Bnei Brak / by Thomas-Xavier Christiane

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” – Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Bnei Brak is a town located near Tel Aviv with an exclusively Orthodox Jewish population.


The first time I heard about Bnei Brak was through a documentary from the YouTube channel “Genetically Modified Skeptic”. The name of the documentary was clearly a provocative headline designed to attract the viewers on YouTube: “Atheists Explore a Jewish cult”. In the description, the people of Bnei Brak were called “ultras”, it mentioned an activist from there that had “escaped” and there was a call for donations and followers. The documentary started with a dramatic music and rhythmized images shot with elaborate and expensive equipment. After some more dramatic introductions, Drew, an American boy wearing a branded shirt who was the producer of that documentary said a few words in a dramatic voice over: “My vision of Bnei Brak taught me how restrictive and sectarian it can be.” Then, he mentioned the “BITE Theory” from Steven Hassan, some psychologist that he worshipped, to say that he used it to explain himself in his “videos”. The BITE theory was supposed to explain how people created mind control. (Check out that linkto know what it is. I ain’t got no time to waste explaining you.) Once he finished to introduce himself, Drew introduced his crew: his producer, Armin (a guy who defines himself as “ex-Muslim activist” and the founder of an atheist community), another guy who ruled an atheist community in Israel and finally Amir, an individual who was born in Bnei Brak and had accepted to guide Drew and his friends in Bnei Brak. After the introduction, there was a small sequence where Amir would explain to Drew that he was a huge fan of his YouTube channel. Then, Armin asked what would happen if he mentioned that he was an atheist. Amir replied that he did not really want that because he knew people in the place. So, Armin replied with a smile: “But that makes me even more interested now.” (lol)At that moment, a small note appeared on the screen to mention the BITE theory in order to show how people’s mind were under control in Bnei Brak according to Drew’s “vision”. Amir said that he did not wanted his siblings to get kicked out of school because of the behavior of Drew’s friends in Bnei Brak. He also added that because they were wearing “secular clothes”, people might refuse to talk to them. To this, Armin replied that atheists were “the most oppressed group”in the world and kept bragging and exaggerating about it for a while. (If I get it right, saying such thing could be identified as the “I”, the “T” and the “E” in the BITE theory but that’s just my belief.) Once these introductions were done, they began to walk in Bnei Brak. To illustrate it, Drew used closed wide-angle shots of his face in the street and an intense music to make it look like it was dangerous out there. During their walk, Amir showed charity boxes that were in the street. Drew asked where the money went and Amir replied that it was for the poor people. So, Armin said out loud: “No, it’s not!” (without mentioning his sources) to amuse the people around him. Then, Drew added: “These religious communities don’t just foster some kind of virtue. Not just vices or oppression…”(That’s a lot of words to say: “I’m intolerant.”) After the sequence of the charity boxes, the crew entered a religious shop. Inside, Amir showed religious things. So, Armin began to make jokes about the objects inside the shop. For example, he took a kippa and said that wearing it would make people talk to him. (Funny right?) As a reaction, the guy who ruled an atheist group in Israel explained that each kippa belonged to a different group. This appeared to be a great opportunity for Drew to bring back the BITE theory into the conversation. On the other hand, Armin said it was “anti-fun”. The crew continued talking about the BITE theory and used the occasion to argue about another “atheist YouTuber”. After that, Armin began to show books for children that were displayed in the shop. Amir said he was not exposed to pop culture when he was a child. Quasi automatically, Drew said: “That’s information control in the BITE model!!” Some time after that, when the group was about to leave the shop, Armin took an object that was considered as very holy by the local community. To make a(nother) joke, he pretended to let it fall… Etc, etc, etc… 


Tired by this debilitating hate-show, I stopped the video, took my notebook and wrote five questions for the people of Bnei Brak:


·      How does that make you feel that some people define Bnei Brak as an extremist neighborhood?

·      How do you feel about the notion of “Ultra-Orthodox Jew”?

·      How do you feel about the people living out of Bnei Brak?

·      Do you accept the existence of other beliefs than yours?

·      How would you define your identity?

