Thursday, December 01, 2011

Manny’s and the Mafia

Manny Samuels is someone I know from his days in Chicago back in the 60s. I knew him as a student who worked in a Jewish bookstore called Keiffer’s back in the old Jewish neighborhood of Albany Park. That store has long since closed and Manny Samuels has long since made Aliyah.

In one of my early visits to Israel wandering through Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood on my way to Meah Shearim, I stumbled into a bookstore called Manny’s. I was pleasantly surprised to see an old acquaintance from Chicago who set up shop and was doing well. I have since almost always wandered into his store every time I visit the holy land and occasionally even buy something there – as I did this year.

But this year was different. He moved into a larger buiding about a block away from his old store and remodled it into beautiful bookstore located just before one enters Meah Shearim. It has an impressive array of Seforim in both Hebrew and English on all manner of Judaic subjects. I am happy to see a former Chicagoan that I knew as a teenager doing so well.

That store is a bit of an anomaly in a neighborhood like this. It has the look and feel of a modern Jewish bookstore that one might come across in one of the more upscale shopping malls in any American city. But - then again - I noticed on this trip that the main shopping area in Geula and Meah Sheairm is becoming just that - an increasingly upscale shopping mall. When I was there on the day after Sukkos, I found Manny’s packed with American tourists buying books and all manner of Judaica to take back home as gifts – or for personal use. I was impressed at what I saw. And when I saw Manny there I told him so. (He is always happy to see an old Chicago acquaintance.)

I wish that were the whole story – but it isn’t. What happened to Manny’s sounds like a page out of the script for the movie ‘The Godfather’. From the Jerusalem Post:

After 20 months of attacks and a quarter million shekels in damage, a religious bookstore in the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem decided on Monday to accede to the demands of extremists responsible for the violence.

He stood up to these thugs. He fought back. The police even got involved and arrested some of the leaders of a group of religious vigilantes known as Sikrikim that were responsible for the damage. But that did not stop them. They continued their vandalism. While those arrests gave him some leverage to negotiate, in the end he basically acceded to their demands. He had to put signs up in his store demanding Tznius from his female customers and he had to rid his shelves of anything Zionistic.

I don’t blame Manny. He has a family to support, and a business to run. He can ill afford to pay the cost of damage each time it is inflicted upon his store. Nor can he afford to continue the full time 24/7 help he needs to guard it. So he gave in. He paid the price exacted from him. The signs are up and the books containing Zionist ideas are gone.

I am beside myself with anger. Not - God forbid - at Manny. But at the circumstances that allow a literal Mafia of supposedly religious Jews to demand whatever they want. And to get it under threat of violence.

It would seem that these circumstances beyond anyone’s control. As one of Manny’s family members and store managers said when she was interviewed:

“[When] the police started to make arrests and became more active, it quieted them down, but it didn’t stop them, and it’s never going to end 100 percent”

It’s never going to end. Not even the police, it seems, are able to protect people from these vandals. Intimidation followed by violence, followed by more intimidation seems to be the order of the day for Meah Shearim’s merchants.

The leaders of the Eida HaCharedis and the Toldos Ahron Chasidim get tremendous respect from the the majority of the residents that includes the Sikrikim. Those leaders have strongly condmened the Sikrikim. And yet they continue their thuggish activities with impunity.

Those leaders may be opposed to them. They may speak out against them. But they do not do enough if business as usual for these merchants means being under the constant threat of violence. As I so often say the goals of the Skirikim are approved of by these leaders – if not their methods. Retaining the goals achieved are apparently more important than stopping the violence. Those leaders may be upset by the violence but the Sikrikim are probably seen as misguided individuals whose hearts are in the right place.

So no matter how much they say they are opposed to them, there is a certain amount of sympathy for them and for their families. And they probably still oppose their being arrested because of their antipathy for the government and the police. It should be no surprise that this kind of behavior goes on virtually unabated.

I therefore consider the leadership in Meah Shearim responsible for Manny’s problems. If the rabbinic leaders of Meah Shearim had any real objection to the Sikrikim they would go out to every single event where they are found and protest loudly against them. They would visibly side with the merchants being terrorized. They would go to Manny’s and join in solidarity with him. They would go into the store and tear down those Tznius signs and restore the books on Zionism to the shelves just to show how disgusted they are with what the Sikrkim are doing.

That would send a message. Without this kind of response, the Sikrikim have to believe they are tacitly supported in their actions by their leaders. They probably believe that any criticism made by them is for PR purposes only.

Why don’t these leaders do what it takes to stop them? They probably don’t want to spoil the gains that have been made by them.

That is heart of the matter as I see it. It is therefore the rabbinic leaders of Meah Shearim that ought to be condemned by every other rabbinic figure of every stripe across the world. The pressure should continue until they do what’s necessary stop these criminals once and for all!

Update: Maybe things are begining to change. Arutz Sheva is reporting that police are finally becoming serious about these people and begining to crack down on them. They have infiltrated them undercover - dressed like Chasidim and arrested dozens of them while supporters protested the police for interfering in their affairs. Kudos to the cops!