Will society stay strong against haredi extremists?

Analysis: After years of haredi protests over secular impropriety or immodesty the majority of Israelis are gearing up to protest back.

Haredi man near a bus 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Haredi man near a bus 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
MK Tzipi Hotovely, chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, took a courageous step Thursday.
She rode on a Jerusalem bus line that for years has been designated as “kosher mehadrin,” offering ultra-Orthodox residents the gender segregated transport they desire.
However, unlike other women who passively sit at the back of these buses, Hotovely sat at the front.
“We cannot let certain groups to live in a de facto autonomous state inside the State of Israel,” stated Hotovely, whose goal was to make a stand against all attempts at religious coercion and prove the point that women should be treated equally to men.
Hotovely’s statement and her actions have become a trend in recent weeks, as mainstream Israeli society wakes up to the fact that for years the haredi community, at least in Jerusalem, has been living as a separate state within the state.
While living according to their own beliefs has been the norm for decades, what pushed the majority of Israelis out of their slumber are a spate of recent acts and actions against women all over the country, most notably in the city of Beit Shemesh.
By now most people – even outside of Israel – are familiar with the story of eight-year-old Na’ama Margolis, who on national television last Friday night described her intense fear of walking to school after being spat on by an ultra-Orthodox extremist living adjacent to her own neighborhood.
The little girls tears captured many people’s hearts.
They also inspired more than a thousand people to take to the streets of Beit Shemesh this week in a rally that featured numerous politicians and civil society leaders calling for an end to religious intimidation. The next day, women’s rights groups also took up the battle staging a similar protest in central Tel Aviv.
Both events came in addition to powerful news headlines highlighting one incident after another where non-haredi women were attacked, insulted, segregated or simply eliminated from the public sphere.
All this suggests that after years of haredi protests over secular impropriety or immodesty, after impossible-to-count violent demonstrations over parking lots, malls, restaurants and streets being open on Shabbat, the majority of Israelis are gearing up to protest back – to protest for their own rights.
In addition to the public and the media, multiple comments and commitments from politicians – including opposition leader and Kadima party chairwoman Tzipi Livni, who said: “Anyone who spits on a little girl on her way to school, spits in the face of all of us” – indicate that the country’s leaders too have lost their patience.
Now, after more than 60 years of a religious- secular status quo, even the attorneygeneral and senior State Prosecution officials are looking to devise legal ways to combat this extremism.
The problem, however, is that while right now the mainstream appears united and adamant that it is time to rein in these religious zealots, what has happened in the past when these situations arise is that ultimately the initial outrage fizzles out.
This is not the first time the ultra-Orthodox have attempted to impose their beliefs on everyone else.
The late 1990s saw some of the fiercest battles in Jerusalem over attempts by the haredim to close the main thoroughfare, Bar-Ilan Street, on Shabbat.
More recently, in the summer of 2009, the fight was over the Jerusalem Municipality’s attempts to keep open the Carta Parking lot for easy access to the Old City on Shabbat.
In both these cases, the haredi ferocity allowed them to win the battle.
Of course this time the fight is not over an inanimate object, such as a street or a parking lot, but over the status and dignity of women, who make up more than half the population of this country. This could be why this time round we are seeing such a backlash from most people, including members of the haredi community, in Israel.
Since the protest Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh, there have been calls by the ultra- Orthodox extremists protest back in an attempt to protect their own rights and maybe out of fear that they are being unfairly targeted. Only time will tell if these demonstrations go ahead and it remains to be seen if, like in the past, they turn ugly and violent.
If that happens, there is also the possibility that the mainstream and its leadership will once again back down on the condition – even if its only temporary – that these extreme ultra-Orthodox sects go back to continue living in their state within a state and leave them alone.