The harassment of a schoolgirl by Beit Shemesh's ultra-Orthodox
community has ignited mainstream Israelis' simmering frustrations with
the religious community's growing influence.
A spitting incident sets off Israeli frustration with Jewish zealotry
Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism
Jewish men in Beit Shemesh, Israel, rallied around a sign that reads in
Hebrew: “Women are asked not to linger in this area.”
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: December 27, 2011
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — The latest battleground in Israel’s struggle
over religious extremism covers little more than a square mile of this
Jewish city situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it has the
unexpected public face of a blond, bespectacled second-grade girl.
Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of American immigrants who are
observant modern Orthodox Jews, has been spat on and otherwise insulted
by ultra-Orthodox men and boys on her way to school because her modest
dress did not adhere to their standards.
An Israeli weekend television program told the story of how Naama had
become terrified of walking to her elementary school here after
ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a
prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their
more rigorous dress code.
The country was outraged. Naama’s picture has appeared on the front
pages of all the major Israeli newspapers. While Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Sunday that “Israel is a democratic,
Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel
will be open and safe for all,” there have been days of confrontation
at focal points of friction here.
Ultra-Orthodox men and boys from the most stringent sects have hurled
rocks and eggs at the police and journalists, shouting “Nazis” at the
security forces and assailing female reporters with epithets like
“shikse,” a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman or girl, and
“whore.” Jews of varying degrees of orthodoxy and secularity headed to
Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening to join local residents in a protest
numbering in the thousands against religious violence and fanaticism.
For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to
school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul
of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been
increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict
interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the
exclusion of women.
The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks
and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where
female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a
religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been
challenging the seating arrangements on strictly “kosher” buses serving
ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female
passengers are expected to sit at the back.
The virulent coercion in Beit Shemesh has been attributed mainly to a
group of several hundred ultra-Orthodox extremists who came here from
Jerusalem, known as the Sicarii, or daggermen, after a violent and
stealthy faction of Jews who tried to expel the Romans in the decades
before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Religious extremism is hardly new to Israel, but the Sicarii and their
bullying ilk push with a bold vigor that has yet to be fully explained.
Certainly, Israel’s coalition politics have allowed the ultra-Orthodox
parties to wield disproportionate power beyond the roughly 10 percent
of the population they currently represent.
The ultra-Orthodox community’s rapidly increasing numbers — thanks to
extraordinarily high birthrates — may also have emboldened the hard
core, as may have their insular neighborhoods. And their leadership
appears to lack moderating brakes.
In any case, the extremists have provoked an outpouring of opposition
from all those who are more flexible, be they ultra-Orthodox, modern
Orthodox, mainstream or secular. In fact, it was an ultra-Orthodox-led
group that claimed at least part of the credit for making Naama’s story
“We are working to save our city and to save our homes,” said Dov
Lipman, 40, a local activist, rabbi and self-defined modern
ultra-Orthodox, who moved to Beit Shemesh from Silver Spring, Md.,
seven years ago. Seizing on the public mood of rejecting ultra-Orthodox
bullying, Mr. Lipman and a group of supporters have been lobbying the
Israeli Parliament, organizing protests and recently hired a media
consultant. He said that is how Naama’s story came out.
Built near the ruins of an ancient city of that name mentioned in the
Bible, Beit Shemesh was established in 1950, first drawing mostly poor
immigrants from North Africa, then immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and
English-speaking countries. With the construction of the new
neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh A and B in the 1990s, the
ultra-Orthodox population boomed. Residents say 20,000 more planned
housing units are earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox.
In Ramat Beit Shemesh B, signs on the walls of buildings call for
modesty, exhorting women and girls to dress in buttoned-up,
long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. Outside a synagogue on Hazon Ish
Street in the Kirya ha-Haredit quarter, a sign requested that females
should cross to the opposite sidewalk and certainly not tarry outside
Naama’s school, Orot, opened in September in an area with a large
community of English-speaking observant Jews that borders on the
strictest ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. She quickly found she had to
run a miserable gantlet to get to school, even dressed in long sleeves
and long skirts.
Riots broke out on Monday when the police accompanied media crews into
Hazon Ish Street, the area where Naama’s tormentors are believed to
have come from. Hundreds of black-garbed men and boys poured out of the
synagogue and an adjacent seminary holding handwritten signs calling
for the exclusion of women, illustrated with the male and female
symbols used for public washrooms. One policeman was injured after
being hit in the head with a rock and several arrests were made before
the crowds dispersed at dusk.
