The event that took place on Wednesday morning at Kikar Shabbat was nothing short of a historical precedent. About 30 women, as well as a few men, marched in the haredi neighborhood, as close as possible to the Mea She’arim entrance, under heavy police guard.

“In fact,” says Rona Orovano, one of the organizers, “we hardly saw any haredim. The police created an impenetrable zone around us, and 500 policemen deployed in the area prevented any haredim from getting close to us. It was strange, but we had to do it.”

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Following the march, serious concern arose among the leaders of the most extreme factions of Mea She’arim – the Toldot Aharon sect and their close circles – that this might be a bad sign regarding their ability to control the neighborhood. As a result, some have already voiced new threats: “If the High Court allows such a thing to happen again, we will have no choice but to wage war, and we will take this war to the secular neighborhoods,” warned Yoelish Krauss, the strategist of the Eda Haredit in response to the court’s decision to allow the women’s protest.

The demonstration was staged to protest against gender segregation, what the organizers called “rules that discriminate against and humiliate women” which recently reached new heights when Toldot Aharon put up fences on the main street, separating women from men during the evenings on Hol Hamoed Succot. The fences were erected after the leaders of the Eda Haredit issued a decree forbidding entry to the neighborhood to any woman who did not reside there. Non-residents of the neighborhood were to be asked to disembark from the buses that crossed Mea She’arim and get back on from side streets.

A group of women – including religious women, such as members of Kolech and city council member Rahel Azaria (Yerushalmim) – decided that things had gone way too far this time. All the parties joined together and submitted a request to the High Court to obtain a permit to march inside the bastion of religious extremism and show that women, even if they are strictly observant, should not be mistreated, threatened or segregated on the grounds of religious purity.

While there is no question that Mea She’arim and even parts of Geula have become extremely strict on religious observance lately, mainly in regard to female modesty (the other issues being Shabbat observance and the war on ancient burial sites), it is clear that all this aggression about modesty is the work of a relatively small group of zealots, the Sikrikim – 30 people at most – who have managed to instill so much fear that residents of the neighborhood prefer to obey in order to avoid trouble. For it is said that the Sikrikim have no compunction about their methods of persuasion, including violence.

But while last week’s demonstration can be considered a remarkable achievement – it was the first time anyone dared to do it and obtained police permission – the real story perhaps lies elsewhere.

For the first time, haredi leaders considered “moderate” have collaborated with the police, while at the same time there are increasing indications that many of the haredi residents themselves are fed up with the extremists’ laws. According to inside observers, young couples are leaving the neighborhood slowly and quietly, and not just because they cannot afford the expensive housing.

Their aim is to live in one of the haredi towns around Jerusalem, where they can achieve two things: get away from the haredi bullies and get vocational training and work, something very few haredi men dare to do while they live in Mea She’arim.

Take the story of Araleh Pomp, a Toldot Aharon hassid who had to leave Mea She’arim because of the pressure exerted on him by the Sikrikim.

“I left because we couldn’t stand their stringent modesty rules anymore. They are a small group, but they cause a lot of harm, and what they do is nothing less than hillul Hashem [desecration of God] and hillul Hatorah [desecration of the Torah],” he says.

Pomp’s story began a few months ago. It centered around his niece, a member of Chabad, who moved to his house in order to attend a haredi high school.

Despite the fact that, according to Pomp, she dresses very modestly, the Sikrikim thought it was not modest enough for them, so they decided to teach Pomp and his family a lesson.

“One night, after my niece came home a little late from school, they broke into our house, smashed the furniture, beat us up, took my cellphones and warned me that next time it would be worse. I decided to file a complaint with the police, and that was the end of me. It just drove them crazy, and I was left with no choice: I had to leave. I moved to Givat Ze’ev. There’s a small haredi hassidic community there, not my hassidism, but I can manage, and I’m better off like that,” he says.

According to Pomp, the police had known about the internal violence for a long time and received complaints but never did anything concrete to stop the violence “until recently, when it has become so severe and dangerous because some of these Sikrikim are in fact not only bullies but also criminals, and now we are seeing some serious action from the police.”

DEFENDING THE actions of the Sikrikim, Krauss says in a telephone interview this week, “These women are mentally ill. They wear such outrageous dresses without long sleeves. They wear miniskirts. It’s horrible. It is forbidden by our holy Torah. We are seriously concerned that after this precedent, there will be more of this. We are already thinking of ways to protect ourselves.”

