Beit Shemesh – The Sun No Longer Shines

Another week, another act of terror as a young boy is making his way home and is set upon by five thugs baying for his blood. I’m not talking about the backwaters of Iraq or downtown Gaza. I’m speaking of Beit Shemesh, a community in the heart of Israel.

The once peaceful town in the district of Jerusalem came into the spotlight a few weeks ago when a purported ultra-Orthodox man was arrested for spitting at a local eight-year-old girl deemed to be dressed “immodestly,” in turn sparking riots by the ultra-Orthodox community.

The victim this time was a third-grader, according to Haaretz newspaper, whose parents asked to identify him only as A. He was surrounded by a group of boys who shouted and spat at him and then threw a large rock in his direction that hit him in the back. His crime was that he was recently seen walking with a friend and his dog in a field near an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood. At the time, they were approached by another ultra-Orthodox man who screamed at the boy and threatened to kill the dog because it was “impure.”

Some recoil at the use of the term ‘terror.’ It is, they argue, at most an act of violence. Violence by definition is the use of physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing. This is more than that; much more. Terrorism is defined by a systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal. Is that not the case here? Aren’t these so-called Haredim looking to impose their standards on the rest of the eighty-thousand strong population of Beit Shemesh (and given half a chance, the rest of Israel)? You have to assume their dress code, adhere to their defined levels of modesty, have men and women walk on opposite sides of the road and abolish any pets, lest you will be spat upon or have rocks thrown at you.
I know a number of families who emigrated to Beit Shemesh over the years, settling into what was once a wonderfully peaceful, cohesive and thriving community. Today some might walk around with the same sense of trepidation I might feel when walking into Iran with a yarmulke on my head. It was reported to me last week how one former member who settled there more than a decade ago, was recently refused service in a store because “too much flesh above her elbow was showing.”

Israel has always prided itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East. These actions are chipping away at that reality. In democratic societies, spitting and throwing stones would be an offence in law, and even refusing service in a store in such circumstances would be considered racial discrimination.

With no leadership condemning these acts, and Haredim being allowed to run riot each time one of their perpetrators is arrested, I, as an Orthodox Jew and a Rabbi, maintain that every stone, every spit, every act of discrimination should be confronted with the full mettle of the law. Every person responsible for these deplorable actions, including the rioters, should be prosecuted, with heavy fines imposed. The police ought not to allow themselves to become intimidated by a fundamentalist fringe group anymore than Afghan authorities should feel threatened by the Taliban. Every remnant of this radicalism must be eradicated.

In the words of the Midrash: “Whoever is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.” Sometimes we must make distinctions. We must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love. Such ‘acts of terror’ have no place in any democratic society, let alone a Jewish State, whose “ways are kind ways, and all her paths are peace.” Eradicating evil is sometimes the greatest act of kindness possible.