Many of the ultra-Orthodox agitators blamed the news media for the
unrest, saying they had come into the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to
sow hatred and to persecute the residents for their religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, some residents insisted that Beit Shemesh was a tolerant
city, but defended at least some gender separation and modesty on
“I think women are very poorly treated in Western society,” said Cindy
Feder, 57, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh A, who came to Israel from
New York in 1970, and who defines herself as an “open haredi,” the
Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox. She said that the objectification of
women on some billboards made her feel sick.
In the more austere Ramat Beit Shemesh B, a 32-year-old mother of four
defended the gender separation on public transportation, saying that it
was necessary to preserve women’s honor on crowded buses that squeezed
people like “tomato puree.”
But the woman, who gave only her first name, Rivka, for fear of
provoking the disapproval of her neighbors, also told a story that
revealed the costs of separation: one night, the extremists came and
removed all the public benches from the neighborhood, so that the women
could no longer sit outside with their children in the street.
By Joshua Mitnick, Correspondent / December 27, 2011
Shemesh, Israel--The harassment of an 8-year-old girl by ultra-Orthodox
Jews in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh is shaking Israel’s
self image to the core, stirring nationwide outrage about escalating
religious zealotry and creeping public segregation of women.
months, Na’ama Margolis and classmates at her school endured
insults and spitting by the neighborhood's strict Orthodox Jews
– known in Hebrew as "Haredi,'' or God fearing – who
complain that they should dress more modestly. When their story
was featured on a weekend news magazine several days ago, it
ignited already simmering worry about efforts of the
ultra-religious to exclude women in places like public buses or
think the whole country needs to wake up … that
it’s not just a corner in Beit Shemesh,’’ said
Ailsa Coleman, a 42-year-old neighbor who volunteered to escort
Margolis's classmates outside the school and was also spat on.
"It’s happening everywhere."
recent days there have been repeated clashes between
ultra-Orthodox protesters and police and attacks on news crews in
Beit Shemesh. Thousands of protesters gathered in the city
with signs reading "Segregation of Women is my Red
Line’’ and warning of an Israeli theocracy.
segregation reflects the Haredi minority's growing influence
on Israel's politics and economy. Civil rights advocates and
Beit Shemesh locals say that the government and law enforcement
authorities have turned a blind eye, even though the examples of
point to special arrangements for ultra-Orthodox communities where
women are relegated to the rear of the buses, have separate lines in
eateries, and sit in health clinic waiting rooms that are divided by
gender. There are also efforts to erase images of women from
public billboards. Last week, a secular woman was heckled for
riding in the front of one of the buses and pressured to move.
ties into whether we are democratic liberal state that protects
women’s rights, or whether we’re not going to be
a democracy in a future," said Einat Horovitz, a spokeswoman of
the Religious Action Center, an Israeli nonprofit which challenged
the bus segregation in Israel’s Supreme Court. "Politicians
don’t realize that being a democracy isn’t only about
the rule of the majority, its about protecting human rights and
the rights of the minority, and this has escaped our politicians."
Beit Shemesh, prominent signs calling for modest dress
and excluding women from certain sidewalks near synagogues have
been tolerated for years in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood near
the elementary school, which happens to serve a less strict
group of Orthodox Jews.
statement, the Haredi rabbis of Beit Shemesh insisted that even without
the signs, ultra-Orthodox women would follow rules of modesty.
for the honor toward women and the fact that Judaism orders the
separation of men and women in the public sphere," the statement read,
according to a transcript printed on the Ynet News website. It also
asserted that the ultra-Orthodox wish to live in homogenous communities
to allow them to pass on their way of life.
its inception, Israel has allowed ultra-Orthodox communities
remain cut off from the mainstream, allowing them to set up
autonomous school systems, granting them exemptions from
compulsory military service, and providing them with subsidies so they
can focus on religious study rather than joining the workforce.
But their growing numbers – their birthrate is much higher
than the Israeli average – have sparked worry about the
ramifications for the Israeli economy and the influence on society.
Residents and officials said that Haredi community is taking out
its frustration on the pupils because they wanted the school for
their own children. In Beit Shemesh, there’s an ongoing
turf battle between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the
community for new building in the city.
response to the uproar, ultra Orthodox partners in
Israel’s coalition accused Israel's secular media of a witch
hunt against their community and accused Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu of selling out a loyal constituency for political
convenience. Mr. Netanyahu’s said on Tuesday that
segregation of women "contradicts traditional spirit of the Tanakh
(Jewish scriptures, or Old Testament) and Judaism, and contradicts the
democratic principles on which Israel was based."
Observers say that the uproar over segregation shows an enduring chasm
between the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli mainstream.
