After several years in which Beit Shemesh has dropped off the media radar, the troubled city was thrust back into the limelight last week when a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth lobbed a stone at a 50-yearold woman, injuring her and causing her to bleed profusely from the head.
But according to non-haredi residents and activists, despite the lack of attention the city has received, such incidents have been part of their lives for years and are an ongoing reality when entering extremist areas.
These extremists are part of a very small minority of the overall haredi community, often associated with radical Jerusalemite communities that originally came from the equally radical Mea She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, and are fiercely anti-Zionist, violent and puritanical in their approach to Jewish law in general and female modesty in particular.
For non-haredi Beit Shemesh residents, especially women, who pass through the most radical neighborhood in the city, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, being spat at and cursed by children in the area occurs as a matter of course, while Israeli flags flying from cars are routinely ripped off.
Even stone throwing, although relatively rare, is a well-known threat. Although there have been few incidents in which anyone has been injured, some residents have spoken of near misses where serious injury could have occurred.
Just this past Saturday night, a 15-year-old haredi youth threw a stone at a police patrol car, damaging the windshield, and was arrested over the incident.
Another resident, who is religious, wrote recently on a Facebook thread that haredi youths shouted “shiksa” at her daughter and threw part of a cement block at the group of girls she was walking with, narrowly missing one of them.
Indeed, social media is full of reports by Beit Shemesh residents of various attacks of one kind or another.
In general, it is residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef and the neighborhoods abutting Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on the other side of the radical neighborhood who suffer the most from the extreme hostility of the local radicals.
This is due to their proximity and the geographical reality of the city in which the quickest and easiest route for residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef wishing to get to other parts of the city passes through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef and other neighborhoods close to Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet express a general feeling of discomfort and concern when having to traverse the radical neighborhoods in the city, saying that the possibility always exists that trouble may ensue.
Indeed, the central commercial area of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet has become so notorious that it has become known by some non-haredi residents as “The Heart of Darkness.”
Amanda Bradley, a religious woman and resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef for nearly five years, said that she is accosted with shouts of “shiksa” almost every time she walks through the area.
She added that stone throwing is not common, although such incidents have increased in recent weeks, while children throwing rubbish and dirty diapers is a more frequent occurrence, and some adults have spat in her direction as well.
“There’s always an awareness that something might happen when walking through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. It sometimes feels a bit like a war zone because you don’t know when something might erupt or escalate,” she said.
Bradley has also had to deal with the activities of extremists outside her home, since dozens of them frequently picket the home of a neighbor living across the road from her who is an IDF officer involved in efforts to enlist haredi men in the IDF.
Despite the general hostility she feels when passing through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, and notwithstanding the protests against her neighbor, Bradley said that she does not feel impacted by the extremism of some of her neighbors on a daily basis and that she and her husband have not thought seriously considered leaving the city, although she notes that others have left because of these problems.
Another symptom of the increased hostility of extremists is a recent decision by residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef to accompany their children when walking though Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on Shabbat.
Some teenagers from Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef serve as youth movement leaders in groups such as Bnei Akiva and Ezra, which have branches in the older part of Beit Shemesh, and have to walk through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on Shabbat in order to get there.
According to Yoav Braverman, who has children who serve as youth group leaders, haredi youth in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet have for years cursed and spat at these teenagers as they walk down Nahar Hayarden Street, the main road traversing the neighborhood, and have also thrown various objects at them.
On a recent Shabbat several weeks ago, Braverman said the situation became especially threatening when hundreds of haredi youths, and some adults, surrounded this group of teenagers, pushing, spitting and throwing things at them.
Because of this increase in threatening and violent behavior, adults from Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef now accompany the teenagers every week when walking through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Following the more severe incident, these families also turned to the police, who in turn provided a police presence during one Shabbat since then. This helped to quiet the extremists in the following weeks, Braverman said.
He described the situation as “very unpleasant,” and said that while he himself does walk through Nahar Hayarden when he needs to, he knows people who consciously avoid it.
Despite this, he said that the issue should be “put in proportion” and argued that the core of the problem is a small minority of violent extremists who need to be dealt with by the police.
