August 14, 2012 | Atara Beck - Israel Correspondent
BEIT SHEMESH – One of the latest examples of religious fanaticism is currently taking place in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph (RBS-A), a peaceful neighbourhood where women who don’t dress according to orthodox standards and occasional passersby in cars on the Sabbath are not being harassed.
Although it has a haredi (ultra-orthodox) majority, RBS-A is far from the scene of the internationally reported harassment involving the national religious Bnot Orot girls’ school; in fact, it is not even in walking distance.
Yet RBS-A residents failed to notice the removal of chairs outside Nechama, a new, local bakery-café, because of threats by a minority of extremist religious leaders who believe that mixed seating in public is unacceptable.
Upon noticing that the tables were now hidden behind a wall, the Jewish Tribune questioned an employee, who could not give his name but was willing to discuss the situation with the consent of co-workers and owners. He said that a few haredim affiliated with local Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Perlstein threatened that if the chairs remain outside, the eatery will lose its kashrut license.
The hechsher (kashrut license) is from the anti-Zionist, ultra-orthodox Badatz Yerusalayim/Eidah Chareidis, which, the employee stressed, is the ultimate in hechsherim here. There are several others, but this one is the most widely accepted by all streams of orthodoxy across the country.
Ironically, Badatz is an acronym for ‘Beit Din Tzedek,’ meaning ‘court of justice.’
According to the bakery spokesperson, although the chairs have nothing whatsoever to do with the level of kashrut, the authorities granting the license “take direction from the local rabbis.”
A haredi himself, he mentioned that he had served in the Israel Defence Forces and, in his opinion, a majority of men in his community would likely agree to do so if not for the “extreme pressure” exerted by a small but powerful group of religious leaders.
The Tribune contacted Rabbi Perlstein by telephone to verify the facts. Without denying his personal involvement, he refused to discuss the issue, claiming he had “no time.”
In fact, unbeknownst to new residents of this Beit Shemesh suburb, there is a definite history of intimidation that resulted in the exodus of secular families, and once upon a time there were outdoor cafes in the RBS-A centre.
Rabbi Dov Lipman, a moderate haredi rabbi who lives in Beit Shemesh proper and has become prominent in his public fight to end extremism not only here, but also throughout the country, stressed that it is not Israel’s chief rabbinate that is responsible for this type of intolerance and coercion; rather, the problem is “private kashrut organizations that restaurants feel they need in order to attract the largest group of customers.”
Several customers told the Tribune they assumed the tables had been moved to escape the hot August sun, and they were appalled by the situation.
Shoshana Jaskoll, an orthodox resident, said, “I’m not quite sure who they [extremists] think they are ‘saving’ with these oppressive measures. Businesses lose, families lose, [and] the city loses.”
She was at Nechama with her children a few weeks ago.
“We sat, ate and enjoyed. Now I can’t do that? And why? For what [purpose]?”
Another resident, who was reluctant to give his name, expressed disgust at this latest example of intimidation, but he preferred not to publicize the situation and to keep the discussion internal in order not to portray Israel and religious Jews in a negative light – although this minority group of extremist leaders have been slammed by the mainstream orthodox community and called, among other names, “terrorist bullies.”
“As long as people say things like it’s going to be a desecration of G-d’s name, then there’s no hope for change,” Rabbi Lipman said. “But if people will get together and say that this is not Torah, [and that] this is not Judaism, [but] it’s about power, money, control and corruption, then there’s hope. We need to stop fanatical rabbis from instituting fabricated laws.”
According to Rabbi Lipman, now that the Tribune broke the story, a movement in RBS-A to change the status quo has begun. Suggestions for action include demonstrations and sit-ins.
The greater Beit Shemesh area is not alone in this fight. Similar news stories in the past several weeks included, for example, a letter to the editor in the Jerusalem Post by a resident of Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighbourhood. She claimed that when she went to purchase the Post, it was hidden in a black plastic bag in the back of the store, which also sells food; the owner was allegedly threatened with the loss of his kashrut certificate for selling the secular newspaper. A recent story in JewishPress.com, quoting information from a news blog associated with Ha’aretz, reported that senior Jerusalem rabbis permitted a late-night removal of the body of a haredi man from its grave because family members claimed that the spiritual level of the nearby dead was questionable and they resented the fact that he was buried next to a woman. The reporter cited a burial society official as saying, “We have no shortage of meshugoim (crazies).”