"Modern society has broken a lot of barriers, and religious
society has kept some of those barriers up," says Aaron
Katsman, a financial advisor and former economic columnist the
ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. "Both sides don’t know how
to deal with each other. You have a meeting of two groups which
have never spoken to each other, and never met each other, and
neither side knows how to deal with it."
The other Israeli conflict: with itself
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose influence is growing, defied a recent ruling
of the secular Supreme Court. A domestic Israeli conflict is brewing
over the Ultra-Orthodox, whose men refrain from military service and
generally choose state-subsidized study over employment.
By Joshua Mitnick, / Correspondent / July 9, 2010
Emmanuel, West Bank--With side curls tucked under wire-rimmed glasses,
Mordechai Krybus has become an ultra-Orthodox celebrity virtually
Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the Emmanuel elementary school, which
his daughter attends, practices de facto ethnic segregation by
separating students along religious lines. Mr. Kyrbus and 35 other
parents went to jail rather than comply with what they considered
religious coercion by the secular court.
than 100,000 ultra-Orthodox supporters poured into the streets of
Jerusalem in June to demonstrate on Krybus's behalf, aggravating
Israel's religious-secular rift. Israel's mainstream press and secular
public were outraged by what they saw as a case of brazen defiance of
the legal system's principle of equality. Israel's ultra-Orthodox
– known in Hebrew as Haredi, or God-fearing – saw a secular
government meddling in the spiritual life of their children.
was worth it to suffer. We were there for ideological reasons. The
rabbis told us what to do," says Krybus, interviewed a day after being
released from 10 days in jail. "We felt we were emissaries for the
Jewish people and that the Haredi world was behind us."
controversy is the latest symptom of what many consider a serious
challenge to Israel's democracy, especially three pillars: its schools,
economy, and military.
Why ultra-Orthodox oppose Zionism
The Haredim oppose Zionism, believing that only the Messiah's return will pave the way for reestablishing their nation.
its 1948 founding, Israel made provisions for the community to refrain
from army service, study instead of work, attend separate schools, and
live in separate towns like Emmanuel – enclaves where Yiddish is
spoken and residents often rely on religious courts.
birthrates three times the Israeli average, Haredi influence is growing
– increasing tensions. Only 5 percent of Israel's population in
1990, Haredim are expected to account for 1 in 3 Jewish children under
age 14 by 2028.
and secular Israel are on a "collision course," says Yossi Klein
Halevi, a fellow at the nonpartisan Shalom Hartman institute in
Jerusalem, which focuses on Jewish affairs.
situation is untenable. The ultra-Orthodox separate themselves from the
rest of the Jewish people. They refuse to participate in the burden of
defending the country. They insist on being subsidized for their
separation and lack of participation," he says, adding that Israel is
too preoccupied with the Arab conflict. "The ultra-Orthodox situation
is a long-term existential crisis, but the Israeli attention span is
dominated by short-term existential crises."
the case against Emmanuel's Beit Yakov girls school touched a raw
nerve. In 2007, parents prevailed upon administrators to essentially
split the school, setting up a divider in the hallways and a fence on
the playground, separating Hasidic Jews – a subset of the Haredim
– from the rest.
the division also fell largely along ethnic lines. The court ruled that
the school was perpetuating decades-old discrimination against
Sephardic Jews – those of Middle Eastern origin.
Kyrbus's act of civil disobedience was based on a belief that Jewish law takes precedence over the secular government.
courts are secular and plainly do not follow the Torah," he says. "We
have no problem with the laws: we pay taxes and follow traffic rules.
But if a judge says, 'Don't listen to the Torah or the rabbis, there is
no way we can comply."
more than a week, the minimum-security prison where the parents were
being held became a pilgrimage site for ultra-Orthodox. By day, in 95
degree F. heat, they listened to Haredi political leaders speak of
government tyranny; by night, they listened to rabbis preach.
Haredim emerging into mainstream Israel
Landau, former editor of the liberal Haaretz newspaper and author of a
book on the ultra-Orthodox community, says the tensions are a result of
Haredim's emergence into the mainstream.
court failed completely to understand the sensitivity of the issue," he
says. "[The ultra-Orthodox] feel like the Jesuits. They've got to
inculcate their young people at a young age with their values to inure
them to the world they are going to encounter."
Menachem Moses, a Haredi member of parliament, confirms that concern.
Bolshevik Russia, they used to do this," says Mr. Moses, who threatened
to add his weight to a no-confidence vote. "In the days of Stalin, if
you don't know, they would take parents to Siberia, and leave the kids
in schools to reeducate them."
in Emmanuel, as Krybus gets a congratulatory handshake from a neighbor,
he says his community is ready to sacrifice all for their principles.
"The state is only 70 years old, but the Torah is 2,000 years old," he
says. "We are ready for everything."