The police spy who found his ‘brothers’ in Mea Shearim
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Yom Kippur 5775

The police spy who found his ‘brothers’ in Mea Shearim

Veteran reporter Abraham Rabinovich’s new ebook ‘Jerusalem on Earth’ deals with the evolution of the city in the decades after the 1967 Six Day War. This exclusive excerpt tells the story of a young cop, Hanan, who was sent undercover into the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood in the early 1970s, posing as a non-Orthodox Jew seeking to ‘return’ to religion, in order to penetrate a militant fringe group. The way Hanan was treated, and the impact the experience had on him, offers lessons of lasting value amid our relentless intra-Jewish frictions

Illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox man yelling as he walks in Mea Shearim where police were breaking up a protest using water canon. The protest, in August 1996, was by local ultra-Orthodox residents seeking to close a main road in the area to traffic on Shabbat. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox man yelling as he walks in Mea Shearim where police were breaking up a protest using water canon. The protest, in August 1996, was by local ultra-Orthodox residents seeking to close a main road in the area to traffic on Shabbat. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat Flash90)

From the commander’s window on the second floor of Jerusalem police headquarters, vans full of arrested Haredim could be seen driving into the courtyard. Ranks of police reinforcements, wearied by weeks of intermittent skirmishing, were getting their final briefing before moving off again to Mea Shearim, where they would be sent into action behind water cannon. The commander, however, was not looking out. He had seen the scene often enough as the city’s ultra-Orthodox community regularly erupted into violence.

The growing militancy of the city’s ultra-Orthodox had culminated in 1972 with acts of arson against a sex shop in downtown Jerusalem and other targets, as well as the desecration of the graves of Zionist leaders — including the grave of Theodor Herzl, visionary of the Jewish state. The Hebrew word keshet (rainbow) had been painted at the site of these attacks, indicating that a single organization was behind them. Until now, the police had been dealing with a known quantity — a population responding to leaders whose calls for demonstrations were openly made in public speeches and wall posters. Now the police found themselves up against a secret organization whose strength, objectives, and ultimate level of violence was unclear. Would they stop with arson? Anything was conceivable.

Although Israeli agents had penetrated the Arab world with great success, there had been no known deep penetration of the Haredi world

It was imperative for the police find out who these people were. Could an agent be slipped into Mea Shearim to find out? This was what the police commander and his intelligence chief were discussing as the men below moved off toward the ultra-Orthodox quarters. Such an infiltration had apparently never been accomplished before. In a notorious case in the early 1950s, when a nine-year-old boy was abducted by Haredi zealots from his secular father, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had ordered the Shin-Bet, Israel’s vaunted Security Service, to devote the bulk of its resources to his recovery. Several months later, the boy was tracked down in Brooklyn, but the task had been accomplished by external sleuthing, not by infiltration of an agent into the Haredi community. Although Israeli agents had penetrated the Arab world with great success, there had been no known deep penetration of the Haredi world. Only recently, an activist from the militant Neturai Karta sect, from the Tora V’yira Yeshiva, had told a reporter that the police could never plant an agent in Mea Shearim. “Everyone here knows everyone else — where he comes from, who his father is, how he grew up, what he thinks. There’s no one here who isn’t what he’s supposed to be.”

The police commander believed that an infiltration plan now on the table could work. It would require an agent young enough to be a yeshiva student, someone who spoke passable Yiddish, someone with the wit and resilience needed to make the difficult crossing. A likely candidate had been identified and he was now ushered into the room.

Jerusalem on Earth, by Abraham Rabinovich
Jerusalem on Earth, by Abraham Rabinovich

Curly-haired and with a good-humored, impish air about him, Hanan was twenty-three but looked younger. He sat down opposite the senior officers and at the gentle prodding of the commander described his background. Born in the Tel Aviv area, he had been raised in a religiously traditional home. His father did not wear a hat during the week but often went to synagogue on Saturdays. Hanan himself spoke a broken but serviceable Yiddish. He had joined the police as an investigator the year before, after receiving his B.A. from Hebrew University, and was now studying for his law degree. What did he think of the Haredim? He did not despise them, he said, or think they were criminals. They contained the same elements of black, white, and gray as any other community. This attitude, unshared by most of his colleagues in the squad room, had reached the ears of the senior command and was one of the reasons Hanan had been selected. The task could be accomplished only by someone who could identify with the people he was being sent to spy on.

When the mission was proposed to Hanan by the police commander, he accepted it immediately. Apart from any effect on his career, it promised to be extremely interesting. Virtually all he knew about the Haredi world was what he had read of it in the works of S. Y. Agnon, Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Mea Shearim was only three hundred meters from police headquarters in the Russian Compound, but for Hanan it would be a long-range, possibly hazardous reconnaissance into uncharted territory.

The penetration was cleverly conceived and swiftly executed. Dressed in jeans, Hanan presented himself at a yeshiva outside Mea Shearim specializing in ba’alai teshuvah (penitents) — nonreligious Jews seeking to “return” to religion. Taken to see the principal, Hanan described himself as the son of Israelis who had emigrated to America. Tired of the fleshpots, he had come back to Israel on his own in order to search for his roots. Since the Six Day War, “penitent” yeshivas in Jerusalem had been awash with young men and women from abroad and from Israel searching for spiritual meaning. Hanan was welcomed like a returning son and by the next day was devoting himself intently to study.

