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.”

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 public.
  “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 the building.
  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 religious grounds.
  “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.

A spitting incident sets off Israeli frustration with Jewish zealotry
  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.
By Joshua Mitnick, Correspondent / December 27, 2011

  Beit 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.
  For 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 the army.
  "I 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."
  In 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.
  The 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 exclusion proliferate.
  They 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.
  "This 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."
  In 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.
  In a statement, the Haredi rabbis of Beit Shemesh insisted that even without the signs, ultra-Orthodox women would follow rules of modesty.
  "It is 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.
  Since 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.
  In 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 overnight.

  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.
  More 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.
  "It 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."
  The 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.
  After 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.
  With 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.
  Haredi 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.
  "The 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."
  But 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.
  But 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.
  "The 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."
  For 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
  David 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.
  "The 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.
  "In 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."
  Back 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."