Mea She’arim ‘mafia’ harasses, vandalizes businesses

by Melanie Lidman

Jerusalem 08/Sept/2011 – ‘Sicarii’ break windows, throw human excrement at stores they deem to promote immodesty, including bookstore popular with Anglo residents.

A bookstore in the capital’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood is struggling against a wave of attacks by a haredi group called Sikrikim (“Sicarii”) that other business-owners have called the “mafia of Mea Sha’arim.”

Since the bookstore, known as Or Hachaim/Manny’s, opened in March 2010, men have smashed its windows several times, glued its locks shut, thrown tar and fish oil, and dumped bags of human excrement inside.

Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was harassed and had stones thrown at him while leaving the store last year.

The bookstore, located on Mea She’arim Street, is popular with Anglo residents and tourists and carries many English- language holy books and Judaica items in addition to Hebrew books. The harassment stems from the bookstore’s refusal to accept demands made by the neighborhood extremist group, which would require all businesses to observe specific “modesty standards.”

At Or Hachaim, the Sikrikim’s demands include putting up a sign asking customers to dress modestly, removing all English-language books, signs and advertisements, and closing its website, which is in English, all so as not to attract tourists, who are not dressed modestly, said Marlene Samuels, one of the three managers of the bookstore, along with her husband, Manny, and Meir Dombey. Manny Samuels previously ran Manny’s Bookstore, which was well-known in the Anglo community.

“These people are very extreme; they terrorize lots of people here, and they are a very insular group,” Marlene Samuels said. She added that despite filing four complaints with the police and providing surveillance footage that clearly identified four of the men who have been vandalizing their shop, the police has not gotten involved.

“In the last few weeks, the police said they just don’t want to get involved in this neighborhood,” she said.

Jerusalem police said they had only received one report of a violent incident from the bookstore that was filed on Sunday. Deputy police spokeswoman Shlomit Bajshi said that an investigation was opened into the incident but thus far there are no suspects.

She added the police had no other complaints filed about vandalism in the neighborhood attributed to the Sikrikim.

Bajshi denied the allegation by business-owners in the area that the police did not want to get involved in incidents in Mea Sha’arim because of the threat of violence to policemen or widespread rioting.

“We get involved with every incident that people report to us,” she said.

The same group of Sikrikim has also targeted an ice cream store in the Geula neighborhood because they thought licking ice cream cones in public was immodest, Samuels said. Haredi media reported last year that Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh have targeted shoe stores in ultra- Orthodox neighborhoods that refuse to remove heeled shoes from their selection.

Most businesses along Mea She’arim Street display a laminated sign on their doorways requesting that only modestly dressed customers enter their stores, one of the demands by the Sikrikim.

“They asked me to put it up, so I did,” said Shlomo, the owner of a nearby bookstore.

“I don’t look for problems, if I hadn’t put it up there could have been problems.”

The Feldheim Superstore, a large establishment near Or Hachaim that also has large English-language signs outside and many English books, said it negotiated an agreement with a member of the Sikrikim soon after opening a year ago. “We sat and talked with him, and there were a few books they had problems with from specific rabbis,” said an employee who requested anonymity. The store also displays the modesty sign at the entrance. “We came to an agreement, we respect them and they respect us,” he said.

“It’s like the Beduin [cartels] in Beersheba or the mafia in Tel Aviv… you need to deal with what there is, and this is the situation.”

He declined to say whether the store would continue to abide by requests from the Sikrikim if they made more demands about the store’s inventory.

Last Wednesday, the owners of Or Hachaim sat down with Sikrikim representatives to hear their demands, but decided not to accept them.

Two days later, on Friday afternoon 10 minutes before Shabbat, someone smashed all of the windows, sending the managers scrambling to find someone to guard the store over Shabbat.

Samuels said she knew of one storeowner in the area who had trouble with vandalism from Sikrikim in the past and hired someone to beat up the man who had been vandalizing the store, ending the problems. She said that she did not believe she and her partners would resort to this type of vigilante justice, but that they were increasingly discouraged by the inaction of the police.

The Sikrikim are the most extremist splinter sect associated with anti-Zionist haredim. They are estimated to be no larger than 60-100 people, but their influence and thug tactics reverberate throughout the neighborhood.

They are also related to the extremist group causing issues at the Orot Banot national-religious school in Beit Shemesh.

“They attack haredim in their own neighborhood,” said David Rotenberg, an employee at Or Hachaim. “If you’re not their type of haredim, they’ll attack you.”

The name “Sikrikim” comes from the Latin “Sicarii,” a term applied, in the decades immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, to an extremist splinter group of the Zealots who tried to expel the Romans and their partisans from Judea using concealed daggers.

Original Jerusalem Post online article can be found here.

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