs. haredim

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office says it has charged 89 men in the borough’s haredi Orthodox communities with child sex abuse—a threefold increase over a two-year span.

However, the Forward reported that Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes declined to provide any details about the cases, making the number of arrests impossible to verify. His spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, gave the figures to the newspaper in mid-November.

The numbers reflect the number of haredi Orthodox men charged with sexual abuse since October 2009.

In an e-mail to The Forward in late October, Schmetterer said his office was not prepared to discuss the cases at the time. “Perhaps towards the end of November,” he wrote.

In 2009, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said it had arrested 26 haredi Orthodox men in the borough for sexual abuse over the previous two years.

Hynes had come under fire for allegedly neglecting sexual abuse cases in Brooklyn’s haredi communities. Sexual abuse survivors and their advocates say that Hynes has been lax on the issue because he is afraid of political retaliation from Orthodox voters.

Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice, told The Forward, “We deserve public notice of the arrest and conviction of Orthodox sex offenders, not culturally sensitive policies that keep these cases from the public, thereby placing children in danger.”

Religious zealots attack “immodest” Jerusalem shops

A sign at the ice cream parlor may caution men and women not to lick cones in public, but the warning didn’t stop Jewish zealots vandalizing the shop in Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Other businesses in Mea Shearim, including a book store and dress shops, have been damaged in night-time attacks by Sikrikim, a group of some 100 ultra-religious men who want one of the holy city’s most tradition-bound quarters to become even more conservative.

“Promiscuity” reads graffiti scrawled in black at the entrance of a clothing shop selling dresses whose lengthy hemline and drab colors have been deemed too racy by the group.

Other stores in the neighborhood, where men wear traditional black garb and women bare little but their face, have had their windows broken, locks glued and foul-smelling liquid smeared on walls.

“They also threw once a bag of excrement inside and smashed our windows three times,” said Marlene Samuels, manager of the Or Hachaim bookshop, whose bright lights and large storefront sign stand out among smaller and more dimly lit businesses.

The shop has been attacked more than 10 times since it opened a year and a half ago, Samuels said. The latest assault was last week when one of the store’s branches had its locks glued overnight.

Samuels said the shop’s owner met with the Sikrikim several times. The store stocks only religious books, but they include volumes published by Orthodox institutions that are Zionist—anathema to the Sikrikim, who believe a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the Messiah.

Named after a small Jewish group which 2,000 years ago fought against Roman rulers and suspected Jewish collaborators, the modern-day Sikrikim strike at night and some wear masks to hide their identities.

“They use aggressive tactics and they also ask for protection money which involves paying (a religious inspector) coming in and removing the books he deems unfit,” Samuels said.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the secular Israeli Meretz party, voiced concern that the existence of the Sikrikim, although a tiny minority, signified a growing divide among Jews in Israel.

“Society is becoming increasingly extremist. With the Sikrikim particularly, who are religiously motivated and rule out any position but their own, one cannot reckon, only fight them,” Margalit said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population. With an average of eight children per family, they are a fast-growing population. Many live below the poverty line and keep to dozens of their own towns and neighborhoods.

Mea Shearim area is small, less than half a square mile (1.3 square km), and home to about 30,000 residents considered among the most tight-knit and reclusive of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It takes about a minute to walk from Jerusalem’s city center to Mea Shearim, but the dozens of synagogues and Hassidic courts dotting its narrow alleyways are a world away from the cafes and bars of downtown Jerusalem.

Sikrikim attacks have also been reported at Beit Shemesh, a mixed secular and religious town with a growing ultra-Orthodox community, about half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The latest target there has been a religious girls’ school.

The Sikrikim who reside near the school object to the way the girls dress. Since the school year began in September they have regularly picketed outside shouting out at the students, most of them younger than 12, that they are promiscuous.

“They claim to be religious but what they do is a crime against God, against the Torah and against humanity,” said David Rotenberg, who works at Or Hachaim.


Up the road, the Zisalek ice cream parlor has separate entrances for men and women and a sign—posted at the request of local religious authorities—asking them to avoid any show of immodesty by licking cones in public.

“They (the Sikrikim) had a real ball with us,” said Guy Ammar, one of Zisalek’s owners, describing vandalism similar to attacks against other shops in the area.

“But we were not deterred. Residents here told us not to give up and business is going well now.”

Sikrikim shun the media and have made no public comment about their activities.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation was under way following two complaints lodged by Or Hachaim Center but no suspects have yet been arrested.

Some business owners in Mea Shearim said police has been slow to act, reluctant to get involved in what they see as internal disputes among different religious sects of a closed community.

Rosenfeld said that no other businesses have filed formal complaints in recent weeks.

A few minutes walk from Zisalek Ice Cream is the Greentech music shop, where Hassidic music plays in the background and one DVD in a collection of ultra-Orthodox movies is a suspense film about the battles of a rabbi against Christian missionaries.

The Sikrikim “do not like anything that changes the character of the shtetl and the way it was a hundred years ago,” a worker in the music store said, using a Yiddish term for the small towns where Eastern European Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shlomo Kuk, an ultra-Orthodox journalist from Jerusalem, said the Sikrikim shouldn’t be seen as representative of devout Jews known as “haredim.”

“One thing is certain: they may dress like haredim but what they do is utter sacrilege which blackens the name of the entire haredi community,” Kuk said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Haredim riot in Jaffa over excavations

Hundreds of haredim rioted in Jaffa, attacking police officers with bricks and rocks, over an archeological dig.

Five policemen were injured and 15 ultra-Orthodox Jews were arrested in the riots Wednesday over the dig, which the demonstrators say is disturbing a nearby Jewish burial site. A luxury housing complex is set to go up on the site once the dig is completed.

Demonstrators called police “Nazis” and “murderers.”

The demonstrations have been going on for several weeks. Earlier in the week, demonstrators damaged an archeological excavation of ancient buildings, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.