Illustrative photo of Israeli police officers scuffling with ultra-Orthodox demonstrators in Jerusalem on August 10, 2014. The ultra-Orthodox Jews were protesting against the desecration of ancient graves discovered at a new housing construction site near Damascus Gate. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Israeli police officers scuffling with ultra-Orthodox demonstrators in Jerusalem on August 10, 2014. The ultra-Orthodox Jews were protesting against the desecration of ancient graves discovered at a new housing construction site near Damascus Gate. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At the end of the first month, he requested another meeting with the principal. He was thankful beyond words for the world of the Torah that had been opened to him, he said, but he felt himself ready now for even more demanding study — at one of the yeshivas in Mea Shearim itself. The principal, who had seen this process of intensifying religiosity among the born-again often enough, wrote a note of recommendation to one of the “black” yeshivas in Mea Shearim — the designation deriving from the color of the clothing worn by the Haredi ultra-Orthodox. The note praised Hanan as a diligent student with a quick grasp. In swift succession, he maneuvered himself from the recommended yeshiva to other yeshivas in search, he said, of the right one for him. With his tracks thus blurred, he arrived at Tora V’yira, the bastion of the Neturai Karta in the heart of Mea Shearim, and was duly accepted. The Neturai Karta activist who had said “There’s no one here who isn’t what he’s supposed to be” would spend months in the same small yeshiva study hall with a police agent without the slightest suspicion.

The inhabitants of Mea Shearim, Hanan found, were innocents — not just of guilt but of guile. They lived in poverty, but not a poverty that deforms. Those who had a little more helped those who had a little less’

In the coming four months, Hanan lived his role to the full. At the usual pace of the penitent, he had gradually shed his “American” clothing and taken on black dress. A beard soon made him unrecognizable to those who knew him in his other life. Rising before dawn, he would pray with der ershte minyan — the earliest prayer group —and spend the day and much of the night in study. In the yeshiva system of chavruta, he studied with a partner, the pair explaining, exploring, debating the meaning of the talmudic text. Periodically, the partners would change. Hanan came to feel a foxhole intimacy with these students who were sharing with him an intellectual adventure. On Thursdays, they would study late into the night for the oral examination they would be subject to on Friday morning.

The spirituality of Sabbath in Mea Shearim was an experience that not even his reading of Agnon could have prepared Hanan for. With his new-found friends, he would attend the tish, or communal Sabbath repast, of rebbes in the quarter and join in the singing and dancing.

All the while, his ears were open to the political undercurrents in Mea Shearim. They did not, he discovered, run deep. “Nothing is secret there,” he would say later. “There is no anonymity. Everybody knows about everybody.” There was no underground and no serious conspiracy, he would report to his superiors. Just a few militants who were considered eccentric even within Mea Shearim. He had asked his friends to meet Reb Amram Blau, head of the Neturai Karta. It was not an unusual request since many wanted to meet the charismatic figure. Hanan found an elderly man with the face of a child that seemed to radiate light. It was, he would say years later, the face of “a real tsadik [righteous man].”

All in all, the inhabitants of Mea Shearim, he found, were innocents — not just of guilt but of guile. They lived in poverty, but not a poverty that deforms. Those who had a little more helped those who had a little less and there was much matan beseter — giving anonymously. He himself, when he moved into a room in the Mea Shearim compound after joining Tora V’yira, was helped with contributions of clothing, sheets, food, and other necessities by people who had little more than the bare necessities themselves.

In the social hierarchy, the pinnacle was reserved for the learned, rather than the wealthy. The ultimate authority, Hanan learned, were the gdolai halacha — the sages of Jewish law — from whose judgments there was no appeal.

In his conversations with his fellow yeshiva students in Mea Shearim, Hanan found that quite a few were afflicted with doubts about the basic “givens” of orthodoxy. An eye was kept on backsliders by a “Modesty Brigade,” one of the many ad hoc organizations in Mea Shearim charged with one or another aspect of religious life in the community. If a yeshiva student was spotted, for instance, going into a cinema, his rabbi would be informed and the student be summoned for a talk. If he was spotted again, the Modesty Brigade might take direct action. “Kanaim pagu bo [zealots beat him],” Hanan discovered, was a phrase that disassociated the Mea Shearim leadership from direct involvement.

During his undercover months, Hanan’s situation was similar to that of an agent dropped behind enemy lines, except that the lines in this case were a fifteen-minute walk from his squad room. The knowledge that you could walk away anytime you chose increased the need for motivation to stick it out. In Hanan’s case, the motivation was provided by the fascination of learning about a rich new world.

