Analysis: The power of Na’ama’s tears

Sometimes, the tears of a child can move mountains faster than all the statements and legislation in the world.

Haredi 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haredi 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the past week, the tears of an eight-year-old girl named Na’ama Margolis have become the central image in the conflict between the haredi and the non-haredi world.
Terrified to go to school in Beit Shemesh because of harassment from ultra-Orthodox extremists, Na’ama’s fear of walking 300 meters to class touched a chord deep in Israeli society.
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The conflict is nothing new: The tension has simmered for decades between haredi groups – who want to live in environments suited to their beliefs – and the secular and national-religious communities, who feel increasingly threatened by the encroachment of the haredi lifestyle on their values.
The harassment accompanying the opening of the Orot Girls school in Beit Shemesh in September drew media attention and public outrage, but nothing like the events of the past week: condemnations from the prime minister, the police chief, the finance minister and countless MKs and politicians, not to mention the arrests of men accused of spitting on women and attacking news crews. Only Na’ama’s tears had the power to move so many people.
There are two central questions surrounding the frenzy of attention on the clash between haredim and non-haredim: Why now? And will anything really change?
City Councilor Rachel Azaria, who has led the fight against haredi extremism in Jerusalem for years, said that the recent events in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh pointed to a larger process of soul-searching instigated by the summer of social protests.
“It’s about the identity of the Israeli society, returning the power to the people, figuring out how to live together, knowing that we want to live in this country and that the country is important,” said Azaria.
“Discrimination against women is the same thing – how can we have less of a gap between how the country is run and what is important to us?” she asked. “Israeli society is now starting to check our holes and all the places where we need to improve.
“We are trying to determine what kind of society we are – is this a democracy where the majority decides, or is there a minority that pushes everyone in one direction?” Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, expressed optimism that the events of the last week would lead to meaningful change.
“My assumption is that something will happen; emotions are too high, frustration is too great,” said Regev. “Clearly this is something that has touched gut issues.”
According to Regev, there will be a two-part test, which will determine whether or not there will be meaningful change. The first test is immediate and clear: Do the authorities have the ability to enforce the law? Rabbis in Beit Shemesh associated with the extremist groups have already vowed to replace any signs that were removed demanding modest dress or that women cross the street. Beit Shemesh announced on Monday that 400 cameras will be mounted around the city to try to stop harassment. Will that be enough? Will the police be enable to enforce the law?
The second test is more difficult to measure, explained Regev. It requires the Israeli public to realize that the issue is not just about discrimination against women or one national-religious girls’ school, but a deeper-rooted problem of haredi extremism that is affecting the lives of all of the residents in issues from civil marriage to conversion.
“It won’t be a real transformation until we realize that it doesn’t start with segregation of women and doesn’t end with removal of signs,” said Regev.
“The main problem I see is that it is not a real awakening to see the pitfalls of religious extremism and infringement of civil liberties,” he said. “This isn’t about civil liberties, it’s about something that attracted the media and is a cause célèbre for the day.”
Still, Regev applauded the attention given to the problem, and the condemnations that have rained down from politicians and leaders across the spectrum, as a meaningful step in the right direction.
Whether or not change results from the increased concern remains to be seen over the coming weeks as police struggle to keep order in Beit Shemesh. Na’ama Margolis has become a local celebrity, as the innocent face of an issue that activists complain politicians have been too slow to address. Because sometimes, the tears of a child can move mountains faster than all the statements and legislation in the world.