haredi bus 'mehadrim bus' _311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Their faces were masked with scarves as they attacked an Israeli television
camera crew Sunday, but the angry mob was not made up of Palestinians and had
nothing to do with the regional conflict between Israel and the Arab
RELATED:Journalists attacked, Beit Shemesh man arrested
Rather, it was a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish men in
the town of Beit Shemesh, not far from Jerusalem, who were displaying their
anger over the secular Israeli media’s criticism of their attempts to enforce
gender segregation and exclude women from the public sphere.
took place just days after Channel 2 News aired a segment featuring an area
haredi man justifying spitting on a defenseless eight-year- old girl because she
was not dressed according to his strict standards of modesty.
protests from factions within the haredi community against “outside” criticisms
is nothing new – we witnessed similar attacks not that long ago when the Beit
Shemesh municipality opened a religious Zionist girls school in their
neighborhood, as well as in Jerusalem a few years ago when a public parking lot
was slated to open on Shabbat.
What is new is the secular mainstream’s
response to this rage.
Whereas in the past most of Israeli society and
the authorities simply tolerated haredi demonstrations and even saw the
harassment of women as just part of the “ultra-Orthodox experience,” today ever
more people are becoming frustrated with such religious zealotry, which been
continuing unchecked for years.
Israeli society – backed by politicians
both male and female, on the left and on the right, and even religious and
secular – are pretty much in agreement that this extremism and any sort of
discrimination against women is wrong and must be stopped.
Last week, at
a Tel Aviv conference, female lawmakers and leaders emphasized their
determination to halt any more attacks against women’s place in society. This
week, women’s rights activists are preparing a mass protest on Wednesday, having
already vowed to battle this phenomenon head-on.
Even Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu voiced his determination to put an end to this dangerous
trend, stating in his cabinet meeting Sunday, “Israel is a democratic, Western,
liberal state. The public sphere is open and safe for everyone – men and women
alike. There is no place for harassment or discrimination.”
said that he has already called on the Israel Police to take full action “to
arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand.”
however, is that it may be too late for the government to reign in these
religious fanatics who seem prepared to defend their extreme beliefs at all
costs, even if it means jeopardizing the Jewish state’s precarious
religious-secular status quo and even starting some form of civil war.
is, unfortunately, a battle that has been brewing for decades. Moreover, for far
too long successive governments have been focused on the external threats facing
the state instead of dealing with society’s internal conflicts, including the
growing paradox between religious absolutism and democratic
While the incident in Beit Shemesh is truly shocking, it is
sadly not the first time that a Jewish woman has been the target of the spit of
a haredi man.
Many a secular female who might have mistakenly wandered
into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim or not taken enough care to
observe the “modest dress” signs that have been hanging there for years might be
able to tell a similar story.
The same goes for women who have
experienced the indignity of riding a public bus through some of country’s most
While it has now become popular to call all
those who stand up to these attacks the “Israeli Rosa Parks,” in reality the
country needs many more “Rosas” if it really wants to stop this war.
issue is not only that religious extremism is growing but also that the
population that perpetuates this ideology is expanding too.
communities used to be concentrated in a few neighborhoods, today they have
taken over new areas and are attempting to unilaterally impose their beliefs on
The crux of this problem was perhaps summed up Sunday with
a debate over comments made by Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, who
declared in a radio interview that what happens in the haredi community is their
“I’m not sure I mind it if they decide to segregate bus
lines in Modi’in Illit or Betar Illit. It’s their way of life. If it doesn’t
bother any woman, I’m not sure it bothers me,” said the Likud
While the attitude up until now might have been to ignore
certain undemocratic practices among the ultra-Orthodox, what is suddenly
becoming painfully clear is that society can no longer afford to turn a blind
eye to them.
Not challenging this phenomenon sets a dangerous precedent
for the rule of law in Israel, and all forms of segregation in the public sphere
should be considered illegal, regardless of where it takes place.