Krauss, a soft-spoken, affable man – he is in his early 40s and the father of 14 children – is the only representative of the Eda Haredit who speaks openly with journalists and non-haredim, including women. With a deceptively gentle tone, he delivers the toughest speeches on women’s modesty and plans to save the neighborhood from “the impure influences,” as he calls nonharedi ideas. Interviewed on Channel 2 regarding his plans about the protest march, Krauss answered candidly, “In the end, we will have no choice but to put tin cans with holes for the eyes on our women’s faces.”

Krauss swears he was being sarcastic and was misunderstood, but Orovano and her friends didn’t take chances and marched toward Kikar Shabbat with helmets painted like tin cans with holes for the eyes, warning seriously that this could be the haredim’s next step.

“We know that it is a group of extremists who are spreading their terror in all the haredi neighborhoods,” admits Orovano, “but we did some serious checking before deciding about this protest march. We know for sure that there are haredi women, and quite a lot of men as well, who suffer from this religious terror but dare not oppose it openly. That is what gave us the strength to protest. We did it mostly for the haredi women who are silenced.”

Azaria, a modern Orthodox mother of three who founded Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps agunot (women whose husbands refuse a divorce), says that during the campaign launched against the segregated buses, in which she and the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center are very involved, she has received a considerable number of phone calls, e-mails and letters from haredi women and men complaining about it.

One of the people who approached her, Avraham (not his real name), says that the segregation on the buses deprived him and his wife of the only quality time they could have to sit together on their daily commute and talk without having to run after or care for their many children. He says angrily, “I am haredi, the child of haredim, the grandchild of haredim, and so is my wife. I don’t need these hooligans to tell me how to behave modestly with my wife.”

Azaria adds that in most cases the complaints did not stem from feminist ideology but rather from practical concerns. “They will say it’s hard for them to observe the new rules, not that it’s humiliating,” she explains. Among the cases that reached her, a woman wrote that “Being pregnant, I feel sick sitting at the back of bus, and sometimes there isn’t even a vacant seat. I’m not the only pregnant woman among us, but they don’t care.”

Another woman complained that it was hard for her to take the baby carriage into the bus.

Azaria also talked about too many cases where siblings travel without their parents, “and the girls are left alone in the back, and many times they are afraid and cry, not to mention cases when they don’t know where to get off.”

But what really convinced Azaria that it was time to go to the High Court was the information she obtained regarding the average residents’ wishes. “They absolutely want the police to intervene. While for years the leaders in Mea She’arim were scrupulous about not allowing the police inside, today it’s different. They expect the police to do their job, to free them from these bullies who have turned their lives into a nightmare.”

And indeed, just a few days before the protest march, a very discreet – but not so secret – meeting took place between local political leaders in the haredi community and the chiefs of the district police. Three haredim – members of the city council from the United Torah Judaism, Yossi Deitsch, Avraham Halpern and a third who asked not to be identified – asked the police to take action and stop the threats. Someone at the meeting said, “If we don’t stop them, we will reach the point where they will dictate that we throw our newborn daughters into the sea, just as Pharaoh once said for our Jewish sons.”

Even Uri Maklev, a former deputy mayor and today an MK (also UTJ) and for a long time a supporter of autonomy in the haredi neighborhoods, admitted recently in an interview with a local Hebrew newspaper that the situation in Mea She’arim had become outrageous, and it was time that the police went in and enforced some order.

UNTIL THE police – or the residents – decide to do something, the easiest solution seems to be to just walk away from Mea She’arim. While the results of the research conducted by Dr. Maya Choshen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies show that most of the residents who leave the city (for the last decade at least) are haredim, according to some inside observers, there are other reasons apart from the expensive housing.

According to the figures provided annually by the JIIS, thousands of residents leave Jerusalem each year, net migration from the city numbers between 6,200 to 6,900 people annually for the past five years. A closer look shows that large numbers move to the haredi satellite cities near Jerusalem: in 2008, 173 people moved to Elad and 717 to Modi’in Illit, and many moved to cities with large haredi populations, such as Petah Tikva, Netanya, Safed and Bnei Brak.

“The original residents are moving out of Mea She’arim,” says Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of ZAKA (Disaster Victims Identification) and until recently the strategist of the Eda Haredit.