The next day, I went to Bnei Brak and I asked the five questions to five randomly selected people. Here is a resume of what they said.


Noam, 21, works in a bakery

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Noam did not really understand English so I had to use Google Translate to explain my questions by translating words by words and build sentences with the support of customers and the other employees. When I was able to translate the first question that asked how he felt about people calling Bnei Brak an extremist place, he said: “Bnei Brak is no.” He said that it was very “free” and that the extremists lived in two streets of Jerusalem. He also said that those who called Bnei Brak an extremist place were crazy and that it did not offended him that people said that. He added that the people who “are feeling like this” were wrong and did not understood Bnei Brak.


To the question of the notion of “Ultra Orthodox Jews”, he said that he did not cared about the people calling him an “ultra”.


About the people living out of Bnei Brak, he felt that they were kind people. Maybe, some were crazy but most were kind and good. He actually knew people from there because he also worked “in ambulance”.  

Shimon, 25, house renovator

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About the people calling Bnei Brak people extremists, he said that a lot of people were saying bad things about the Orthodox because they did not know what they were talking about. He recognized that Bnei Brak was not the usual kind of place. It did not offended him that people would call him an extremist and he said about it: “They can say.” Which I interpreted as: “Let them talk.” He also said something I did not really understood about the people who gave too much importance to the distinctions between people.


About the word “Ultra Orthodox Jew”, he recognized himself in the Hebrew translation of that word on Google Translate but did not understood the English meaning of it.


About the people living out of Bnei Brak, he thought: “Also people.” I asked him what he thought of, for example, gay people and he said it was not kosher but he was not angry at liberal people and he did not care about them.


He accepted the existence of other beliefs: “Everybody do what they want. Just don’t tell me what to do.”


He described himself as a Jewish Orthodox. 

Zehev, 34, shabbat stuff shopkeeper

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Zehev could understand why people called Bnei Brak an extremist place because the people there lived close to one another and because there was a strong sense of community but also because people had a lot of kids in Bnei Brak. He explained me that it was a small city and therefore, there was, obviously, a lot of social pressure. So I asked him: “But do you think that people are extremists? – People? No. – Are you an extremist? – No. I don’t think so.” 


About the notion of “Ultra Orthodox Jews”, he said that maybe one percent of the people were “ultra” but that most of the people were “regular”. However, he admitted that everybody dressed the same and that everything was closed during shabbat. He also said that the people who protest violently were the one who should be called “ultra”. 


About the people living out of Bnei Brak, Zehev said they were: “All good!” He added that he had a lot of friends in Tel Aviv, Haifa, New-York City and that the month before, he had been to Thailand where he had enjoyed the bars and clubs.


He accepted the existence of other beliefs than him and said: “Why not?” So, I asked him: “If I tell you that my god is a cat, you accept that? – Not accepted for me. I accept it for you. – If I tell you that my god is a plastic bag, you accept that? – Have fun!”


Zehev defined his identity as Jew Israeli. 

Suzana, 60, shopkeeper

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The conversation with Suzana was not easy since she did not understand English.


When I asked her how she felt about the people calling Bnei Brak an extremist place, she replied with an evil laugh and said: “Very good”. After that, she asked me what “extremist” meant. I replied: “extremist zeh crazy politic (extremist is crazy politics)” She asked: “zeh politica? (is it pollical?)”. Then, she said that the people around there did not really think about politics but she admitted that some of them did. After that, I added that “extremist” also meant: “crazy religious… Too much religious.” She replied “No.” and said that the people were nice and that she loved them. She also said that she had been working with pupils for forty years.


About the notion of “Ultra Orthodox Jews” she said that she liked being called an “ultra”and that she had a “daughter ultra”. Not sure what she was trying to say though… At that moment, a man entered the shop and she told me that he spoke English very well. The man explained me that in Bnei Brak, there were “all kind of level of people”and that “there’s nothing for sure.”. 


Regarding the people living out of Bnei Brak, the man who was translating for Suzana said that there was nothing to say and that everybody has their own lives. He also said that “Whoever lives here lives here and whoever lives there lives there. 