Ultra-Orthodox men watch a fire set during a protest in Mea Shearim. The protest was over the arrest of young ultra-Orthodox men, taken into custody during a demonstration against the opening of a parking lot on the sabbath, in July 2009. (Photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90
Ultra-Orthodox men watch a fire set during a protest in Mea Shearim. The protest was over the arrest of young ultra-Orthodox men, taken into custody during a demonstration against the opening of a parking lot on the sabbath, in July 2009. (Photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90

During a Sabbath demonstration in Sabbath Square, in which Hanan participated, he was seized in a police charge and hustled into custody along with a number of other Haredim. The arresting officers were friends from headquarters precinct but they did not distinguish this bearded, black-clad Haredi from the others identically clad and bearded. In the police lockup in the Russian Compound, he managed to surreptitiously get a message out to a senior police officer, one of the few who knew of his new identity. Shortly thereafter, the cell door was opened and the whole group told to go home.

Apart from this brief jailing, Hanan never left Mea Shearim during the four months after his entry. His communication with headquarters was via a “drop,” where he left and received messages. He believed that his reports had a moderating effect on the police command in their attitude towards the Haredi community.

Hanan’s very success in playing his role would cut it short. As an eligible young man, he found himself under increasing pressure from his yeshiva mates and rabbis to take unto himself the bliss and obligations of marriage. A matchmaker was discreetly brought into the picture, and Hanan one day found himself being escorted to an apartment by a coterie of chaperones to meet a young woman and her family. Hannan wasted no time in contacting headquarters. It was time to get out.

The extrication was executed with the same adroitness as the insertion. Hanan informed his principal and his yeshiva colleagues that he had received a message from his parents in New York that his grandfather was dying. He was to catch a plane the next day. His comrades insisted on accompanying him to the airport to see him off. After warm farewells, Hanan headed for a men’s room where he changed into “civilian” clothing. His yeshiva comrades had long since departed when he emerged, himself once more. Reaching home, he looked at his bearded face in the mirror for a long moment before shaving away the last physical remnant of a life that already seemed like a dream. He then lay down to a long and deep sleep.

His experience in Mea Shearim left Hanan convinced that, between the Haredi and secular worlds, there is more that binds than separates

Promoted for his dazzling performance to a job in national police headquarters, Hanan would remain in Jerusalem for another decade but would have no dealings with Haredi questions nor would he enter Mea Shearim. In the mid-1980s, he left the police to go into law practice in Tel Aviv.

Hanan had felt no anthropological detachment from the people he had gone to observe, particularly the young men with whom he spent most of his waking hours for months and who had shared with him not only their minds but their souls, including their doubts.

Years afterwards, he encountered one of his study partners while walking in downtown Jerusalem. The Haredi looked quizzically at Hanan’s bareheaded, unbearded face, recognizing it as familiar but unable to place it. Hanan did not pass him by. Identifying himself, he explained that he had returned to the secular world and was now a lawyer. He had found he could not live a Haredi life, he said. “I decided it wasn’t for me.”

The Haredi tried to persuade him to come back for a Shabbat to Mea Shearim — to meet his old friends, to attend a rebbe’s tish — but Hanan demurred. Nevertheless, he resumed contact with several of his former friends. He would telephone before holidays to extend greetings and ask about their families. He would even meet sometimes with one particularly close friend — the meetings taking place in the secular part of the city. On one occasion, he returned to Mea Shearim to attend the wedding of the son of one of his friends to whom he had given his home telephone number. It was known in Mea Shearim that Hanan had returned to the secular world but this was not an unusual event. He did not tell any of his old friends there of his police connection but the story was leaked in 1986 to a reporter by a police official. Hanan assumed, correctly, that the ensuing article was called to the attention of those who knew him in Mea Shearim and he did not resume contact.

In telling his own children about the experience, Hanan attempted not to over-sentimentalize life in Mea Shearim. “I don’t want them to become penitents, and I point out that not all the light is there in Mea Shearim nor all the darkness here. I want them to have the values of Judaism and that means first of all to be a mensch. It isn’t only Judaism that has values. All religions do but part of our personal identity is that we’re Jews.” Although he was not tempted to become a penitent, the enthusiasm he developed for Talmud study was not feigned and he would in later years peruse a Talmud tractate in his home from time to time.

Less than a year after discarding his Mea Shearim uniform, Hanan temporarily donned another uniform, fighting with his reserve army unit through the harrowing battles on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. For some time after he returned home, he would recite kiddush at his Friday night meal.

He did not think he would ever see the sons of his Mea Shearim chavruta wearing a military uniform. “And it’s a pity. They’d be good soldiers. They’re idealists and they’d fight for what they believe. And the experience wouldn’t harm them either.”

His experience in Mea Shearim left Hanan convinced that, between the Haredi and secular worlds, there is more that binds than separates. “I see us as one people. We’ve got to talk to each other, not provoke each other. When you talk, you see that the other side doesn’t have horns. You don’t throw stones at someone you talk to. Divisiveness only brings troubles.”

The agent sent to spy upon the enemy had discovered that they were his brothers.

Extracted, by kind permission of the author, from Abraham Rabinovich’s “Jerusalem on Earth: Clamoring at Heaven’s Gate: The Post-Six Day War Decades.” 

abra@netvision.net.il

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