One would not expect to see Eda Haredit leader Yehuda Meshi Zahav and Shahar Ilan, deputy director of Hidush, an association to promote equality and freedom of religion, in the same room. Yet on Monday night the two leaders, together with three representatives of the haredi and religious Zionist communities, spoke to a small but vocal crowd at Beit Avi Chai in the second session in a series of dialogues among representatives of the haredi, religious Zionist and secular communities.
The panel was organized by Wake Up Jerusalem (Hitorerut Yerushalayim), a political group established in 2008 with the aim of creating a viable future for the city's youth. As a member of the Free Jerusalem coalition, Hitorerut joined more than 2,000 concerned citizens at a protest on Saturday night against the increasing haredization of Jerusalem, haredi violence during recent Shabbat protests and last month's arrest of Nofrat Frenkel for wearing a tallit and carrying the Torah at the Western Wall. (According to a Supreme Court ruling, women are allowed to do so only at Robinson's Arch, adjacent to the Western Wall.)
The same Hitorerut members who took to the streets to demonstrate are also committed to encouraging dialogue among Jerusalem's religious streams. For this reason, they have created a forum for pressing religious issues to be discussed in a respectful and constructive manner. The first panel in September focused on Shabbat; Monday night's session looked at the controversial issue of gender segregation in public places, in particular on Egged buses.
"It is important to understand that we didn't demonstrate on Shabbat against the haredi community; rather we demonstrated against the behavior of some members of the haredi community and their violence during recent demonstrations," explained Shlomo Pashkos, an organizer of the series and active member of Hitorerut and Free Jerusalem.
"There is no contradiction between opposing all forms of violence and being prepared to listen to the other side. We all agree that Jerusalem is a unique city. It isn't Tel Aviv, and we don't want it to be Tel Aviv. We want it to remain unique and are interested in hearing how both sides perceive Jerusalem and to find some sort of line in the middle that is appropriate for everyone," said Pashkos.
Alongside Meshi Zahav and Ilan on the panel sat Rabbi Ya'acov Shapira, founder and head of Midreshet Ye'ud, a modern Orthodox learning institute; novelist and activist Naomi Ragen; and Rabbanit Rivka Shimon, a well-known matchmaker in the haredi world and supporter of the segregated bus lines.
The panelists were asked three questions and were given five minutes to respond. Topics included where the line could be drawn between wanting to protect religious values and not infringing on the rights of individuals; their vision of how the Western Wall should be managed; and whether compromise was possible. While responses varied, all agreed that compromise was unlikely.
Before the panel began, Ilan explained he was not willing to compromise on the issue of segregation on buses and did not feel that the haredi community was willing to make concessions. "The haredim are not prepared to compromise on the issue of Shabbat, are not willing to compromise on the issue of yeshivot, nor are they willing to educate their children about the importance of work. There is a lot of room for dialogue between the religious and the secular, but not with the haredim."
At the other end of the spectrum, Meshi Zahav expressed outrage at the secular community's interference in issues that are important to the haredim. "Why is it your issue? There is always going to be a small group of people that will be opposed to all issues relating to kedusha [sanctity] and Judaism."
Shimon offered a similar perspective. In one instance she said that the immodesty of secular women was the reason segregation was needed and that the secular population was fighting a losing battle, which could only be won if secular women took it upon themselves to have more children to match the growing haredi demographic. When asked about a solution, she said that eventually secular Jews would no longer want to be secular and would return to the faith.
Ragen expressed mixed views on the topics. Unlike Ilan, who would like to see the Western Wall treated as primarily a national rather than a religious site, she believes that women should not go to the Wall wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah. However, on the issues of bus lines, Ragen, who in 2007 petitioned the High Court of Justice against the gender-segregated bus lines, responded angrily to Meshi Zahav's suggestion that haredi religious practices should not concern the rest of the community.
"If there was a private bus line for haredim and they chose to separate men and women, I don't have a problem with that. But when I get on to an empty bus on Rehov Straus and there is no sign on it that there is supposed to be separation between men and women and I sit on a seat and a haredi man comes and screams at me because I have decided to sit in the front section, then I do indeed think we have a problem here," she said.
"In a synagogue I sit in the women's section. But a bus is not a synagogue. It is a public space. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein made a psak [religious ruling] 30 years ago that there is no problem for a man to sit next to a woman on a bus. People say 'But that is what the religion says.' Which religion? Definitely not Judaism. The wonderful work of Zaka [Disaster Victims Identification, the organization that Meshi Zahav heads] that you are doing so the haredim will be respected is simply being destroyed," she said.
Offering perhaps the most mixed response of the night, Shapira expressed a deep identification with the haredi world view. "In general when men and women sit together, it can cause discomfort, particularly for women. I respect that there are people who don't want to have to look up and see non-tzanua women," he explained.
In addition, Shapira argued strongly against religious coercion, saying that although modesty is of the utmost importance, enforcing religious values could create significant problems and resentment among the rest of the community.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>