It was as if the spit cut into Ezra Friedlander’s cheek, from half a world away.
Friedlander, the son of the Liska rebbe and CEO of the Friedlander Group, a public affairs organization here, says, “We absolutely have the obligation to condemn even the actions of a rogue group. I want people to know that they don’t speak for me.”
Friedlander is, of course, talking about the incident that made international headlines last month and brought secular-religious tensions in Israel to a boiling point: A member of a fringe haredi group called the Sikrikim spit in the face of a modestly dressed 8-year-old Orthodox girl on her way to school as a protest for what the man believed was her immodest outfit.
The spitting and intimidation of women and children “was very troubling for me, extremely troubling,” Friedlander, who lives in Brooklyn, continued. “I walked around a little bit shorter for a couple of weeks. I work in the secular world, and I kept wondering if someone looking at me thinks that I would spit on a little girl. I wondered, as a haredi Jew, what has happened to us?”
In the weeks since the incident occurred, haredim here have taken the criticism hard, questioning whether it is fair and pushing back against charges — from within and outside of the haredi world — that condemnations from haredi leaders have not been full-throated enough.
In Brooklyn, Rabbi Hertz Frankel, spokesman and “secretary of state” for the Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, one of the most influential haredi rebbes of the previous century prior to Teitelbaum’s death in 1979, says that haredi Jews have been harassed by an insensitive, even hostile, secular Israel since the founding of the state; the harassment, he says, is rooted to some extent in the fact that the haredim were always anti-Zionist, “before being anti-Zionist became fashionable.”
Did Satmar condemn what happened in Beit Shemesh? “Come on,” says Rabbi Frankel, insulted by the question. “No one’s in favor of wearing yellow stars [as haredim in Israel did at a recent protest at which they claimed they were being discriminated against], and no one is in favor of spitting on kids! Come on.”
As for haredim offended by a lack of modesty in the public sphere, says Rabbi Frankel, “My personal opinion is everyone should mind their own business. If there are any complaints, it has to be conveyed in a decent way.”
Then there is the Ger way.
On a dark autumn night in Jerusalem, several weeks before the spitting and assaults against women and the 8-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh became known, haredim tell of how the Sikrikim — they of the spitters — were first condemned.
Despite the conventional wisdom, you don’t have to be modern or secular to get on the wrong side of the Sikrikim, a radical haredi group whose members have been increasingly violent against Jerusalem’s Gerer chasidim, in an ongoing dispute. The Sikrikim did not spit at any Gerer girls but instead went to the Gerer rebbe’s home and glued his door shut.
And so one night, in the haredi stronghold of Meah Shearim, a group of Gerer chasidim caught up with one of the Sikrikim leaders and pummeled him, fracturing his bones with sticks and clubs, stomping on him, leaving the Sikriki man in a black-and-blue heap, and soon with a hospital chart on the door to his room, and all that after setting his home on fire.
No official statements were made. No press releases were e-mailed to newspapers. But the Sikrikim got the message: They were condemned by Ger, a major haredi group.
And yet, only a few weeks later, when the news of Beit Shemesh became known, there was one dominant response from the non-haredi world: Why were the hooligans of Beit Shemesh not condemned by other haredim?
To some haredim, asking groups, such as Ger, to condemn and take responsibility for the Sikrikim was like asking Lincoln to take responsibility for the firing on Fort Sumter. Who, more than the haredim, have been fighting the Sikrikim? In fact, Yeshiva World News reported back in November, weeks before the spitting story, that the Eida Chareidis (the haredi umbrella council) had condemned Sikrikim-related violence even beyond and before Beit Shemesh. According to The New York Times, there were haredi Jews who took credit for making the spitting story public in the first place. Wasn’t that haredi whistle-blowing a condemnation, as well?
Nevertheless, the assaults in Beit Shemesh were dutifully condemned the old-fashioned way, with words, not fists or fire. Condemnations and disavowals poured in from haredi publications Yated Ne’eman (who called them “crazed anti-social Neanderthals”) and Hamodia, from Chabad, Agudah, the Belzer rebbe, Shas leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, and yeshiva leaders. According to Yated Ne’eman, the Sikrikim had been expelled by the Eidah Hachareidis, the ultra-Orthodox council in Israel.
According to the Associated Press’ initial report from Beit Shemesh, the city’s “ultra-Orthodox leadership has strongly condemned the violence,” pointing out that “the perpetrators are only a small fringe minority.” There are about 700,000 haredim in Israel but only several hundred Sikrikim.
