JERUSALEM – In Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where the rule of law sometimes takes a back seat to the rule of God, zealots are on a campaign to stamp out behavior they consider unchaste.
They hurl stones at women for such "sins" as wearing a red blouse and attack stores selling devices that can access the Internet.
In recent weeks, self-styled "modesty patrols" have been accused of breaking into the apartment of a Jerusalem woman and beating her for allegedly consorting with men. They have torched a store that sells MP4 players, fearing devout Jews would use them to download pornography.
"These breaches of purity and modesty endanger our community," said 38-year-old Elchanan Blau, defending the bearded, black-robed zealots. "If it takes fire to get them to stop, then so be it."
Many ultra-Orthodox Jews are dismayed by the violence, but the enforcers often enjoy quiet approval from rabbis eager to protect their own reputations as guardians of the faith, community members say. And while some welcome anything that keeps secular culture out of their cloistered world, others feel terrorized, knowing that the mere perception of impropriety could ruin their lives.
"There are eyes and ears all over the place, very similar to what you hear about in countries like Iran," says Israeli-American novelist Naomi Ragen, an observant Jew who has chronicled the troubles that confront some women living in the ultra-Orthodox world.
The violence has already deepened the antagonism between the 600,000 haredim, or God-fearing, and the secular majority, which resents having religious rules dictated to them.
Religious vigilantes operate in a society that has granted their community influence well beyond its numbers — partly out of a commitment to revive the great centers of Jewish scholarship destroyed in the Holocaust, but also because the Orthodox are perennial king-makers in Israeli coalition politics.
Thus public transport is grounded for the Jewish Sabbath each Saturday, and the rabbis control all Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel.
In recent years, however, the haredim have eased up on their long campaign to impose their rules on secular areas, and nowadays many restaurants and suburban shopping centers are open on the Sabbath.
These days, most vigilante attacks take place in the zealots' own neighborhoods.
Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the modesty police are not an organized phenomenon, just rogue enforcers carrying out isolated attacks. But Israel's Justice Ministry used the term "modesty patrols" in an indictment against a man accused of assaulting the Jerusalem woman.
The unidentified, 31-year-old woman had left the ultra-Orthodox fold after getting divorced, according to the indictment filed by the Jerusalem district attorney's office. The indictment said her assailant tried to get her to leave her apartment in a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem by gagging, beating and threatening to kill her. He was paid $2,000 for the attack, it said.
A 17-year-old who moved to Israel from New York five years ago said she was hospitalized after being attacked with pepper spray by a crowd of men outraged that she was walking down a Jerusalem street with boys.
"They can burn in hell," said the girl, who would identify herself only as Rivka.
She lives in Beit Shemesh, a town outside Jerusalem where the vigilantism has been particularly violent. Zealots there have thrown rocks and spat at women, and set fire to trash bins to protest impiety. Walls of the neighborhood are plastered with signs exhorting women to dress modestly — spelled out as closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.