Analysis: Gender segregation and Israel’s next war

Society can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to undemocratic practices among ultra-Orthodox.

haredi bus 'mehadrim bus' _311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
haredi bus 'mehadrim bus' _311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Their faces were masked with scarves as they attacked an Israeli television camera crew Sunday, but the angry mob was not made up of Palestinians and had nothing to do with the regional conflict between Israel and the Arab world.
Rather, it was a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish men in the town of Beit Shemesh, not far from Jerusalem, who were displaying their anger over the secular Israeli media’s criticism of their attempts to enforce gender segregation and exclude women from the public sphere.
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The attack took place just days after Channel 2 News aired a segment featuring an area haredi man justifying spitting on a defenseless eight-year- old girl because she was not dressed according to his strict standards of modesty.
Violent protests from factions within the haredi community against “outside” criticisms is nothing new – we witnessed similar attacks not that long ago when the Beit Shemesh municipality opened a religious Zionist girls school in their neighborhood, as well as in Jerusalem a few years ago when a public parking lot was slated to open on Shabbat.
What is new is the secular mainstream’s response to this rage.
Whereas in the past most of Israeli society and the authorities simply tolerated haredi demonstrations and even saw the harassment of women as just part of the “ultra-Orthodox experience,” today ever more people are becoming frustrated with such religious zealotry, which been continuing unchecked for years.
Israeli society – backed by politicians both male and female, on the left and on the right, and even religious and secular – are pretty much in agreement that this extremism and any sort of discrimination against women is wrong and must be stopped.
Last week, at a Tel Aviv conference, female lawmakers and leaders emphasized their determination to halt any more attacks against women’s place in society. This week, women’s rights activists are preparing a mass protest on Wednesday, having already vowed to battle this phenomenon head-on.
Even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu voiced his determination to put an end to this dangerous trend, stating in his cabinet meeting Sunday, “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state. The public sphere is open and safe for everyone – men and women alike. There is no place for harassment or discrimination.”
Netanyahu said that he has already called on the Israel Police to take full action “to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand.”
The problem, however, is that it may be too late for the government to reign in these religious fanatics who seem prepared to defend their extreme beliefs at all costs, even if it means jeopardizing the Jewish state’s precarious religious-secular status quo and even starting some form of civil war.
It is, unfortunately, a battle that has been brewing for decades. Moreover, for far too long successive governments have been focused on the external threats facing the state instead of dealing with society’s internal conflicts, including the growing paradox between religious absolutism and democratic freedom.
While the incident in Beit Shemesh is truly shocking, it is sadly not the first time that a Jewish woman has been the target of the spit of a haredi man.
Many a secular female who might have mistakenly wandered into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim or not taken enough care to observe the “modest dress” signs that have been hanging there for years might be able to tell a similar story.
The same goes for women who have experienced the indignity of riding a public bus through some of country’s most religious neighborhoods.
While it has now become popular to call all those who stand up to these attacks the “Israeli Rosa Parks,” in reality the country needs many more “Rosas” if it really wants to stop this war.
The issue is not only that religious extremism is growing but also that the population that perpetuates this ideology is expanding too.
While these communities used to be concentrated in a few neighborhoods, today they have taken over new areas and are attempting to unilaterally impose their beliefs on all residents.
The crux of this problem was perhaps summed up Sunday with a debate over comments made by Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, who declared in a radio interview that what happens in the haredi community is their own business.
“I’m not sure I mind it if they decide to segregate bus lines in Modi’in Illit or Betar Illit. It’s their way of life. If it doesn’t bother any woman, I’m not sure it bothers me,” said the Likud minister.
While the attitude up until now might have been to ignore certain undemocratic practices among the ultra-Orthodox, what is suddenly becoming painfully clear is that society can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to them.
Not challenging this phenomenon sets a dangerous precedent for the rule of law in Israel, and all forms of segregation in the public sphere should be considered illegal, regardless of where it takes place.