The violence and intimidating behavior is not only confined to members of the non-haredi public.
David Ruschinek, a member of the Chabad community who used to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, said that he and his children were the subject of severe harassment by extremists in the neighborhood.
One man in particular used to follow his daughters around the area screaming at them that they were dressed immodestly and calling them shiksas. After one incident, Ruschinek called the police and the man was detained, but this led to efforts by the man’s associates to try and ambush and physically harm him.
Several months ago, one of his daughters was prevented from getting on the front of one of the buses serving the neighborhood by a haredi man. This is not an uncommon incident, since there are efforts by the extremists to turn the bus into a so-called “Mehadrin line,” where men and women are segregated with women only allowed to get on at the back of the bus.
Ruschinek and his family have since moved out of the neighborhood into Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, although he said he knows other haredi families who have experienced similar harassment and intimidation.
Despite the very open nature of the ongoing harassment and violent behavior by these extremists to members of the general public, the Beit Shemesh Municipality and the police appear to have been ineffective in stamping the phenomenon out.
Bradley said that she and others feel a certain level of abandonment by the municipality.
“It’s an insane situation, it’s very frustrating, but since the [last mayoral] election [won by a haredi candidate] the non-haredi community knows we don’t have a municipality that cares about our interests,” she said simply.
Miri Shalem, a resident and activist in Beit Shemesh, voiced similar sentiments, but took it one step further, alleging that the violence and threatening behavior are a symptom of the attitude of the haredi- controlled municipal authority, which she said does not care about its non-haredi residents.
One of the most central complaints is that there is a lack of construction in the city and its new neighborhoods for the non-haredi sector, which has given the haredi community a preponderance of numbers and forced young non-haredi people to move out of the city owing to the lack of housing for them.
“The symptom is violence, but the mayor is in fact saying we’re opening the door, please leave. Beit Shemesh is being conquered, your children will leave and the city will become totally haredi,” Shalem said.
Yisrael Silverstein, a member of the municipal council coalition for the haredi Degel Hatorah Party, acknowledged the problem posed by the extremists and said that all members of the municipal council, from secular to haredi, are opposed to the violence.
But, he added, it is not the job of the municipal council to deal with it. He also rejected the claim that non-haredi residents are not well served, noting that Likud and Bayit Yehudi council members are part of the municipal coalition and arguing that there are several projects underway for promoting culture and sports in the city.
He said that a new planned neighborhood in the city has been designated for the non-haredi community, although non-haredi activists have argued that building contractors are reluctant to bid for the public tenders since they are dubious that enough non-haredi people can now be attracted to the city.
“In every society there are extremists and there are extremists here also, and they have been here for 20 years,” said Silverstein.
“From wall to wall in the municipal council there is agreement that there should be no violence, no attacking, no breaking flags, no throwing stones, everyone has said this very clearly,” he continued.
“Everyone is against the Sikrikim [extremists], but I don’t think it’s the municipality’s job or responsibility to deal with them, it’s the job of the police.”
Silverstein added that there have also been acts of violence against haredim in the city, citing an incident on Saturday night when a haredi communal rabbi was shoved by a secular city resident while lighting a Lag Ba’omer bonfire in the old town of Beit Shemesh. Secular youths scuffled with haredim at the same ceremony.
“I would like to see a situation in which any citizen of the city will feel comfortable to walk anywhere in the city, whether its national-religious or secular people in haredi neighborhoods or haredim in secular neighborhoods,” said Silverstein.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that police in Beit Shemesh have been trying to deal with the “issues within the religious community in the city in order to prevent an escalation,” noting that some of the increased violence has been linked to national protests by extremist haredi factions against haredi IDF enlistment.
“Police units arrive at the scene of every incident and try and identify suspects and open an investigation,” said Rosenfeld.
“There are tensions which can be seen and we’re trying to deal with them,” he continued, adding, however, that the issue needs to be seen “in proportion” and arguing that the violence is perpetrated by a small number of people.
A request for an interview with the head of the Beit Shemesh police force was denied.