To the question of knowing if she accepted other beliefs than hers, the man translated the question, she smiled at it and said: “Only Jews!” At the same time, she was on the phone with someone and there was a customer in the shop talking very loudly.


I asked the question about Identity and the translator explained me that there were many ways in which this could be translated in Hebrew. Hower Suzana replied while being on the phone and serving two customers:“Ani Yudea (I am a Jew)” 

Motti, 49, cook

Before I was able to ask him any questions, Motti told me a lot about his job. He really loved it and he was very proud of working hard to sustain his family.


About the people who described Bnei Brak as an extremist place, he said that they should go and visit the synagogue and Bnei Brak to see by themselves that the locals were “normal”. He also told me that he believed in God and Moses. He added that he believed in the Bible and added (because, since I am from Belgium, he identified me as a Christian): “But not the new that you believe in. (…) Chapter B, I don’t believe.”


About the notion of “Ultra Orthodox Jew”, he told me that, inded, he was orthodox. About the notion “Ultra”, he said: “Today, with the internet, everything is too much.” However, he told me that he would continue his life with his family anyway.


I asked him what he thought of the people living out of Bnei Brak and he said: “Normal people! Why not?” Then he expressed a surprise of me asking such question since he thought that I did not looked stupid. So, I asked him what he thought of the gay pride that had happened in Tel Aviv one week before. He told me that he did not like to see people dancing on a truck. As a reaction, I asked him: “You never dance on a truck?” He replied: “I don’t dance on a truck. I dance on a wedding; I dance in my home but not naked.” I asked him if he would dance on a truck at a hypothetical Jewish pride and he replied that maybe he would but with clothes. We continued talking about the subject and reached the conclusion that he did not mind the gay pride as long as they would not come and dance in his kitchen. However, he said that the gay pride was not the best way gay people could express their normality. He illustrated that by mentioning his gay colleagues who were behaving normally and that, he thought, that was the way to do it. He also said that he would like people to be more quiet about their sexuality because it made him uncomfortable to see it everywhere. To illustrate his opinion, he said that the people who had sex should close the door. 


To the question of whether he accepted other people’s belief, he said to express his surprise to such a stupid question: “Thomas! You’re a big guy!” Then, he said that he considered that we should all, alike Muslims and Jews, believe in one single God but that he respected other beliefs. As an example, he told me that he would never ask to his Muslim colleague to manipulate alcoholic beverages because he respected him.


Motti defined his identity as Israeli.


When I was done with the questions, he asked me to wait down his building while he was going to change himself for the picture. When he came back, he gave me biscuits that his daughter had prepared to thank me for meeting him.


A brief conclusion about my observations in Bnei Brak


When I had asked these five people my questions, I took the bus back to Tel Aviv. I had spent the afternoon in a very quiet neighborhood where, indeed, people all behaved and dressed the same. A little bit like everywhere else actually... The fact is that the BITE theory could be used to explain any behavior that identify any conditioning of any social group (including atheists) because it is the deep nature of social identification (and therefore social groups) to share biases and a common conditioning. The people in Bnei Brak clearly identified me as a different person and I saw them as different as well even if, at the end of the day, we were the same. But I did not feel like I was being hated or anything and my conversations with them taught me the basics of how to appreciate their singular way of life at its just value. During the interviews that I conducted, the people who were around helped me for the translations and were happy to welcome someone different. There were even a group of people who, at a moment, proposed me to have a seat with them and share some drinks despite my “secular clothes”. If there is a moral message that I could give from my adventure in Bnei Brak it would be that, whatever its nature or its outlook and even if it is hard to understand it, every belief, philosophy, religion (including orthodox Judaism, fundamental Islamism or liberal atheism/ secularism/ agnosticism/ whatever), gender, sexuality, professional activities (whether at the top or the bottom of the hierarchy), preferences or political opinions (from the leftest leftist to the rightest rightist) should be, at least, respected by anyone without any exception. No one does never know what it is to wear the shoes of the other and disrespecting that is the foundation of dehumanization. Dehumanization is what leads people to do terrible things to other people…


To make it all simple, going to a place with a camera, simplistic theories and the belief of moral superiority in order to judge and shame people without trying to understand them is just wrong.