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Young charedi men clash with police in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, Dec. 26. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

The cascade of condemnations started pouring in almost as soon as the Israeli TV report aired. Its subject was an eight-year-old girl harassed by charedi men on the way to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh.

Israel’s prime minister and president vowed that Israel would not tolerate charedi violence against women, whether directed at schoolgirls or women on public buses. Israel’s opposition leader, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, went to a demonstration of thousands held in Beit Shemesh on the Tuesday following the broadcast.

In the United States, too, the condemnations came fast and furious: Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union (OU), the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and even the charedi Orthodox umbrella body Agudath Israel of America were among the many groups that responded.

The RCA and OU, for example, issdued a joint statement “to strongly and unambiguously condemn the recent violence and intimidation committed by segments of the Jewish community in Beit Shemesh….[W]e call upon all involved to return to the peaceful ways of our sacred Torah and to respect the dignity of all human beings. It should be clear to all that this hateful activity does not represent Judaism.”

“Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed ‘guardians’ of modesty is reprehensible,” the Agudath Israel of America stated. “Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally.”

Silence from the charedi

There appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent about the violence: Israeli charedim.

That is because there is some ambivalence among charedi in Israel when it comes to religious zealotry.

“The question isn’t how many charedim support charedi violence and how many do not,” said sociologist Menachem Friedman, an expert on charedi life and professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University. “In all the conflicts involving charedi violence in Israel, from the British Mandate period until today, violent charedim were always a small minority, and I believe that the vast majority feel uncomfortable about them.

“The problem is that most charedim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them,” Friedman continued. “Some, perhaps a small segment, really do support the violence; some, perhaps a larger segment, do not support the violence but understand the extremists, believing that actions like these, even if they are not pretty, at the end of the day are a true expression of religious sentiments,” he said. “And the majority perhaps opposes the violence and knows that ultimately it’s bad for Judaism, but doesn’t have the courage to go out and oppose it publicly.”

There were one or two notable exceptions.

“If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken,” the Jerusalem-based leader of the Belz chasidim, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, said during a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at his synagogue, which holds upward of 6,000 people.

Belzer’s message

Rokeach’s comments, although tepid by secular standards, marked a rare foray into current events by the Belzer rebbe, who has an estimated 45,000 followers worldwide.

The roundabout way the Belzer’s message was delivered, and the scant media coverage given to charedi opposition to the violence aimed at non-charedim, is indicative both of the difficulties outsiders have with discerning shades of gray in charedi society and the ambivalence within the charedi world toward using violence to achieve religious aims.

For one thing, Israeli charedi condemnations of violence are not delivered the same way as condemnations in the non-charedi world. They are generally directed inward, not outward; they tend to be delivered as words of Torah to followers. not in statements to the press; they are often spoken not in English or Hebrew, but in Yiddish; and they are expressed less as a reaction to current events than as calls for dignified behavior by Torah-observant Jews.

“The Belzer rebbe is one of the few people who has the guts to say something,” Tuvya Stern, a charedi attorney who lives in Beit Shemesh, told JTA. “But he’s not going to condemn the extremists; that’s not his way. He’ll just advocate for a different approach.”

Rokeach’s speech, which was reported in charedi media and noted by Israel Radio, was unusual both because it referred to current events and because it was aimed, at least in part, at a wider audience: The rebbe had invited an Israeli Knesset member, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to be with him when he delivered his speech. Because Rokeach made his remarks in Yiddish, it is not clear whether Sa’ar picked up on their significance.

Rokeach’s reaction, however, was exceptional. Most charedi leaders stayed silent.

Satmar-allied group

The violent zealots are drawn largely from the Edah Hacharedis, a community of anti-Zionist charedim that is particularly strict even by charedi standards and has strongholds in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The Edah is closely aligned with the Satmar chasidic sect.

Charedi support for fighting a culture war against secularism extends beyond the Edah Hacharedis, but most charedim who espouse such views will not go so far as to become defenders of the faith themselves. Charedim often invoke a classic metaphor to describe this approach: You may not want to live with a cat, but you need cats around to eat the mice if you want to prevent infestation.

Currently, the “infestation” is the presence of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, adjacent to a charedi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. At other times, it has been the mixing of sexes in Orthodox neighborhoods, the operation of parking lots or roads on Shabbat in charedi neighborhoods, and attempts by women to pray with the Torah at the Western Wall.

Similar behavior can be found in certain Islamic societies and fundamentalist Catholic and Protestant communities, Friedman said, noting that a key difference with charedim is that any violence is relatively limited in scope, not involving serious injury or death.

Then there are charedim who oppose extremism, but fear speaking out because they do not want to be seen as lax in matters of religion.

When Rabbi David Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon sect of chasidim, spoke out a few years ago against religious violence via a Yiddish-language Torah exegesis of the story of Pinchas the zealot in Sefer Bemidbar (the Book of Numbers in the Torah), he quickly was condemned in placards posted around his neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem.

Anti-religious assault

Other charedim do not speak out because they see fights such as the one in Beit Shemesh not as a battle between extremists and moderates, but as part of a broader Israeli assault on charedi life led by the mainstream Israeli media.

“The source of the pollution is in halachah [Jewish law] itself,” former Knesset member Yossi Sarid wrote in a column published recently in the daily newspaper Haaretz. Sarid called for the disqualification of charedi parties from the Knesset. On Haaretz’s English-language website, the article was titled “Orthodox Judaism treats women like filthy little things.”

Facing such hostility, some charedim say, why get involved at all?

Then there is the large segment of charedim who see themselves as totally apart from the charedim perpetrating the violence. Their attitude is that if it is not their community members, it is not their business and they do not need to get involved.

While to an outsider all charedim may look alike – with their black coats, hats, and beards – the charedi community is as fractured as the Jewish community as a whole. In Israel, the charedi community is divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, chasidic and mitnagid (non-chasidic), moderates and extremists. Within the chasidic community, too, there are multiple sects – and sometimes even competing grand rebbes within the same sect.

In a world seen by outsiders as monolithic, however, all charedim inevitably are associated with the extremism of a few, and charedi silence is seen as affirmation of charedi bad behavior.

It is something that may irk charedim who are engaged with the outside world, but it does not seem to matter much to charedim who are not.

Non-charedi speak out

That nonchalance is alien to the non-charedi Jewish world, where organizations and leaders go out of their way to denounce ideas, people, or actions they find distasteful. That goes for everything from terrorist attacks to the bombing of churches in Nigeria.

When Agudath Israel, the main charedi umbrella organization in the United States, issued its statement condemning the violence, it also took a shot at those denigrating charedim in general.

“Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended,” it said in its statement. “It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.”

Until charedim take to their synagogue lecterns, the airwaves or the streets, however, that is a message that is unlikely to be heard by the Jewish public.

To be sure, there were a few charedim who joined the Dec. 27 demonstration in Beit Shemesh against the violence. Some were members of a new local charedi party called Tov (Hebrew for “good”) whose platform espouses moderation and open-mindedness.

“It was a very hard decision” because many of the protesters were engaged in anti-charedi sloganeering, explained Stern, the charedi attorney from Beit Shemesh, who is a leading Tov activist. “There were signs at the rally saying ‘Charedim leave Beit Shemesh.'”

Nevertheless, he said, it was important to make a public statement.

“There are rabbis in the charedi world who believe in violence as part of a religious duty,” Stern said, “but they are not a large group of people.”

JTA Wire Service