Separation Struggle

Police help the residents of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood to work out a modus vivendi.

Mea She'arim 521 DONT USE AGAIN (photo credit: SERGE ATTAL / FLASH 90)
Mea She'arim 521 DONT USE AGAIN
(photo credit: SERGE ATTAL / FLASH 90)
The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem were taking no chances that men and women would intermingle immodestly during the Sukkot festival in mid-October.
They had already set up the iron barricades, covered with coarse white canvas, along Mea Shearim Street, the crowded main thoroughfare. Guards and ushers, hired by the community from private security firms, were on hand, to guarantee that the men would walk on the sidewalks on one side of the road, and women on the other, and that immodestly dressed women would not be allowed to walk anywhere.
Every year during Sukkot, especially in the evenings, tens of thousands of visitors come to Mea Shearim to watch the festivities, especially the traditional simchat beit hashoeva celebrations. The ultra-conservative community heads had set up the same barriers in 2010 and had kept them up in defiance of an order by the High Court of Justice to dismantle them.
Last year, they had even attempted to prevent women who are not residents of the neighborhood from walking on “their” streets during the holiday, in order to avoid “licentious immodest and physical contact between the sexes.” Women riding on buses that passed through the neighborhood were instructed to get off the bus before it entered Mea Shearim.
Reform and Orthodox youth movement members, along with others, demonstrated and thousands of tourists stayed away, but the barriers stood throughout the holiday, although the ban on “foreign women” was not enforced.
Separation between men and women, including on buses, in lines at the supermarket and at pharmacies, and even in waiting rooms in medical clinics, is becoming more and more common, especially in cities such as Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak.
There are gender-segregated entrances to the Western Wall plaza, which has never been designated as an ultra-Orthodox site.
In the face of the demands of community extremists, who often do not hesitate to use physical violence to enforce their will, public space in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods is increasingly gender-segregated.
Indeed, since the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the emancipation of Central and Western European Jews, the ultra-Orthodox have continuously tried to separate themselves from their surroundings in order to maintain their strict adherence to Jewish law. In this context the increasing emphasis on gender separation and modesty can be seen as an attempt by a zealous group to “keep the public in line,” even as the ultra-Orthodox in Mea Shearim are increasingly exposed to the influences of the modern world.
Men and wome n in Mea Shearim have told The Report that they oppose these escalating trends. Yossi Deutsch, a city councilman from the Torah Judaism Party tells The Report, “It isn’t the secular who suffer from these extremists; it’s us, the residents of Mea Shearim.”
Most assume that the violence is the work of the Sikarikim, a shadowy group that has appointed itself the keeper of Mea Shearim morality. The Sikarikim, considered among the most extreme of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta movement, who oppose the existence of the State of Israel because they believe that only God can reinstate Jewish sovereignty, take their name for the original Sicarii who, 2,000 years ago, while fighting the Roman occupation of Judea, did not hesitate to murder fellow Jews who disagreed with them.
Fearing the violence, local residents have generally acquiesced and long demanded that only strong intervention by the state, especially by the police, would help them reclaim their streets.
Dudi Zilbershlag, a publicist for the Haredi movement, believes that the extremism is a response to trends in the secular community.
“The more permissive and modern the secular community is, the more the ultra-Orthodox community closes inward, because we are afraid and close ourselves off even more,” he tells The Report and calls on the police to intervene to protect the residents.
Founder of the ZAKA rescue organization,Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, once one of the more extreme representatives of the Eda Haharedit, the umbrella organization of several of the most extreme Hassidic sects who oppose Zionism, tells The Report that he fears that the violence will soon be out of control, and that it is up to the police to maintain order.
And indeed, it was the intervention by the police in the first days of the seven-day Sukkot holiday (celebrated for eight days in the Diaspora) that made the difference.
In the past, Jerusalem District Police Commander Nisso Shaham tells The Report, the police had often treated the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods as if they were ex-territorial. This year, however, the police, under the direct orders from Shaham, who personally oversaw the activity, removed the barriers and the private guards and ushers, leaving the main thoroughfares open for both men and women.
Tourists – some “immodestly” dressed – together with ultra-Orthodox families strolled together along the streets, enjoying the cool autumn air and the festive atmosphere.
Yet not everyone was pleased. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, a revered elder member of the Eda Haredit, tells The Report that while the violent extremists are a small group “of irresponsible men who do not listen to their rabbis, this is an internal matter,” to be resolved within the community.
But public space, insists Jerusalem City Councilwoman Rachel Azaria, is not an internal matter. Azaria appealed to the High Court demanding that last year’s ruling, which affirmed that gender separation is illegal, be enforced.
During the hearing, which took place on October 16, Shaham made it clear to the court that the appeal was unnecessary, since his forces had already removed the barriers and that the police “are determined to maintain law and order in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.”
In response to the police activity, the court declined to issue another ruling at this time.
Left in place off Mea Shearim Street was a corridor about 60 feet long, marked off by six-foot high canvas walls, leading from the main road to the women’s entrance to the center of the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect, known to be one of the most extreme in terms of gender separation. Shaham told the court that he would not “promise the community” that he would leave this corridor in place in the future, but acceded to it this year in order to maintain order.
Only women who had tickets – that is, women whose dress had been previously approved by the rabbis of the Toldot Aharon community, including this reporter who was granted special access – were allowed to pass through the corridor, which led to the three-floor high women’s section. Dressed in black clothing and heavy black stockings, dark-colored kerchiefs completely covering their heads, hundreds of women watched through openings in the walls as the men, dressed in their distinctive gold-striped frocks, with fox fur-covered streimels (headgear) on their heads, danced ecstatically below.
Secure in their own community center, the men and women carefully separated, they seemed to care little about the secular- Orthodox struggles over public space.