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Monday, June 27, 2011

Gerer Chasidim Try to Burn Down House

A baby was nearly set on fire in a bitter property dispute between ultra-Orthodox factions in Jerusalem.

From attacks with metal clubs to setting fire to a home, another red line has been crossed in the war between rival ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem's Warsaw Homes (Batei Warsaw ) neighborhood. Eida Haredit zealots hired a lawyer and are preparing to appeal this month to the Israeli courts, which they do not officially recognize, in an attempt to overcome their rivals, members of the community of Gur Hasidim.

Rabbis from the Eida Haredit permitted representatives of the residents to seek the assistance of the Zionist state in an indication of just how desperate this violent battle has become - a battle in which nothing is sacred anymore.

The representatives of the neighborhood's residents claim that Gur Hasidim are trying to dispossess hundreds of needy families and are benefiting from a forgiving attitude on the part of the police toward the "pogroms" they are perpetrating. In the first comments on the dispute, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the most senior representative of Gur Hasidim, yesterday told Haaretz that the other side is trying to impose its will by resorting to violence. He calls the zealous residents of the neighborhood "robbers" seeking to take control of assets that are not theirs.

This battle is taking place in the heart of Jerusalem, yet seems to be transplanted from another continent. The ultra-Orthodox papers refrain from reporting on it, even when there are physical injuries, as in the case of Shimon Stern, who has been hospitalized for the past 10 days.

On the eve of Shavuot, unknown assailants attacked Stern on the street, in broad daylight, because he apparently mistakenly got mixed up in someone else's fight. The mistake cost him a shattered thigh, an operation and a lengthy hospitalization at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. Stern, a 46-year-old student at a kollel (yeshiva for married men ), told Haaretz that he is a Viznitz-Monsey Hasid whose family hails from Hungary and Romania, indicating that he has no connection to the fight that involves only those of Polish origin. Stern does not live in the Warsaw Homes neighborhood and does not belong to any of the communities involved in the fight.

According to Stern, his only crime was that on the eve of Shavuot he attempted to pick up and throw out posters left on the sidewalk in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. The posters referred to the leaders of the residents' revolt in the Warsaw Homes neighborhood as "missionaries" and "deranged terrorists."

"I am not a member of either side," insists Stern. "I just wanted to pick up the dirty and controversial posters from the street." He told police investigators that he was attacked from behind. He could not identify the attackers except to say that they were ultra-Orthodox. "I didn't believe that I could be attacked so viciously in broad daylight by ultra-Orthodox Jews," says Stern. He refrained from stating in the interview and to the police what his friends said in his name: that his attackers were Gur Hasidim, the ones who had put up the posters.

Heart of the dispute

Warsaw Homes is a little ghetto hidden in one of the capital's central locations, adjacent to Kikar Shabbat. Two rows of crowded and peeling two-story homes run parallel to Mea She'arim Street and are the focus of a dispute that is evident on the graffiti-covered walls. There are around 90 apartments here, most of them inhabited by families affiliated with the Eida Haredit, which does not accept the state. The group opposes any involvement of ultra-Orthodox groups, such as the Gur Hasidim, in the affairs of state and refuses to accept any state funding.

This dispute has an ideological side and a sectarian side, but beneath the surface bubbles the impoverished residents' fear of the 21st century's invasion into the neighborhood that was established in the late 19th century.

The neighborhood was set up during the Ottoman rule as a trust with funds provided by the philanthropist Yaakov Shraga Tennenwerzel for kollel families with Polish origins. As in other similar ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, needy families here receive small apartments in return for key money or low monthly rents. The Polish Gur Hasidim always dominated the neighborhood committee, but in recent years its representatives attained almost total dominance and, according to their representatives, this was apparent in the mistreatment of any family that was not a part of the Gur community.

Moreover, the committee is planning to add additional stories and more housing units, and to open businesses and charge rent. The residents are convinced that it is all part of a plan to open a mall in the area and kick them out of their homes.

Over the years, there have been assorted attempts to resolve the dispute through the rabbinical courts, informal mediation efforts, police complaints, and civil suits initiated by Gur committee members - all to no avail. Instead control of the neighborhood was achieved through brute force.

Pouring gas on a baby

At the height of the escalation, around two months ago, dozens of Gur Hasidim broke into Hirshman's home , poured gasoline on his wife and infant daughter, then lit a fire which miraculously did not destroy the house while the residents were inside. In a reprisal act, a family of Gur Hasidim was expelled from the neighborhood.

Both sides accuse each other of violence and both are absolutely right. But only one side, the members of the Eida Haredit, complains about the police. The police arrived in the neighborhood on numerous occasions; the commander of the Lev Habira police station, Deputy Commander Eli Kazari, was even injured when a stone was thrown at his head. But the residents claim the police are taking sides. "The police, for some reason, do not open files against any of the Gur Hasidim," says Hirshman. "The night they almost set fire to my wife and baby daughter, I went to the police to file a complaint and surprisingly, they arrested me instead of arresting the attackers. I was stunned," he related.

Two weeks ago, the police arrested Shalom Baruch Roset, a leading activist in the neighborhood and a leader of a radical faction in Mea She'arim known by some as the Sicarii, after the Jewish zealots who fought the Romans in Jerusalem around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Roset was arrested at Ben-Gurion Airport before catching a flight to England. Shimon Stern also has complaints against the police, who have not arrested anyone in the attack against him.

MK Yaakov Litzman says that the Gur Hasidic community is not involved in the dispute. "There are people who received apartments there, who decided one day that they do not approve of this. Sicarii surfaced, crazies. They decided that this is not the State of Israel, that it is their territory, decided to use force, because they want a free apartment. They are simply robbers. We are asking the court to evict them."

The Jerusalem police stated that the Zion district has set up a "special investigation team that is looking into the mutual complaints about the attack and property damage. So far it is investigating nine mutual complaints of assault and property damage and in two the investigation has been completed and the cases have been transferred to the complaints department with a recommendation to proceed to trial." Regarding the complaints of trespassing into apartments, the police "are waiting for the court's decision which is expected in the coming weeks and it will act accordingly." The police stress that "there is no basis for the charges made [against them.] The forces operating in the area arrested several people involved in disturbing public order."

Regarding the attack on Shimon Stern, the police stated, "following a police initiative, a complaint of assault was filed by the victim. The investigation is underway."

Stern's colleague, activist Moshe Blau, urged Gur Hasidim to acknowledge that its members attacked Stern, and in an effort to achieve that he even met with the Admor of Gur in person. It seems that he was unsuccessful and Litzman yesterday referred to him as "audacious." So who attacked Stern? Litzman: "So what if they say it was Gur, maybe it was Viznitz Hasidim or Belz Hasidim who attacked him?"

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