In recent weeks, violent protests have taken place between the Hasidic Gur adherents and secular residents in the southern city of Arad, a city frequently the site of demonstrations against Messianic Jews as well.
The Gur, or Ger, named for the city in Poland from where the ultra-Orthodox sect hails, is predominantly based in Jerusalem. It was the largest and most influential Hasidic group in Poland before the Holocaust. Today, some 15,000 Gerrer live in communities in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Toronto, London and of course, Israel.
In the 1980s, 20 years after the city of Arad was birthed, a small group of Ger made their home in the desert locale and now number around 5,000 — 20 percent of the city’s population.
Amid accusations that, instead of integrating, the ultra-Orthodox residents are attempting to take over the city, relations between residents have deteriorated. Following ongoing aggression and intimidation by the growing Gur community, secular residents began protesting what they call religious infringement on their freedom.
Pleading for the secular character of the city to be preserved, a resident put up a banner last week saying, “Arad is not for sale” with a picture of the religious Gerrer leader’s face on it, and accusing the leader of making the city unclean. A furious backlash ensued and Hassidim threw burning tires into the yard of the secular family as they were on their porch. Four people were arrested.
Arad is no stranger to conflict. Messianic Jews in particular have come under attack at the hands of the very same aggressors. This most recent feuding is the culmination of a long and convoluted story involving allegedly corrupt politics before a new mayor, Nisan Ben-Hamo, took leadership of the city.
KNI spoke to believers from the Negev city who were able to share background, insight and eyewitness testimony to some of events leading up to today’s situation.
KNI: Could you give us a brief summary of what has been happening in your town?
There is a long history. The Gur Hasidim here have been allowed to do whatever they please for many years. They have had representatives in office that give them everything they want. There was so much corruption and basically, as they are a growing community, the problem has grown with them. The previous mayor seemed to be their puppet.
When the new mayor was elected, things changed. The Hassidim tried to get one of their own people that they would be able to control and when that didn’t happen, they were shocked and upset.
KNI: What have you seen happening here?
Ever since the new mayor was elected, which is less than two years ago, the Gur started to put various signs outside their homes saying things against the mayor. Some said that the mayor is dangerous to Arad. Other signs said other things. The municipality tried to get them to take the signs down and that is when they started protesting. They surrounded the municipal workers’ cars, intimidating them with yelling and spitting and extremely aggressive demonstrations. They sued the city and have sued the mayor. It is just harassment because the mayor has done nothing wrong. It is a power struggle.
KNI: In this most recent clash, what happened?
One of the residents of Arad put up a sign saying Arad is not for sale with the Hassidic leader’s face on it. He said he would take down his sign if the Hassidim would take down theirs. The Orthodox responded with violence and aggression and threw burning tires into the yard of the secular guy who had the banner up. With all the protests, the Gur Hassidim have bussed in thousands of people from Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and other places in an attempt to intimidate, harass and take over the city. They have no respect for the law and violent and we have heard that there were people injured, including police officers. There was a violent protest a few blocks from our house and the religious were rioting until 5am all through the night.
KNI: Have you as believers been affected by this latest uprising?
It hasn’t affected us any more or less this time because we have endured this for a lot longer. The Messianic community in Arad is substantial in number and these Hassidim have been doing this to believers for years, but now they’re targeting the secular residents too. They even took over a neighborhood synagogue which was open to all to use for events such as bar mitzvahs and weddings. The video footage of the hostile and violent takeover is shocking.
KNI: How would you describe your relationships with the new mayor?
About two years ago, when he and his family moved into our neighborhood, we brought over a basket of goodies to welcome them. We had no way of knowing who he was or who he would be. We are now family friends. At the time, he knew the Messianic community was being persecuted. We had to endure picketing and harassing, spitting, yelling, cursing, intimidating our guests, tampering with our mail, burning Messianic literature inside our gate, burning New Testaments in our yard just here in our house. They surrounded cars and would not let our guests leave their car. These people threatened property owners not to renew leases to believers and threatened business owners preventing them from employing believers.
Would you say the mayor is supportive of Messianic Jews?
We would say that the mayor is in support of all citizens who are willing to live in peace with others and he will not allow one group to dictate how others should live. Arad is a great city in which to live! It is truly beautiful and quiet for the most part, and much less expensive than most cities in Israel. It is 20 minutes from the Dead Sea and the main highway (Highway 6) now comes close to Arad so it’s much easier to get to other places in the land. We love our city. We are glad that Nisan is mayor. He is a wise, humble, strong leader and despite all the opposition he’s faced, he has made great strides for an even better Arad.
What is the situation right now?
There are ongoing protests. The Hassidim keep shipping crowds in from around the country. They come in by the thousands to demonstrate. They are aggressive and violent. The mayor called a meeting in Town Hall where he said he is going to do his best to curtail their behavior. The mayor is not going to tolerate intimidation and won’t stand for this kind of behavior.
KNI: How can we pray for you?
Please pray for the mayor. He is a good man and a strong leader and is good for our city. These people are viciously and vindictively attacking him.
Pray against the violent, controlling spirit, that it would be done away with.
That there would be peace and protection over all the citizens of Arad and protection over the believers here.
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.
On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
2 Corinthians 10:3-4