Beit Shemesh ("house of sun" in Hebrew), the city outside Jerusalem that is currently the flashpoint of the debate between Israel's secular and religious factions, has become in recent years a stirring example to city mayors concerned that Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) will overrun their cities' populations and transform their communities into enclaves for the strictly devout.
Beit Shemesh was established in 1950 and until about 10 years ago, its population was mostly secular or national religious([Modern Orthodox). In the last decade, however, several new Haredi neighborhoods were built in the city, a movement that is on the uptick -- thousands of new housing units are currently under construction in neighborhoods set aside for ultra-Orthodox families.
Beit Shemesh's demographics are generally defined according to the number of mandates the city's local parties won in the last municipal elections, and Haredim hold only a 50 percent representation within the local city council. But politics defy the crucial factor of birthrate, which is disproportionately higher among Haredim: 81.7% of all first-graders in the city come from Haredi families.
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Within the city's Haredi residents, however, there are differences. Most are affiliated either with the Lithuanian Hasidic sect that identifies with the United Torah Judaism political party, or the Sephardic Haredi sect, composed of what are considered more "mainstream" Haredim by the public, who generally identify with the Shas party. Aside from these two sects, the city has seen an increasing number of extremist Hasidic groups (for example, the Toldot Aharon and Toldot Avraham Itzchak groups), who arrived in Beit Shemesh only in the past few years and contain a handful of particularly militant Haredim.
The extremist Haredi groups are characterized by local city leaders as "the next generation of Mea Shearim" [one of Israel's most fervently religious Haredi neighborhoods, where many residents are anti-Zionist]. "This is not just a verbal expression, it is reality," a senior municipal official explained. "In Jerusalem in general, and in Mea Shearim in particular, space has run out for Haredi groups, and Beit Shemesh is seen as a pleasant suburb of Jerusalem." The more extremist Haredi groups live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet [Beit Shemesh B] and the Haredi district where the controversial signs plastered across city walls, calling on women to dress modestly and not linger on public sidewalks, made top headlines this week.
Economics is a major motivating factor for the religious families. "A large number of Mea Shearim families who are limited to two-and-a-half room apartments in Jerusalem can get a five-room apartment [in Beit Shemesh] for the same price," the same city official, who declined to give his name, said.
"It is important to remember that only a few dozen people from the extremist Hasidic sect, known as the Sikrikim [an anti-Zionist group prone to violence], wake up in the morning and cause trouble," he added. "They, not all the other Haredim in the city, are the problem."
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