And yet, despite the top-tier haredi condemnations reported by the AP and elsewhere, other haredim on the grass-roots level report an ongoing silence within the haredi community itself. One man, Yitzhak Meir Yavetz, a full-time yeshiva student in Beit Shemesh, writes in the Israeli magazine Eretz Acheret that he is now leaving the haredi world for the religious Zionist Orthodox, because of the aggressive radicalization with the haredi community. Yavetz is convinced that there are many in the haredi world who feel exactly as he does but remain silent.
That “silence” is mentioned by others within (or formerly within) the haredi community, such as Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of Zaka, the voluntary emergency response group, and someone who grew up in Neturei Karta, a radical haredi group linked to the Sikrikim. Meshi-Zahav, in a JTA op-ed, writes that what the haredi radicals are doing “is somehow condoned by a cloak of silence spread across the haredi community.”
Back in Brooklyn, Binyamin Jolkovsky, editor of the online Jewish World Review, an Orthodox Jew and an observer of the haredi world, is feeling the sting of the spit. To Jolkovsky, calls for any racial or ethnic group, be it American blacks or black-hatted Jews, to take collective responsibility for the worst among them “is demeaning, and revealing a sorry understanding of how communities are constructed. There are no ‘the haredim,’ anymore than there are ‘the blacks,’ or ‘the Catholics.’
“Communities are comprised of individuals, most good, some bad. Broad-brushing a community is usually called racist, unless it’s being done to a community that one despises,” says Jolkovsky.
Of course, Israel’s contentious relationship with haredi Jewry did not begin with Beit Shemesh but has been festering for years, with decades-old debates over yeshiva deferments from the Israel Defense Forces. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that he would not seek a five-year extension of the law allowing religious deferments but would allow the Israeli Knesset to vote on the issue.) More recently, there have been flare-ups over gender-segregated buses and even shops, and haredi soldiers in the IDF protesting and being disciplined over “kol isha” issues, the prohibition regarding a man not hearing a woman sing and how that can play out in the military. Haredim have also offended the general Israeli population by refusing, by and large, to stand in mournful attention when the memorial siren blows on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day.
More recently, although not as well publicized as the spitting incident, there have been other and more violent confrontations in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere, matched by a flurry of anti-haredi violence around the country, such as the bloody assault on a haredi Jew by secular Jews in Ashdod, apparently in reprisals for the haredi attacks.
Despite non-haredi Jews feeling targeted by haredi Jews, there is enough hurt to go around. In Yated Ne’eman, editor Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, writes, “It has become fashionable to speak of Islam as a religion of peace and to bend over backwards when discussing the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to make sure that no one associates them with the peaceful Muslim world. … Doesn’t our community deserve the same favor?”
In the United States, it is considered racist to discuss welfare for those who refuse to work, and food stamps, as an issue for one group alone, the way it is discussed for haredim. And American rabbis from all the denominations counseled young men about how to avoid the draft with yeshiva deferments during the Vietnam years, in particular. Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Avi Shafran says that the IDF draft and haredi integration into the workplace are “valid points to discuss, but to paint a whole group as lazy freeloaders, that’s different than an honest discussion of student deferments and public assistance.”
With all the rush to judgment, progress and perspective is ignored. In the last year, 2,361 ultra-Orthodox men enlisted in the IDF and civilian service, according to the prime minister’s office, a 284 percent increase over 2008. Although Orthodox Jews (haredi and non-haredi) are only 10 percent of the population, Orthodox Jews now comprise 40 percent of new IDF officers and soldiers in combat units, indicating that many non-Orthodox Israelis are themselves not as committed to IDF service as they once were. About 37 percent of haredi men now participate in the workforce, compared with 67 percent of the total male population, while 48 percent of haredi women are working, compared with 57 percent overall.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz posted on his website. “Siblings always fight with each other — sometimes to the point of bloodshed. Yet they never cease being siblings. … Quite often, though, our internal fighting reaches a dangerous and frightening stage. It is being heard today, when everyone — those with earlocks and those who go bare-headed, ‘settlers’ and ‘left-wingers’ — speak in exactly the same manner about the ‘others.’ They say, ‘Who are they to me? We have nothing in common.’
“Seeing the ‘other’ not as an enemy but as a stranger,” says Rabbi Steinsaltz, “seems to me the greatest, most terrible threat to our existence. Losing the feeling that we are one — that we are one body — is graver than even a civil war.”