Fear and Loathing in Beit Shemesh

Rape is not about sex, it’s about violence.  So too Orthodox Jewish men attacking little Orthodox Jewish girls in Beit Shemesh because they were wearing short sleeves this past week http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/12/27/3090916/israelis-rally-around-naama-women  was not, God forbid about tzniut, the Jewish notion of modesty (the perpetrated acts were of course anything but modest),  but about power.

In Israel religion is inextricably interwoven with politics and politics is about power.   It would be nice if this were a symbiotic relationship, resulting in a Jewish democratic state in which politics could be informed by the spiritual and the religious, but unfortunately it has resulted in a parasitic relationship in which religion is all too often colored by, and utilized in, the service of power.

I am not grouping all Orthodox Jews together and I am not stereotyping all Charedi (anti-Zionist, strongly insular) Jews together.   I well realize that though there are hundreds of Charedim who have been involved in violence over the past few years, in protest to co-gender public busses, in response to state involvement in the welfare of children in parts of Jerusalem, or in this recent episode in Beit Shemesh, it is hundreds of Charedim, not thousands or tens of thousands.  Why do they do it?  Several reasons I think.

Though some have political power due to Israel’s parliamentary system, the majority feel powerless.  Just as haughtiness is perpetrated by individuals to counteract strong feelings of insecurity, violence does the same for feelings of powerlessness.    Indeed, religion is a perfect guise for such violence since it paints violence as indignant and vindicated, righteous and productive.

Why do some Charedi in Israel feel powerless?  Among several causes that loom large are that they do not serve in the army, something that in the state of Israel is considered the badge of honor, and an important factor in securing latter employment in the civil sector.  Recently, due to a rabbinical edict, they are not permitted to study secular subjects even if it will assist them in finding a job, rendering the job search incredibly difficult.  http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/151133#.Tv0hKVYkKSo

Many live below the poverty line, http://www.haaretz.com/themarker/more-than-half-of-israel-s-ultra-orthodox-living-in-poverty-1.323309  subsisting on government handouts in order to study for many years and thus avoid army service, considered spiritually dangerous by Charedi Orthodox communities.  Without serving in the army in Israel and without secular academic education, theirs is a poor sub-culture seen as backward by Israel’s general society, and even by Zionist Orthodox co-religionists.

The second reason for the violence is that Orthodox Jews who live in insular communities in Israel often have no real sense of others.  If one lives in an enclosed enough community and is taught that only one’s own way of seeing every detail in life, religion, and the world is right, soon there is no vision, soon such preaching becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.   To not know or value those who are different from oneself breeds fear of the other and disregard, or worse, toward them.

I am told that in many communities Charedi women are forbidden from wearing ankle length skirts and are only allowed calf length skirts.  Why?  Because the Zionist orthodox women often wear ankle length skirts.   This is to me a fear and loathing of the other that is so strong it has led to the absurdly xenophobic.

The third reason I would suggest for the violence is that those perpetrating it have mistakenly done what many fringe groups and sects in Jewish history have done, harped on one Jewish idea or element to the (partial) exclusion of the colorful range of important ideas and commandments in Judaism.  Whether Reform Judaism which stressed the commandments between people, minimizing the ritual commandments, or some Charedim who stress the ritual commandments to the detriment of those between humans outside of their close knit communities.

Judaism deeply values seeing different Jewish points of view even when they differ from our own.  This is the great lesson we learn from Hillel and Shamai, who disagreed about most of Jewish law and yet married their children off to each other.  Let us speak out against the violence and against the teachers of the who perpetrate it and do not take their followers to task, and let us bring back the true Jewish perspective of Hillel and Shamai, that, “Both these and those are the word of God” and erase the false outlook that seems to dominate in our day of, “Its my way or the highway.”

2 Responses to Fear and Loathing in Beit Shemesh

  1. In the pictures I’ve seen from Beit Shemesh, the girls who were being harassed were wearing long sleeves

  2. One of the reasons for Chareidi violence is the desire to create a uniform community out of diverse individuals.
    Go into any secular school and you will see a variety of kids. Some are destined for medical school, some for plumbing school and some for a life on government assistance. They speak differently, act differently and dress differently. They find their own social circles and associate with them. No one would think to force the slower kids to take advanced biology any more than forcing the artsy kids to take auto mechanics. Each kid according to his interests and strengths.
    Now contrast this with the Chareidi system. The same diversity in terms of interests, aptitudes and ability exist but instead of recognizing this the system forces all children to learn the same, speak the same, dress the same and act the same. For many it’s a decent fit but for many others it’s not. The kid who, in the secular system, would choose a trade over a profession is stuck taking Gemara lessons he can’t understanding until finally he’s left behind and abandoned by the system which cannot handle an exception or someone with different needs and interests. So what’s he to do? He’s got no education, even according to what passes as such for Chareidim, no hope for the future and the only chance he has to be socially successful to be the most passionate member of the society he wants to be part of. Is it therefore any surprise that this zealotry exists?

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