Religious harassment and police complicity in Beit Shemesh

Before the intimidation of school girls by ultra-Orthodox enforcers became a national and international story, the local police were determined to remain neutral.

If you meet the police in Beit Shemesh, you can understand why the town’s mainstream Jewish majority is afraid of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) extremists, and why the Haredi extremists are afraid of no one.

At the start of October, over the High Holidays, the stories of these Haredim harassing the not-sufficiently-Orthodox girls from Orot elementary school  were spreading through the country’s English-speaking religious community. (Many of the girls at Orot are children of American immigrants, such as Na’ama Margolese, the tearful, frightened “star” of last weekend’s TV news segment that set off nationwide outrage this past week.) But the story of what the zealots from the Neturei Karta and Toldot Aharon Haredi sects were doing to the girls at Orot was still unknown to the general public. I write for American Jewish newspapers, so I went to have a look.

The Orot parents told me what they’d been telling the police – that the Haredi activists scream “shikse” and “whore” at their 8-year-old daughters because their sleeves and dresses don’t cover every inch of their arms and legs. And when the parents tried to stop the attacks by photographing the Haredim in the act, things got rougher. Rocks were thrown from Haredi rooftops. One Orot father got kicked in the ribs so hard that doctors said he was lucky his lung hadn’t been punctured. A woman who came to walk her daughter home was screamed at, cursed and threatened with a rock by one of the zealots, The grandfather of one of the school girls, a man in his 70s, had his camera torn out of his hands and was surrounded by a crowd of enraged Haredim.

The day I was there, the parents were finishing up their after-school patrol; they’d convinced the police to show up, a couple of cops sat in their car, and this time there were no incidents. Afterward, they began trying to convince one of the senior police officers in Beit Shemesh, Ronen Ben-David, that their daughters were being traumatized by vicious men and that it was the police’s responsibility to stop it. “The last thing I want to be doing in the middle of my work day is running around here,” said one of the fathers.

Smiling and friendly, Ben-David tried to calm them down, saying they should leave it to the police, that the police were doing everything they could, and that everything would be alright. “If there’s any physical violence, we’ll deal with them. But yelling gevalt is not a crime,” he said.

In a vacant lot nearby, about a dozen Haredim were facing Jerusalem for afternoon prayers. A few cops were there, a few parents, and me, “the media.” The father who’d been kicked in the ribs identified a distinctively red-bearded Haredi man in the prayer group as his assailant. He started photographing the man and demanding that the police arrest him, and a cop told him that if he wanted, he could come to the police station and file a complaint. I asked the policeman if he intended to arrest the red-beared Haredi, or question him, or do anything about him. “We’ll arrest who we have to arrest. No need to stir things up,” he said.

One night there was a rally near the school demanding that the intimidation end. Maybe a thousand residents and supporters showed up, virtually all of them mainstream Orthodox, but a few black-coated Haredim were there, too, which took guts. Many Haredim in Beit Shemesh, maybe the majority, resent the maniacs among them, but they’re afraid to speak out. Numerous cops and cop cars separated the rally from the Haredi enforcers watching across the street.

A Rabbi Cooperman (I didn’t get his first name) told the crowd: “I appeal to police Commander Kobi Cohen – it’s your job not to be afraid of anyone. Verbal violence against little girls is violence. You have to protect them.”

Cohen was standing with his men in the middle of the blocked-off street. I asked him what he thought of the rabbi’s challenge.

“I’m not afraid of anyone,” he said, “I’m a man of the law. But I don’t know that rabbi.”

The Israel Police commander in Beit Shemesh is a very impressive-looking guy – middle-to-late 30s, tall, dark, Hollywood handsome, erect, broad shoulders. He speaks with total confidence, he has immediate command presence. In a macho, security-obsessed society like Israel, Kobi Cohen looked like a real comer.

“If anyone breaks the law, we will arrest him,” he said. The intimidation of the Orot girls had been going on for a month, since the school year began – had there been any arrests, any indictments? No indictments, the commander replied, but some of the activists had been questioned on suspicion of breaking the law.

“On both sides,” he stressed. There were Haredim who’d “pushed and shoved” the school parents, and school parents who’d pushed and shoved the Haredim. “One of the school parents threatened to sic his dog on them,” Cohen said.

This was interesting. The top cop in Beit Shemesh seemed to be saying that these Neturei Karta freaks who  hound elementary school girls on their way home, screaming curses at them, and who are known for their trash-burning, rock-throwing battles with police in Jerusalem, were no more of a threat to local law and order than the parents trying to protect their daughters from these attacks.

Softening my question, trying to give Cohen every chance to correct my impression, I asked him if he saw one side as being “more to blame” than the other, one side as being “more the aggressor” than the other.

“I don’t see either side as the aggressor,” he said. “I don’t see either side as being more to blame.” He explained that besides a little pushing and shoving, which, again, both sides engage in, all the Haredim were doing to the Orot girls was “usually saying gevalt and starting to pray. You can’t arrest them for that. Verbal expressions are not an issue for the law.”

That was nearly two months ago. This week the Orot parents told me that after the Rosh Hashana rally, the enforcers laid off their girls, but started up again a few weeks ago. If the parents hadn’t interested Channel 2 in coming over and talking to Na’ama Margolese and filming all those wild, outraged Haredim, there would have been nothing and no one to stop this organized child abuse from continuing. Certainly not the police.