It’s not right that the denim-skirted young girls of the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh should be the front-line soldiers in the battle for religious tolerance and co-existence in their city. But as they face jeering men and hurled eggs, and tomatoes as they walk to and from their classrooms, that’s exactly what they are.
Back on Sept. 1, I wrote here at The Sisterhood about the national religious girls school Orot Banot winning an important battle merely because it was able to open its doors for the school year.
The opening of the school took place in spite of opposition from a group of extreme Haredi neighbors who zealously opposed the girl’s schools’ location on the seam between national-religious neighborhoods and a Haredi neighborhood. Their campaign to prevent the school from opening won the support of the city’s mayor, who was subsequently overruled by the Ministry of Education.
But any celebration was premature. Just because they got to attend the new school didn’t mean they could do so undisturbed. From the second day of school, a group of Haredi men gather daily on the sidewalk across the street from the school at dismissal time, jeering and attempting to intimidate the girls. Their utterances range from mourning-like whining of “Gevaaaalt!” to insulting “Shikses!” to the bizarre random choice of food items: “Schnitzel!” and “Pizza!”
And so began the game of cat and mouse that continues to this day.
The three players in the game: the Haredi extremists, the Modern Orthodox parents of the girls and their supporters in the community, and the police.
At first, the police stood passively aside while the protesters stood on the sidewalk harassing the girls, bringing some to tears.
The Modern Orthodox parents and supporters worked to distract the Haredim by arguing with them, and photographing their activities. Then, the publicity fueled by videos of the harassment uploaded onto YouTube seem to shame the passive police into action, and they began shooing the Haredim into an alley behind the sidewalk, allowing the girls to pass unobstructed, though the jeers were still audible.
After that, the harassment escalated. During the second week of school when eggs and tomatoes began to be thrown at the children and parents from locations on the high-rise buildings overlooking the street. Video of the egg-throwing can be seen here.
No arrests were made on the spot, but the acts were taped by police, and yesterday, it was announced that after videotaping the perpetrators, two men were arrested for egg-throwing.
Needless to say, it’s been hard for the enraged parents of the embattled girls and the rest of the Modern Orthodox community to remain calm in the face of such behavior.
Debate rages in both Hebrew and English in a Facebook group called We are All Orot Banot as to whether the measured responses preferred by the school are the best strategy or whether the time has come to fight fire with fire – harass the extremists in THEIR neighborhoods, sending the message that if Modern Orthodox residents of the city cannot live in peace, neither can the Haredim.
Half-jokingly, half-seriously, group members toy with ideas of street parties, or driving through the Haredi streets with open windows in their cars, blasting loud Lady Gaga music. Others argue that the harassers represent a small band of extremists, and any aggressive actions will make enemies of the silent majority of the Haredi community which, they believe, wants to live peacefully alongside their Modern Orthodox neighbors.
It is not only the future of the Orot schoolgirls that is at stake in this war. It is the future of a city, and a Zionist dream.
The modern Orthodox neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh are among the most popular destinations for American Jewish immigrants, where a ‘soft landing’ into Israel took place and a little corner of suburban paradise has grown and thrived over the past two decades.
If Orot Banot falls, the future of that community and the diverse city of Beit Shemesh will be as black as the outfits and the motives of the men who spend their afternoons screaming at schoolgirls.