J'lem parents slam 'Taliban' dress code for dance troupe

Allegations of religious coercion leveled at capital's haredi leadership in election year.

bridge dancers 224.88 (photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
bridge dancers 224.88
(photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
A grandiose event marking the inauguration of the new bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem was marred late Wednesday night when a girls' dance troupe performing at the celebration was forced to wear hats to conform to the demands of the haredi-run city hall, the head of the dance troupe said Thursday. The NIS 2 million bash had already been criticized as excessively extravagant and a waste of public funds, when the girls, who ranged in age from 13 to 16, were informed by production organizers several hours before the event that at the municipality's instruction they had to don black knitted hats and wear long clothing for the performance, said Shlomi Hoffman, the director of the Jerusalem dance troupe. The controversy over what media were referring to as the "Taliban dance troupe" brought the sensitive issue of religious coercion in the capital to the fore in an election year. "As an Israeli and a Jerusalemite, it is very painful to see this process of frightening religious extremism," Hoffman said. Hoffman, 58, who comes from a traditional home, said it was clear that Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski was involved in the "extremist" decision which, he said, started unfolding late Tuesday night when Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Yehoshua Pollack of the mayor's United Torah Judaism Party called the girls "promiscuous" in an interview with a haredi radio station and vowed that they would not appear at the event. The head of the dance troupe noted that the girls - who were also informed an hour before the event that they could not perform three out of four of their planned dances - had danced in the official state Independence Day ceremony just one month ago on Mount Herzl in virtually the same attire. "This was not a religious event or an event at the Western Wall, but an event for the public at large for the inauguration of a bridge," Hoffman said. The girls' parents expressed outrage Thursday over the incident. "[Up to] this very moment, I cannot understand how we allowed this to happen, and why we did not stop the performance," said Jerusalem resident Marcel Levy, whose 15-year-old daughter was a member of the dance troupe. "Since when do you force 15-year-old girls to cover up their hair?" "This incident takes us back to the days of the Taliban," said Avi Ben-David, also of Jerusalem, whose 15-year-old daughter was also part of the performance. "This should serve as a wake-up call to Jerusalem's non-haredi voters ahead of the mayoral elections, and maybe this time they will [get out of] their apathetic state." Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat said Thursday that a red line had been crossed by the haredi city leadership, which smacked of a pattern to drive secular residents out of the city. "The treatment that these Jerusalem pupils received at an official state ceremony is embarrassing, and events like these clarify yet again why there is continued [Jewish] emigration from the city," he said. "There must be mutual understanding in the city and not blatant dictation by Lupolianski and the religious leadership of the city." In a terse statement, Lupolianski spokesman Gidi Schmerling said that Pollack did not speak for the mayor. He declined further comment. City officials said that Lupolianski's hand had been "forced" by Pollack. Lupolianski is eager to gain his rabbi's approval to run again in this year's mayoral elections and not step down in favor of an alternate haredi candidate, Meir Porush - who has Pollack's backing - as part of a party rotation agreement. Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Yigal Amedi asserted Thursday in an Israel radio interview that the controversy over the girls' dress code was nothing more than "an election-year manipulation." He even denied that city officials had forced the girls to change their attire, suggesting it had been the decision of the production managers alone.