It’s been an action-packed week in the city of Beit Shemesh. Residents have been
arrested, a policeman injured and television camera crews attacked and pelted
with stones, not to mention an eight-year-old girl who has now won the hearts of
most Israelis after speaking out on national TV about her fear to walk through a
certain neighborhood on her way to school.
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This unlikely set of events
was compounded Tuesday night by a mass rally drawing at least 1,000 people onto
the streets to protest what is widely seen as attempts by some of Beit Shemesh’s
more ultra- Orthodox residents to intimidate and impose their extreme views of
modesty and immodest behavior on the majority.
“We won’t let Beit Shemesh
become the next Iran,” was the call by local journalist Tzion Sultan, whose
comment received rousing applause when he addressed the excitable
His speech was followed by chants of “the nation demands a Zionist
Beit Shemesh,” to the same rhythm adopted by this past summer’s series of mass
social justice protests “The nation demands social justice.”
demonstration in Beit Shemesh did not attract even close to the numbers that
took to the streets of Tel Aviv and other major cities in the summer – estimates
from Tuesday night range from 4,000 to 10,000 but it’s more likely closer to
1,000 – what is important is that those who turned out resoundingly declared to
no longer accept coercion by religious zealots.
If this past summer in
Israel was dedicated to finding social justice, it seems that the winter will be
remembered for calls from politicians, rights groups, the secular media and the
public majority to reign in haredi extremists. All have made clear that any
attempts at enforced gender segregation or elimination of women from mainstream
public life will not be tolerated.
“They have crossed all the red lines
and it’s time we re-evaluate the [religious-secular] status quo in Israel,”
commented Tova Ben-Dov, chairwoman of the Women’s International Zionist
Organization (WIZO) in Israel, which held its own protest together with other
women’s rights groups in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
“Our job is to maintain
the rights of women but this is an attack on the rights of all the people in
Israel,” she stated, adding: “Their behavior is causing violence. It is no
longer about them asking us to respect their beliefs; they want to turn the
whole of Israel into Iran.”
Ben-Dov is not only referring to the unrest
in Beit Shemesh but to incidents elsewhere in which women were physically or
verbally attacked by members of the ultra-Orthodox community for not moving to
the back of public buses or were forced to walk on a particular side of the
street simply because of their gender. There have also been cases in which
women’s roles were either diminished or completely removed from public events
after requests or complaints from some haredim.
“Israel is a country for
all of us,” pointed out the WIZO chairwoman. “There is nothing written in any
civil or Jewish law that challenges the place of women alongside men and there
are even religious women who are against what has been happening.”
continued: “These people are trying to intimidate everyone, including their own
women who are too afraid to speak out. They are hypocrites because they rely on
their women to survive but at the same time want to exclude them from public
Ben-Dov said that Israeli society has tolerated this behavior for
many years but “this does not mean that we should continue.”
“It is the
dream of all Jews to have a democratic state where women serve in the army, in
politics and in the government and it is time for us to stand up to this
phenomenon and not allow a fringe community to take away our rights,” she
declared. “This is a battle for democracy in our country.”
According to the most recent figures published by the Central Bureau of
Statistics, roughly 9 percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as haredi, an
additional 10% identify themselves as religious and 38% as traditional.
The same data shows that 43% of Israel’s Jews
see themselves as secular.
Since the founding of the state, the status
quo between Israel’s religious and secular communities has been maintained by
both sides observing an agreement reached between the country’s first prime
minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Orthodox parties on the role of Judaism in the
government and the judicial system. Among the points agreed on then were
religious authority over kashrut, Shabbat, Jewish burial and other life-cycle
ceremonies such as marriage, divorce and conversions. The status quo also
included no public transport and closing certain streets to traffic on Shabbat,
as well as not opening stores or places of entertainment.
Hershkowitz, a lecturer in Department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan
University, said this week that he does not believe the backlash against the
ultra-Orthodox or the wave criticisms by politicians and the public will cause
any significant change in this status quo.
“There have not been any
radical changes in the relationship in the past few years even though there have
been some changes on both sides but this is not something new,” said
Hershkowitz, highlighting that in some secular neighborhoods buses do run on
Shabbat and stores are open and similarly in haredi areas segregated buses have
been operating for some time.
However, Hershkowitz believes that there
has been a shift in the attitude of the media on this topic.
“It is not
clear who exactly is behind it, it could be something political but there is
clearly a media campaign and someone who is trying to engineer this situation,”
he observed, pointing out that it could also be due to the media’s need to
bolster sales and improve ratings.
“Obviously, any illegal activities
need to be challenged but most of the people who are going to these protests
have not experienced directly any negative treatment [from the haredi
population],” said Hershkowitz, adding that in this regard, what has been
happening over the past few weeks could not yet be compared to the social
justice protests of the summer.
“I want to emphasize that the incidents
[attacks by the haredim against women] being exposed are severe and they should
not happen but many of the stories come from the media’s imagination and some
are simply provocations,” he said.
“I think the social protests are a
blessing but I do not feel that this is the case here.”
“I DON’T really
know what the problem is,” commented Leah, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Ramat
Beit Shemesh Bet, who stepped out of her apartment on Tuesday night to watch the
rally. “I think its just because its Hanukka and people have nothing better to
Leah said that she did not know of any extremists in her area that
would harass women for how they dress but she did emphasize that it was
inappropriate for secular women to walk into the neighborhood with short sleeves
or an open neckline.
“I grew up in Belgium, so I’m used to seeing secular
people,” said Leah, adding that she did not feel threatened either as a haredi
woman or by those from outside her community.
protesters in Beit Shemesh, however, did not see this as a light issue or a
battle that would end easily or quickly.
It’s true that this problem has
existed for a while, declared Avi Zivotofsky, who has lived in Beit Shemesh for
more than 11 years.
“However, what has changed now is that their [the
haredim’s] numbers have grown, they have moved out of their traditional
neighborhoods and they have become emboldened in their views,” he
“Enough is enough,” joined in Avi’s cousin, Jenny Zivotofsky, a
resident of Efrat, who had been inspired to join the protest after watching the
eight-year-old girl, Na’ama Margolis, retell on the Channel 2 newscast how she
was spat on and cursed by an ultra- Orthodox man.
“This is not only the
fight for Beit Shemesh, it’s a fight for everyone in Israel,” Jenny Zivotofsky
Rabbi Dov Lipman of the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh said that
the rally was only the beginning of the battle and he believes that what is
happening in his town is a lesson for all Israelis.
“We have nothing
against the haredim and we know that the average haredi would not react with
violence but I truly believe that what is happening here is a microcosm of what
could happen nationwide,” he said.
Referring to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, an
ultra-Orthodox leader from New York, Lipman continued: “He said that Jews do not
have to be an angels to function in the world. There is nothing in the Torah
saying how a woman should dress but it does say that a man should have
self-control. What is happening in Beit Shemesh is simply not respectful to the
people and not for the State of Israel.”