Several thousand haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men flooded the streets of Bnei Barak on Tuesday afternoon to protest against what haredi leaders have described as “a desecration of Gods name” in the city of Arad.
Several hassidic grand rabbis were present to protest against the activities of non-haredi Arad residents, who have themselves demonstrated against the Gur community and synagogue in the city.
The synagogue is one of several flash points which have sprung up amidst the intercommunal dispute in the city between the Gur and secular communities in Arad.
The Gur community began using an unused school in the city as their synagogue, but the municipality objected and demanded that they leave. Several attempts at an agreement failed, and the municipality filed suit to forcibly evict the Gur community from the premises. A ruling is expected next month.
Two weeks ago, several dozen secular Arad residents, along with members of the Arad Municipal Council, staged a protest at the Gur synagogue on Friday night against its ongoing use of the premises.
According to the Gur community, protesters entered the synagogue during the Shabbat evening prayer service and started using their cell phones, taking pictures and making phone calls.
Such actions are prohibited by Jewish law on Shabbat and generated outrage amongst worshipers, the broader Gur community and its leadership.
The Arad Municipal Council, however, denies such behavior occurred, calling the claims “outright lies.”
During the demonstration on Tuesday in Bnei Brak, Rabbi Mordechai Stern, secretary of the Council of Torah Sages of the hassidic Agudat Yisrael movement, said the council would not hold back in its response to the incident in the synagogue and would reply “in the most severe way.”
Stern also called on “leaders of the state” to prevent the “harassment of synagogues and study halls in the Land of Israel, and to do everything [possible] so that every Jew can pray in accordance with the inheritance of his fathers throughout the generations.”
Yehoshua Ashkenazi, a spokesman for the Arad Municipal Council, placed the blame for tensions in Arad squarely on the shoulders of the Gur community and its leadership, saying that other haredi groups, including the Chabad and the Sephardi haredi communities in the city, had lived amicably alongside the secular community for many years.
Ashkenazi also charged Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman with responsibility for provoking the tensions. He alleged that one of the Gur communal leaders in the city was an “emissary of Litzman” and blamed the minister, who is a Gur hassid, for having sought to take control of Arad for the Gur community.
“The local struggle by extremists within Gur to try and take control of the city and to change the character of the city has failed. [By the time] Litzman realized that he had failed and that Arad residents and the mayor would not back down, they had [already] turned this into a national struggle,” said Ashkenazi.
“The Arad Municipal Council is not impressed by these demonstrations and will continue to enforce the law in city,” he added.
A spokesman for Litzman said in response that Arad Mayor Nissan Ben Hamo has carried out “discriminatory and illegal actions against entire communities,” and alleged that haredi residents “are now subject to total disregard and shameful contempt and abuse by the mayor due to political vengeance and hatred of haredim.”