On the outskirts of Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem, “Space”, a computer store, is literally under siege from religious extremists. For weeks now, a dozen protesters, tracts in hand, have been hunting for the MP-4 device that downloads videos, an activity banned by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. “They are extremists. They’re trying to take control of the entire neighbourhood”, claims Yosef Shalom, a brother of a salesman who works at the store.
Their hats and their long overcoats are signs that they belong to the Satmar community, an ultra-orthodox Hassidic movement. Some people believe that they have formed brigades, which have gone out of control. The accused find it pointless to respond to such charges. The one person who consented to speak with us described himself as a “haredim, who is trying to carry out God’s will”. He continues, “they are corrupting our children with these videos”.
One of the salesmen showed us a video that was filmed a few days earlier. The video shows ultra-orthodox protesters attacking the store’s employees, shouting “There won’t be any video here. We’re not in a film”. Some even physically attack the salespeople, who are helpless since the police don’t want to come to the neighbourhood. “They hate the police here. When they learned that one of them had been arrested they started burning the rubbish bins”, a salesman who wanted to remain anonymous tells us.
Mea Shearim is a world a part. A self-sufficient, withdrawn world, that can’t accept those who are different. People say that they are here, because they wanted to be here. The signs in the streets inform onlookers of recent bans established by neighbourhood rabbis.
29-year-old, “M”, was born into an ultra-orthodox environment. Three years ago, she decided to break away. She divorced her husband - a process that took five years – and had to give custody of her three children to her ex-husband. One evening last July, one of the brigades, in charge of enforcing morality and rules, knocked on her door: “Before I knew what was happening, someone threw me on the ground. Then, another person showed up and they both jumped on me. One of them was on my back and started violently beating me.”
The brigades escape neighbourhood rabbinic authority
“M” had heard about the moral brigades but had never really felt in danger : “ I had heard about the brigades but they were only rumours…I would have never imagined that they would come after me one day.” She is convinced that her ex-husband sent them to her house. “My husband took the children “, she tells us. “He took the money, he took everything. I left my life behind me, and he still wanted to get revenge?”
The morality brigades in Mea Shearim are not new, confirms Rabbi Henri Khan, who is director of the French language review “Kountrass” and who works in Mea Shearim: “In a neighbourhood where 99% of the people are orthodox, I think that it is natural that people tell rule-breakers to “go somewhere else, do that somewhere else.” Now if they don’t understand and keep doing it, there could be a tough reaction. I don’t think that beatings happen very often, but unfortunately that is the only way some people will understand.” In Mea Shearim, people say the brigades escape the neighbourhood’s rabbinic authorities. But no one talks about it. Perhaps because deep down they believe what they do is good, that they are carrying out God’s will.