Secular group marches against Mea Shearim segregation

Free Israel movement pelted with bottles and diapers as they march through ultra-Orthodox neighborhood; haredim call march "provocation."

gender separation 311 (photo credit: Jeremy Sharon)
gender separation 311
(photo credit: Jeremy Sharon)
A march staged by the Free Israel secularist movement through Mea She’arim in Jerusalem Saturday night was pelted with bottles, stones and diapers by ultra-Orthodox residents of the neighborhood.
The march was held to protest the failure of the High Court of Justice to enforce its ruling outlawing male-female segregation during Succot for the second year in a row.
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The 40 men and women participating in the march tried to walk down Mea Shearim Street shortly after Shabbat ended, but were forced to turn around due to the number of projectiles thrown at them.
According to one of the activists, Ilai Harsegor-Hendin, the group then waited for a police escort consisting of dozens of officers to attempt to re-enter the neighborhood, but both the police and the activists were once again violently attacked with stones, bottles and other projectiles.
The police tried to disperse the rioters but the march was eventually called off.
“We were trying to exercise the right to freedom of movement, but in the end we just proved that there are areas in Jerusalem which are apparently not part of the State of Israel,” Harsgor-Hendin told The Jerusalem Post.
Director of Free Israel Mickey Gitzin denied that the march was a provocation.
“This wasn’t a demonstration, we didn’t have signs or banners, but were just exercising our right to walk freely in any place at any time, in this country,” he told the Post.
During this year’s Succot festival, as in the previous year, separation barriers were erected along sections of Mea She’arim Street to prevent “intermingling” between men and women, when thousands of people pass along the narrow road for the Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations staged during the intermediate days of the holiday.
Last Sunday, the High Court reiterated its 2010 ruling that the practice was illegal, and instructed the police to remove the barriers, along with stewards employed to enforce the separation, and further instructed the police to ensure that the situation is not repeated next year.
Shmuel Poppenheim, an unofficial spokesman for the haredi community, said that there were extremists on both sides trying to drag each other into conflict, but called the march an unnecessary provocation.
“[The protesters] are militant activists who simply want to create a few headlines,” he said. “If they really wanted to advance women’s rights they could have arranged for discussions with the police, the municipality and the haredi community.
“Regardless, no laws were broken during the holiday; the barriers were put up to create order in very narrow streets and allow easy access to the entrances and exits in a few meters along the street,” Poppenheim said, adding that the High Court justices had no idea what actually had been erected as they’d never visited the neighborhood during the holiday.
“No one asked these people to get involved – no one asked for their help,” he added.
“And they aren’t harmed by the measures taken during Hol Hamoed [the intermediate days of the holiday].”
But the Free Israel movement said that the segregation was another sign of growing radicalization among the haredi community.
“It’s a growing trend. It doesn’t matter that the barriers only stretched for a short length of the street, because this phenomenon is growing,” Poppenheim said, pointing to instances of segregation on buses and in supermarkets, as well as attempts to prevent pictures of women appearing on billboards and advertisements.
“Unless we address the issue, however small it may seem, and unless the High Court enforces the law, this trend will only widen,” Gitzin argued, adding that the importance of maintaining one law for all was another important component of their opposition to the separation barriers.
The Free Israel movement emphasized that the issue of segregation is also not the only concern.
“There is one law for everyone,” said Gitzin. “We cannot have the establishment by one community of a state within a state.”