Two nights ago, the “modesty potrol” of Mea Shearim beat up a 70 year old ultra-orthodox woman who teaches women studying for conversion. They broke her right hand, crushed her left leg, and injured her face.
Many have observed that the victims of these so-called patrols are usually other Haredim. The violence in Beit Shemesh was a spillover of a bullying problem internal to the haredi community. The reasons why this problem persists are complicated.
Just as rabbis refused to give public condemnations against the violence in Beit Shemesh, so too when the violence is targeted within their own community. The reasons for the silence are the same ones that were given in December when the non-Haredi public called for condemnation of bullying on buses, streets, and school protests.
Some rabbis have the feeling that the violent behavior is nonsense. Talking about it will only give them their moment of fame. It will in fact egg them on. Others may feel that the ends justify the means. When attacking or arrested by police, they claim to be acting in defense of modesty and protecting the Haredi community from destruction. Even if they don’t fully approve of the tactics, they don’t really want to stop the phenomenon. Others keep silent out of fear, lest they be judged as lax about modesty and external threats to the Haredi way of life.
Vigilante behavior is not limited to Israeli Haredim. There are on-going problems with self-appointed vigilantes in Haredi communities in the USA as well. Crown Heights in New York City also has its modesty patrols who embarrass women, harass store owners, and more. At the beginning of February, the beit midrash which is the home of the Chabad movement (“770”) has been disrupted with a series of brawls instigated by messianic chabadniks who wanted to set up a booth so students could visit with the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. The violence is so habitual that the Crown Heights on-line newspaper wrote (bolded typefont added):
Upset about the Bitul Torah this “kabuki theater” was causing, they complained to 770 Mashpia Rabbi Bluming, who arrived in 770 shortly thereafter and demanded that the dividers be removed. The Tzfatim refused, and shouting ensued. As usual, the shouting gave way to violence, as one bochur was punched square in the face by a Tzfati.
The beginning of February also saw the trial and conviction of a young man who fire bombed a man in New Square last year in a misguided effort to resolve a dispute with his rebbe, Skvere Rebbe, R. David Twersky.
In Israel, the problem of violence has become sufficiently bad that some members of the Israeli Haredim have actually approached the secular Israeli police to ask for help against the violence. But there are others in the community that are very much against secular police involvement. For example, a yeshiva student who called the police after having been punched in the face during one of the 770 brawls was reputedly reprimanded by the rosh yeshiva for having called the police and threatened with expulsion.
Studying Torah should not lead to such violence. Tradition says that Torah “is a tree of life” and “all its paths are peace”. Yet the reality is that far too many Haredi communities have a particular problem with religiously motivated and justified violence. Other Jewish communities have crime to be sure. They even have vigilantes, but it isn’t dressed up in the garb of holiness and love of Torah. This isn’t to say those other communities are better. Rather it is simply offered as evidence that one shouldn’t be resigned to violence. If other communities can figure out a way to keep violence from claiming religious cover, then so can the Haredim.
Unfortunately there are no studies exploring the problem and its roots. Nor are their likely to be any. Public self-examination and self-criticism is not a strong point of Haredi society.
The occasional vocal editorial is not enough to solve the problem. Outsiders can do little, since there is too much fundamental distrust even when the motives for concern are compassion and common Jewish values. Writing off the perpetrators of violence as not really ‘frum” doesn’t solve the problem either. They still live, work, and study in the community.
Nor will looking for possible provocations. If the ways of Torah are peace, then resorting to violence in the absence of an imminent threat to physical life is wrong. Even if the other person is scum of the earth, we still can’t take the law into our own hands and exact punishment. For punishment to be peaceful and fair, each side must have the opportunity to present their arguments before an impartial judge.
It will take great courage for the community to get serious about its internal violence problem and begin a public dialog. It will take wisdom to tease apart what is true Torah and what is a distortion in the name of Torah. It will take great faith to believe that a public airing will heal the community rather than destroy it. All the same, little is likely to change until the community begins such a dialog.
Even though the wider Jewish community can’t have the discussion for the Haredi community, that doesn’t let it off the hook. When a group of Jews are suffering, we cannot simply say “whew. so glad that’s not my community’s problem!”. If our voices can’t be heard, our prayers still can be. The daily Amidah has prayers for both bina (understanding, insight) and refuah (healing). These prayers are perfect opportunities to ask for the Haredi community to be blessed with the will and courage to address the violence in their community.