Unholy Fire in Bnei Brak| January 27, 2021
The events in Bnei Brak join a long list of clashes between police and the chareidi community
The moment when both the police and the chareidi leadership realized that the street violence in Bnei Brak was in danger of spinning out of control was when a group of lawless teenagers set fire to a bus and assaulted the driver. This was no longer just about teenage boredom. These were scenes from other times and places, times of total anarchy.
The unrest started last Thursday, a day after the appointment of Israel’s new police commissioner, former border police chief Kobi Shabtai. The preceding weeks had seen a number of reports in the press comparing the strict enforcement of the lockdown in the Arab sector to the relatively lax enforcement in the chareidi sector, and the police felt pressured to act. In fact, however, the lockdown regulations were already being fully enforced, in addition to fining simchah halls that violated regulations, according to Shai Gerbertchik, police spokesman for the chareidi community.
On Thursday last week the police got the opportunity to prove that there’s no selective enforcement. Undercover cops on duty in Bnei Brak were exposed by a group of yeshivah bochurim, who attacked them and smashed the windows of their vehicle. The officers made their way back to headquarters bruised and battered. In ordinary times the police would have turned to the Bnei Brak municipality to demand that the attackers be handed over, and the matter would have ended at that. Communication between the municipality and the police is good, and no one had any doubt that the attackers’ action didn’t bring honor to Hashem’s Name.
“Instead of that,” says Gedalia Silman, director of the Bnei Brak municipality, “the police decided to assert control in heavy-handed fashion. At a late-night hour, when the streets are filled with yeshivah bochurim making their way home from yeshivah, hundreds of riot police poured into densely populated streets of Bnei Brak and began making arrests while firing stun grenades indiscriminately. Within minutes the streets were packed with crowds of mostly young people.”
Add to the mix the fact that many yeshivos are currently closed due to the coronavirus guidelines, which means that with nothing to get up for in the morning, many young people to stay up and wander the streets until all hours of the night. (According to Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, negotiations on school closures between chareidi officials, the Health Ministry, and the prime minister’s office yielded no results. The chareidi representatives demanded that educational institutions be reopened, with bochurim who have recuperated from the virus allowed back. The Health Ministry refused, out of concern that it would set a precedent for a more widespread opening of educational institutions.)
Meanwhile, some of the youngsters began clashing with the riot police. Many are well-known troublemakers who reveled in the chaos. General disorder broke out, while most of Bnei Brak watched from their windows in horror as police used violent measures to disperse the crowds. Calm didn’t return to the city until Friday morning, but by then the damage had been done.
“Friday saw residents furious at police,” says Silman. “Why was the entire city to blame for the actions of a few hooligans, some of whom didn’t even live in the city, but came in from outside to fan the flames? Some of us thought police would want to go over footage from security cameras throughout the city to identify the culprits and put an end to the violence. But that has yet to be done, for reasons that are still unclear.”
On Motzaei Shabbos the city was quiet, but everyone understood it was only a matter of time until the next outbreak. With no school, the streets were filled with youngsters — another attempt to reach a compromise with the government that would allow at least a partial reopening of educational institutions failed, due a concern over unequal treatment of the chareidi sector. Community representatives tried to warn of what was coming, but to no avail.
THROUGHOUT SUNDAY, it became clear that no one could control the unruly youngsters in Bnei Brak. In Jerusalem, the Peleg faction organized protests against the closure of its educational institutions in Ashdod and other cities. Other sects also protested in Meah Shearim against school closures. The police deployed forces to disperse the riots, but these only ended when the protesters themselves decided they had had enough. In Bnei Brak, provocateurs from the outside joined the city’s young to protest. Police who attempted to restore order found themselves in fear for their lives. One police officer drew his weapon and fired in the air to disperse the protesters surrounding him. As night fell, the clashes became more and more violent.
In Bnei Brak, as in other cities, troubled chareidi youth are monitored closely by the community, with a number of youth counselors working in tandem with the municipality.
“The past year has been very difficult,” says Chaim Walman, who works in the field. “Due to the coronavirus, there were no activities arranged for these youths. Instead, the funds were reallocated to deal with the three waves of the virus, which saw many residents of the city transferred out of the city to corona hotels.”
Throughout Sunday, the youth coordinators were requested to be in contact with their charges and ascertain that they were not joining the violence. It turns out, though, that it wasn’t Bnei Brak youths who were sowing disorder in the streets. As tens of thousands of residents locked themselves in their houses, gangs of anarchists roamed the street unchecked. They smashed traffic lights and lit that bus on fire.
Monday morning saw residents once again furious at police as well as at the municipality. The mayor, Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein, condemned the attack on the bus driver and announced that the municipality would act to deliver footage from the city’s security cameras to police so an end could be put to the disorder once and for all.
“We won’t accept a situation where a minority of extremists creates anarchy and destruction in our streets,” Rubinstein said. “The municipality will root out this phenomenon with the cooperation of police.”
The events in Bnei Brak join a long list of clashes between police and the chareidi community. On October 14, Jerusalem police entered a private house in Givat Ze’ev that was hosting a wedding attended by a hundred people — most of them family members — in contravention of the guidelines. Violence broke out when the police attempted to disperse the gathering, injuring at least one family member. Ministers Yaakov Litzman and Aryeh Deri condemned the police, and Deri even asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to look into the matter. Internal security minister Amir Ohana announced that he would investigate the event.
Since last spring, enforcement of COVID regulations in chareidi neighborhoods has often been extreme. Investigations were open into the behavior of riot police on several occasions, including an incident where, according to allegations, police shoved attorney Dov Frankel violently from behind as he returned from a visit to his parents on Erev Shabbos. He pitched forward and fell heavily on the pavement, while the officers walked by without offering him assistance.
Another event involved a young girl in Meah Shearim who sustained injuries from a stun grenade. On another occasion officers threatened and fined a 13-year-old girl for briefly removing her mask.
In Jerusalem, following a public outrage, the abuses stopped. Hopefully the dust will settle in Bnei Brak as well.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 846)
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