The original Ashkenazi haredim who fled from the poverty, neglect and dictatorship of the Sikrikim, according to Meshi-Zahav, are being replaced by newly religious haredim, many of them Sephardim.

“They take the kids,” says Eliezer, a resident of Mea She’arim, and teach them to curse women on the buses, to spray bleach on people not dressed modestly enough at bus stops, to burn the garbage bins and shout ‘Nazis’ at policemen. It is disgusting, but no one dares to confront them. As a result, those who can afford it just leave and move to the surrounding haredi towns. After all, these people don’t want to stop being haredim, but they want to live a quiet and normal life.”

Consequently, says Meshi-Zahav, the number of residents who move out of Mea She’arim and choose to get professional training (for the men) is growing, with all the socioeconomic benefits it entails: more working haredi men, more income, more leisure time, even if strictly kosher.

But for Krauss, the battle is far from being over – or lost: “It’s good that the police didn’t let them [the women] walk inside Mea She’arim, but it [the protest] is nevertheless very disturbing. And to think that it happened this year, when we closed and separated only about 30 meters of the street, while every year we close and separate at least 500 meters! We are getting together soon to plan our next steps.”

The “next steps” include buying houses in Kiryat Hayovel, a secular neighborhood that recently had a wave of haredim moving in due to the relatively low prices. “We have the money, and we will raise even more. We will buy dozens of houses and establish 500 families there. We will simply wage a war against these mentally deranged people who want to destroy our holy way of life.” Krauss reluctantly admits that people are leaving the neighborhood. “Yes, I heard that too, but not here, in the ‘casbah’ of Toldot Aharon. But we have a few hozrim betshuva [newly religious] here.

They are the most observant of modesty, but sometimes we have problems with them because they become very religious, but they bring with them their political opinions from outside. For example, they hate Arabs. We don’t hate them [the hozrim betshuva], but in any case their children don’t play with our children. You know, they speak Hebrew, not Yiddish,” he says.

ANOTHER ISSUE raised by the protest march is whether secular Israelis have the right to force haredim to live according to Western standards, where women are free to dress as they please, as many feminists deplore. On the other hand, if society is ready to accept that there will be areas closed to women, “Who knows what the next step will be? Closed to Arabs, to Ethiopians, to poor people. What will be the end point?” says Orovano.

As for city council member Azaria, who submitted the petition to the High Court with Orovano, Meretz and Ella, a Jerusalem branch of a university women’s organization, “There is no doubt that public space has to be open and be part of Israeli society. And in any case, we all know that in the haredi space, there is no such thing as separate but equal. It is always separate but totally unequal at the expense of women.”

Asked if non-haredi women going into Mea She’arim to protest against their specific customs was not more a patronizing attitude than a feminist struggle, Dr. Esther Herzog, a feminist who teaches at Beit Berl College, says, “I agree that the attitude toward women in the so-called secular Left society is no less shameful than in haredi society. In fact, I would say that the leftwing and secular organizations have betrayed women [by focusing mostly on other issues]. The attitude toward women is shameful and is unacceptable from a feminist point of view.”

That being said, Herzog insists that, nevertheless, barriers to prevent passage and free motion in public spaces are not acceptable, either. “We cannot say, in the name of multiculturalism, that what happens there, beyond those borders, is not our business. It is our duty because we are responsible for each other. We are all human beings, and if I don’t care about what happens to someone else, one day it will hit me back. I feel that I am not free if someone else in the world is not free.”

Herzog, like Azaria, talks about the meaning of public spaces and territories – where we should all see that freedom and equality are safe for everyone. Herzog adds that the segregation between people on the grounds of racism or because women are considered “impure, soiling the fabric of society, of causing harm to the souls of men – are all the same bigoted positions as separating Sephardi girls from Ashkenazi girls in the haredi schools – unacceptable.”

Orovano thinks that nothing will be the same anymore. “We have shown Israeli society that women can help women. We have proven that even Mea She’arim is no longer some ‘extra-territorial’ area and that women should not be treated so shamefully. We are going to keep an eye on the situation there. If we reach the conclusion that we have to interfere again, we will surely do so, and this time we will demand to march in the main street of Mea She’arim, and we will be hundreds, not just a few.”

As for Azaria, the fact that she and her friends, many of them religious women and men, have managed to return the public space of the haredi neighborhood to Israeli society is a giant step forward. “Mea She’arim is part of Israel again – that’s what’s important,” she concludes.

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