Rally for their right, or challenging status quo?

Haredi extremism backlash by mainstream looks set to upset delicate balance of religious-secular relations.

Beit Shemesh protest 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Beit Shemesh protest 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
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.
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.
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“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 crowd.
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.”
While the 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.”
She 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 life.”
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.
Dr. Isaac 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 do.”
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.
Non ultra-Orthodox 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 said.
“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 said.
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.”