The news coming out of Israel over the past few months has been downright depressing. It seems to be a place where the rule of law no longer applies. Instead, several extremist groups are trying to assert the principle of kol d'alim g'var (whoever is stronger prevails) with respect to public policy.
It seems that they've succeeded with regard to Ohr Chaim book store in Jerusalem, where, after months of intimidation, they finally wore the owner of the store down to the point where he agreed with most (all?) of their demands. Other vendors have also been harassed to the point of being forced to alter their store policies.
The fight is still being fought in other spheres -- including gender-segregation on buses and public streets. The latest flash point for this fight is in the city of Beit Shemesh, where goons and thugs have been verbally, emotionally and physically assaulting young girls as young as six.
I find it very interesting that the majority of these battles are over gender-related issues. While I do believe that there may be some interesting observations that can be gleaned from that little factoid, I don't think gender is the real issue here.
The issues at hand here are not gender, the dress of young schoolgirls, the selling of books that might or might not be heretical or different sections of buses. The real issues here are power. The power to force your way of life on others, the power to extort money from businesses, and the power to control people's actions in the public sphere.*
It's often been said that rape is not a crime about sex, but a crime about power. I believe the same principle applies here as well. Various groups of chareidi thugs are attempting to build a power base through intimidation and violence. Just as a rapist uses sex as the vehicle for exerting power over another human being, these thugs are using Torah and halacha (or, rather, their warped version of it) as the vehicle for exerting their power over other people. In their attempt to exert that power, they feel perfectly justified in engaging in mafia-like tactics, physical violence against women and shouting words such as prutza (slut) and zonah (whore) at little girls. While any rational person can see that such things are not normal behavior by any civilized person, their desire for power blinds them to this.
Fortunately, these attitudes and actions seem to be restricted to a small group of thugs. For example, I am told that in Beit Shemesh, "modern" Orthodox Jews and chareidim have lived together in peace for years before the troublemakers came to the area. It has been said that good portions (if not most?) of the chareidi population are embarrassed and sickened by the conduct of these thugs.
However, there seems to be a vast silence when it comes to the chareidi rabbinic leadership when it comes to this conduct. The news reported today that the Belzer Rebbe has condemned the violent behavior of the thugs. However, this is the first such condemnation that I am aware of. The chareidi leadership on the whole, however, has been silent.
The argument has been put forth that the thugs won't listen to the rabbinic leadership. There may be some truth to that argument -- if the root of the problem is based on power and turf-wars, then perhaps they won't listen to the rabbis. But that does not absolve the rabbis of the responsibility to speak out. By failing to speak out, they give the impression that they endorse the violence -- either tacitly or expressly. If they are truly believe that the violent actions of the thugs are wrong, they should speak out against them publicly. If the thugs refuse to listen to their gedolim after that, then they will have been exposed as simple, plain thugs who are interested in power and terror rather than the Torah.
It should be pointed out that there is plenty of blame to be laid at the State here as well. The State, in allowing this to happen, is being neglectful of their responsibility to protect the property and well-being of it's citizens. The fact that the thugs were able to force the owner of the Ohr Chaim bookstore to accede to their demands and that the police could or would not protect the store owner from these mafia-type thugs is simply disgraceful. The fact that the police cannot or will not protect little girls from being pelted with produce and verbal assault is likewise disgraceful and embarrassing.
The first and foremost responsibility of any decent state is to protect it's citizens. The State needs to take that responsibility and take the actions necessary to protect it's citizens from thugs and extortionists.
The first and foremost responsibility of rabbinic leaders is to stand up and proclaim right from wrong. The rabbinic leaders of the communities from which these thugs emerge need to stand up and state unequivocally that certain behaviors and actions are unacceptable and against the Torah and halacha.
The first responsibility an individual is to do right and not do wrong -- and if he or she is not certain what is right or wrong, then s/he must do everything they can to find out.
All three groups have failed in their responsibilities. All three groups need to own up to their responsibilities. The consequences for not doing so are just too great to contemplate.
* And in the private sphere too. It's just that the thugs haven't figured out a way to invade the privacy of people's homes yet. But I have absolutely no doubt that if they could, they would.