Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beit Shemesh and Israel Advocacy: Some Thoughts

Like the rest of the Judeoblogosphere, I have been fixated for days on the situation in Beit Shemesh, where Israelis from all religious and political backgrounds are finally saying 'enough is enough' to the increasingly aggressive and violent Sikrikim gang, and other anti-Zionist, religiously fanatical groups in the Jerusalem area.

After months of increasing violence and petty harassment, largely against women, and other members of the haredi community, and struggle over gender segregation on the buses going through Mea Shearim and nearby areas, the Sikrikim upped their game by harassing little girls at the local Orthodox Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh. The parents of one of these girls, Naama Margolese, age eight, who was spit on and called a prostitute, went to the media. And Israel responded.

Naama Margolese, with her mother, Hadassah
The last several days have been filled with demonstrations against the violence and intimidation of the extremist groups, along with voices speaking out against them from every corner of society.

Netanyahu declared: “Israel is a Western liberal democracy, and as such its public space is open and safe for all, men and women. There is no place in [Israel] for discrimination. The police will continue to arrest all those who spit, raise their hands, and harass.”

Chief Military Rabbi, Brigadier-General Rafi Peretz said: “The spirit of Jewish law does not allow discrimination or violation of women in any circumstance and on any grounds.”

Left and right, religious and secular, Israelis have found common ground, as have Jews across the Diaspora. The photographs coming out of Beit Shemesh have been inspiring:
The center sign quotes from 'Hatikva'--
Lihiot am chofshi. To be a free people.
Prominent Israelis spoke out. Netanyahu opened the Knesset, declaring: “Israel is a Western liberal democracy, and as such its public space is open and safe for all, men and women. There is no place in [Israel] for discrimination. The police will continue to arrest all those who spit, raise their hands, and harass.”

Chief Military Rabbi Brigadier-General Rafi Peretz said: “The spirit of Jewish law does not allow discrimination or violation of women in any circumstance and on any grounds.”
Yelling in the streets for justice.

This gentleman's sign makes me terribly happy.

I immediately became a member of Occupy Bet Shemesh on Facebook, friended the Orot Banot school, and began to send off letters and signing petitions, as is my custom when something in Israel or elsewhere has me riled up.

Other Diaspora bloggers were doing likewise. Vicious Babushka wrote an amazing blog post, from the perspective of a Chabad grandmother of 29, many of whom live in Israel, and appeared on a radio panel.

A young man in payos, and a young woman with her hair uncovered,
stand together, with gentle, thoughtful faces.

Seeing the unifying activist theory rising these past couple of weeks has been a remarkable and heartening experience. At the same time, I could see that people were nervous about the degree to which dirty laundry was being aired, in a world in which even the most positive story coming out of Israel can be quickly appropriated for Israel-bashing purposes. (See, 'pinkwashing'.) "How can Gentiles understand this?" one friend asked me. "I don't understand it myself." And sure enough, I saw people approaching the story understanding only that the 'ultra-Orthodox', a dimly envisioned group who are imagined to be universally fanatical, anti-Arab, anti-woman, and disproportionately politically powerful, were up to something. "How can Israel criticize religious fanaticism anywhere else in the Middle East," the line generally ran, "when they have this happening and home, and the government does nothing to stop it?"

That, of course, is the mistaken part. Actually, two mistaken parts--first, the idea that Israel goes around complaining about other people's religious fanatics, except when those fanatics are directly talking about wiping Israel off the map, (they don't), and secondly, that the government is doing nothing about it, or is somehow supporting these crazies by not doing what, say, many other governments in the Middle East would do if offended by an anti-government group like this, and arresting anyone connected to their movement, torturing them, and keeping them in lockup without charging them. My first instinct, regardless, was to compartmentalize--to speak out about Beit Shemesh, but not to connect it to my Israel advocacy, for fear of making 'a shanda for the haters'.

Ronn Torossian at Algemeiner explores the various ways in which the international media has gotten the wrong end of the stick on this story, in what I consider a very good article. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about a variety of conversations I've had with anti-Israel activists, in which I've told them, bluntly and repeatedly that in contradiction of their assumptions, I do not think that Israel is a perfect fairy-tale land, and that not only am I aware of problems within the society and the government, but I speak out against them, and am an activist against them as much as I am an activist against those who would destroy Israel from without. So I have determined to be as open about my joy at the demonstrations in Beit Shemesh as I am about any other positive event in Israel, as clear about my opposition to religious extremists terrorizing their neighbors, religious and otherwise, as I am about my opposition to the Israel-haters of the world.
The stickers on this boy's face read "Beit Shemesh is a Zionist city".
He is protesting against the religious extremists, who are anti-Zionist.

Denying the validity of a Jewish state.
One point I think we need to make, clearly and loudly, is that while people who are unfamiliar with Israel, and have been ably misinformed by Israel-haters, may think of Toldot Aharon and the Sikrikim as the 'ultra-orthodox' they associate loosely with the settler movement, these people are actually, among other things, rabid anti-Zionists, loosely connected to the Neturai Karta movement, and staunchly opposed to the idea of a secular, democratic, self-determining Jewish state. They are, in fact, the allies of the anti-Israel activists of the West, and closely resemble them in their histrionic sense of theater, willingness to traumatize innocent children, and general ugly behavior.

Secondly, while it may be reasonable to think that something could have been done to rope in the extreme behavior of this fringe group, as I said above, had they tried something similar to this in Egypt under Mubarak they might simply all have vanished off the street one day, and in other places in the world, their spiritual brethren are running the whole show. Israel, a democracy with rule of law, faces a more complicated challenge, similar, perhaps to the one that the American legal system has faced in dealing with groups such as the FLDS. There is a fine line between allowing people to worship and live as they like, and hold their own political beliefs, and preventing them from harming people both in and out of their group, and Israel, like every other democracy worldwide, has to walk this line.

Looking at events unfolding in Beit Shemesh I am proud of us. I am proud of the Israelis and the Diaspora bloggers, I am proud of the people Hadassah Margolese referred to repeatedly in her speech to one of the demonstrations as 'the chareidi, the chiloni and the dati leumi' members of the Beit Shemesh community. I am proud of the Zionists. This is not dirty laundry, this is washing day, and for me it is another reminder of what I love about Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Makabit, I saw a referrer on my blog from yours so I came back to visit. I am embarrassed to say that I had forgotten about your blog, and how good it is. I've now put you on my blogroll.

    I love this piece you've written about Bet Shemesh. I didn't know how to approach it for the same reason you mentioned - airing our dirty linen in public. But you have echoed my feelings almost exactly.

    Kol hakavod and keep up the good work!