On the offensive

The gender-segregation barriers in Mea She’arim were less prominent than last Succot. What has changed?

Mea Shearim segregation 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea Shearim segregation 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There seem to be some rituals that, though they have not been ruled by our sages, have become Jerusalem’s symbols – like, for example, a petition to the High Court of Justice ahead of Succot, against gender segregation in the Mea She’arim area. The result of this year’s petition was that the High Court ordered city council member Rachel Azaria to withdraw her petition against segregation barriers in return for a commitment by the police that they would not allow segregation in the neighborhood, except at the entrance to the women’s section of synagogues.
Last year, the zealots of Toldot Aharon and the Eda Haredit decided that during the “Simhat Beit Hashoeva” festival (which takes place on the intermediate days of Succot), access to the neighborhood would be allowed only through gender-separated lanes. An ugly fence was raised overnight on Mea She’arim’s main street, and a private security company was in charge of forcing women – sometimes quite rudely – to use only the side allotted them.
As a result, some associations for human rights – the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), city council members Rachel Azaria (Yerushalmim) and Laura Wharton (Meretz), and a group of feminist students decided to go to court and march in the heart of Mea She’arim.
It is difficult to say whether the threat of dozens of young women, not necessarily dressed according to Toldot Aharon’s strict dress code, was the reason that this year the “gender separation” in the haredi neighborhood has been reduced to a short (about 20-meter) corridor leading women directly to the women’s section of one of the major synagogues.
Anat Hoffman, head of IRAC, said she and her organization had no problem with that, and didn’t go to court this year.
But Azaria and Wharton were not satisfied.
Azaria told this reporter that on Thursday evening, October 13, she had gone to Mea She’arim and found fences along the street, and that a few guards had made her move to the women’s side. On Friday morning, I went to Mea She’arim, but saw only the above-mentioned short separated entrance from Shivtei Yisrael Street to the Toldot Aharon Synagogue.
Asked if the threat of a new High Court case had been behind the changes on the ground overnight, Azaria answered that she was not prepared to take any risk that women would be humiliated again, and announced that she wouldn’t withdraw her petition to the High Court.
If, as haredi and police sources say, there are no offensive fences this year in Mea She’arim, it is worth trying to understand what has changed since last year. What really happened inside the most zealous circles in Mea She’arim? Well, it depends whom you ask. According to sources in the Jerusalem Police, the arrest of eight members of the Sikarikim group less than two weeks before Rosh Hashana had a huge effect.
It not only frightened the zealots, it also gave the more moderate circles – those who suffer the most from these Sikarikim – the strength to put limits on their influence. The police action is the result of discreet and long-running conversations between representatives of the police and moderate haredi leaders.
No one in haredi circles would be likely to say that some sanity has come back to the streets of Mea She’arim thanks to the Zionist police following the arrest of the Sikarikim, but everybody here understands that this open, fierce and assertive attitude by the police has perhaps changed some of the rules of the game.
However, not all the rules have changed. Despite its popularity, including in secular society, entrance for women to Mea She’arim’s Simhat Beit Hashoeva festival has been restricted, at least in the synagogues of Toldot Aharon, to members of that community. Too bad, but fair enough – after all, it is their home, and they are entitled to decide whom they want to see and whom they don’t.