Heal­ing hands: how town riven by re­li­gious war is forg­ing peace

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News - BY ANSHEL PF­EF­FER

LAST YEAR, Beit Shemesh was ground zero for the lat­est round of re­li­gious con­flict in Is­rael, with reg­u­lar re­ports emerg­ing from the town of vi­o­lent scuf­fles and the ha­rass­ment of school­girls.

In re­cent months, how­ever, the town may have turned into a sym­bol of communal en­gage­ment.

The pic­tures of young girls be­ing heck­led and even spat at by strict­lyOrtho­dox men as they ar­rived at the Orot na­tional-re­li­gious pri­mary school caused a me­dia storm and a spate of demon­stra­tions against this and un­der in­stances of fe­male ex­clu­sion.

How­ever, it also brought about a deep feel­ing of shame within the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. “The me­dia’s in­ter­est made peo­ple on all sides very anx­ious,” says Ilan Geal-dor, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Gesher, an Is­raeli or­gan­i­sa­tion that has been work­ing for decades to im­prove re­la­tions be­tween sec­u­lar, re­li­gious and strictly-ortho­dox Is­raelis. He also has a daugh­ter at the school. “The Charedim felt un­der fire and blamed the jour­nal­ists for ‘de­mon­is­ing’ them. It also cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity.”

To­gether with Mayor Moshe About­bul, Gesher or­gan­ised a meet­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the dif­fer­ent re­li­gious groups liv­ing in the town. De­spite high ten­sion and the Charedi de­mands that the school be moved to a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion, they man­aged to agree to keep lines of con­tact open, and bro­kered a com­mit­ment from all sides to re­frain from vi­o­lence.

“On the one hand,” says Mr Geal-dor, “there were groups around the school shout­ing vile words at these young girls, there were girls be­ing spat at and par­ents were walk­ing their daugh­ters to school and get­ting into fights. But at the same time we re­alised there was an open­ness to talk.”

Pro­fes­sional Gesher me­di­a­tors who spoke with the lo­cal rab­bis un­der­stood that they were in a sit­u­a­tion whereby they had to play to the more fa­nat­i­cal el­e­ments within their com­mu­nity even though they them­selves were against the vi­o­lence.

“The Charedi lead­er­ship is con­tin­u­ously be­ing forced to act be­tween those who are against any kind of con­ces­sion and the grow­ing open­ness in the strictly-ortho­dox com­mu­nity to a com­pro- mise with wider Is­raeli so­ci­ety.”

Only when the me­dia cir­cus moved on could the talks be­gin in earnest. “We be­gan talk­ing at the height of the cri­sis,” says Sh­muel Papen­heim, an un­of­fi­cial spokesman of the Toldoth Aharon Cha­sidic group liv­ing in Beit Shemesh, “but we had to wait for things to calm down be­cause of the gen­eral public at­mos­phere and the way the me­dia blew ev­ery­thing out of pro­por­tion.” Since then there have been a se­ries of meet­ings be­tween the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties’ lead­ers and, last month, for the first time, a “round-ta­ble” dis­cus- sion was held with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all the groups. An­other is to be held im­me­di­ately af­ter Pe­sach.

“Even the most fa­natic rab­bis were rep­re­sented and I think that the meet­ings have played a part in low­er­ing the ten­sion­sinthetown,”saysm­r­pap­pen­heim. “Ev­ery­one now re­alises that this isn’t just about solv­ing spe­cific prob­lems. We need to have a per­ma­nent forum in which to meet so we can en­sure good re­la­tions. I think the most im­por­tant thing we did was that we kept the politi­cians out and in­volved just lo­cal peo­ple. Politi­cians just want to win bat­tles.”

PHOTO: FLASH 90

Sec­u­lar Is­raeli women per­form­ing a dance protest against the ex­clu­sion of women in Beit Shemesh

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