Friday, September 05, 2014

Mr. Abutbul: Tear Down that Wall!

Charedi and secular Israelis clash in Bet Shemesh. (photo credit:REUTERS)
I completely understand the predicament of the Charedi community in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Their student population increases exponentially every few years. Both naturally through a high birth rate and through new residents many of whom are American Charedi immigrants drawn to this over 90% observant community with huge numbers of English speakers. 

Understandably their schools get filled very quickly. And the increase of students every year probably makes overcrowded classrooms the norm. They probably couldn’t build new schools fast enough… even if they were given the green light to do so.

On the other hand the secular residents of Bet Shemesh do not have this kind of population explosion. Their schools are not overcrowded. In fact there are many empty classrooms used for non academic purposes or extra-curricular activity. This is the case with the Safot Ve’tarbuyot (Languages and Culture) school in the Ramat Beit Shemesh. The school’s capacity is for 500 students. There are currently 144 enrolled.  

A few years ago a Charedi girls school attempted too get permission from the Israeli Education Ministry to use those empty classrooms. They were denied.   Sympathetic to the plight of children without classrooms, the Charedi led municipality of Bet Shemesh commandeered non instructional classrooms in Safot Ve’tarbuyot for use by Charedi girls and ordered municipal construction workers to build an 8 foot high wall in order to separate the two cultures.

This was done without the consent of the Education Ministry who ordered the Charedi school closed with the threat of cessation of funding for non compliance. Mayor Abutbol claimed that it didn’t need ministry permission since the school’s premises is under the direct authority of the city.  

I think we can all guess what happened next. Violence broke out between teachers at the school who protested it and the security guards that accompanied the construction workers.

I do not understand why there has to be such enmity between religious Jews and secular Jews. The truth is that there is justifiable concerns on both sides of the issue. What bothers me is that no one seems to care about a compromise where both parties will fare well.

First let me say that despite the plight of Charedi students studying in crowded and substandard classrooms, I do not see a forcible takeover of empty classrooms as a solution.  What’s worse in my view is building a ‘wall of separation’. Why must Charedim do that? Why can’t they use those classrooms without walls? What are they afraid of? 

Is isolation for the secular world so important that it’s worth clashing with your neighbors and making enemies out of them? Isn’t it just possible that the Charedi girls might benefit from the interaction that may occur? That secular Jews might actually have something to teach them? And that the secular students may learn from the Charedi girls? Why are we building walls?!

At the same time, why can’t the secular side share space with the Charedim? There is a need. The space is there. What kind of Jew would deny a fellow Jew the opportunity to give his children decent classrooms when they are available? What is gained by denying them that?

That said, I do understand the fear that secular Jews have about the growth of the Charedi community. They fear that their community will become ‘Charedized’.  And things like TVs and movie theaters  will be  banned. They see and hear things about extremists Charedi neighborhoods (like segregated sidewalks) and fear it will happen to them - if the Charedi population increases and overwhelms them.

I understand that fear.  But it is a fear that can be dealt with if there are people of good will on both sides. The key is understanding and compromise.  I firmly believe that the best possible solution to this ‘clash of cultures’ is to work together. Each side should try and put themselves in the shoes of the other. There need not be this divisiveness. Which breeds mistrust, anger, and eventually violence.

The first thing that must be done, in my view is to tear down that wall. The next thing is that the school should allow its empty classrooms to be used by Charedim. Once that happens, maybe… just maybe each community will learn that the other side is not the monster they think they are. If I were the Education Ministry, this is the direction I would be going.

One of my favorite quotes of all time was uttered by a petty criminal - a black man by the name of Rodney King. It was in response to race riots that broke out in Los Angeles after a video that showed him being beaten by the police who were white. It certainly applies here: Why can’t we all get along?!

I am happy to report that  according to the JTA news service, the city of Bet Shemesh has decided to take down the wall. That is a good start. Now let us see if we can now all follow Rodney King’s advice.