Just in case you thought Sukkos was about Jews celebrating the greated of the Ribono Shel Olam together, some residents of Meah She'arim would like you to know this is not true:
Any women who may be planning to attend the traditional Simchat Beit Hashoeva festivities (water-drawing festival) in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim this Sukkot may want to think twice, as they may no be allowed to enter the area.
The last two years have also seen Meah Shearim's streets divided into men and women's galleries for the sake of chastity; but this year's festivities have been clouded by a demand made by the extreme groups within the neighborhood's community, such as the Sicarii, which demand women be kept out of the festival altogether.
Some of the splinter groups have even gone as far as threatening to forcibly prevent women from entering the area; gathering some 2,000 signatures to that effect and threatening to use "a foul-smelling chemical agent" to drive people away.
Now, I sure that if you confront any of your local Chareidi PR men, they'll assure you that the people making these demands are extremists whose views are not representative of the general community. (Unless you'r Rav Avi Shafran who would either deny these extremists exist or would try to convince you that their attitude is actually the authentic mainstream Jewish one.)
And these PR men are probably right. What I've noted before and what never gets mentioned in public forums because it's not flashy or newsworthy is that the average Chareidi is a normal person with a different lifestyle who just wants to live and let live, like anyone else. We only see the crazies because they stand out and, consciously or subconsciously, decide that everyone in their community is like them. But when push comes to shove, who will be guarding the entrance to Meah Shearim's narrow streets? Reasonable folks who will politely explaining to visitors that the area is restricted to locals or thugs with pepper spray? And if it's the thugs, would does that say about the leadership of the community and its ability to run its own affairs?
But two things in particular in this article caught my attention. The first is the name of the fringe group mentioned: Sicarii. Who were the Sicarii? For those for whom Tisha B'Av is only a murky memory:
On one occasion they kidnaped the secretary of Eleazar, governor of the Temple, but liberated him in exchange for ten of their comrades ("Ant." xx. 9, § 3). At the beginning of the war against the Romans, the Sicarii, with the help of other Zealots, gained secret access to Jerusalem, where they committed atrocious acts. Their leaders, including Menahem b. Jair, Eleazar b. Jair, and Bar Giora, were among the important figures of this war;
The Sicarii resorted to terror to obtain their objective. Under their cloaks they concealed sicae, or small daggers, from which they received their name. At popular assemblies, particularly during the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, they stabbed their enemies (Romans or Roman sympathizers, Herodians, and wealthy Jews comfortable with Roman rule), lamenting ostentatiously after the deed to blend into the crowd to escape detection. Literally, Sicarii meant "dagger-men".
The victims of the Sicarii included Jonathan the High Priest, though it is possible that his murder was orchestrated by the Roman governor Felix. Some of their murders were met with severe retaliation by the Romans on the entire Jewish population of the country. On some occasions, they could be bribed to spare their intended victims. If the narrative of Barabbas is not an invention to create a parable, even convicted Sicarii were occasionally released on promising to spare their opponents, though there is no evidence for this practice outside the Gospels, which are largely in accord on this point. Once, Josephus relates, after kidnapping the secretary of Eleazar, governor of the Temple precincts, they agreed to release him in exchange for ten of their captured comrades
The Sicarii were a major part of the societal schism that led to the fall of Yerushalayim and the destruction of our Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days. And this group, which supposedly wants to safeguard the "purity" of the Meah Shearim community, has taken their name?
Unfortunately, in all this a quite reasonable part of the article might have been missed:
Let it be made clear that this year we will not allow tourists and visitors to stroll in our streets at all hours of the night, under any circumstances.
Having visited Meah Shearim as part of a non-religious tour group many years ago, I can empathize with this part of the community's concerns. I recall the "briefing" our group (grade 11 students from North America) were given by our chiloni tour guide. We were instructed how to dress, how to act, and told not to point or make offensive exclamations. However, on the day of the tour, the female co-leader of our group showed up wearing pants while two of the girls wore shorts, insisting that they would not be told what they could wear by religious extremists. And yes, many of us stared at the locals as we walked through the streets, not unlike how we would have looked at animals in a zoo. If this happens on a regular basis, is it any wonder that the locals of Meah Shearim are sick of it and angry about it?
This is the unfortunate part of the article. A reasonable demand to be respected and left alone, buried amidst news that the looneys are running the looney bin.