By Lia Tarachansky, The Real News Network – 3 Jan 2012
Secular vs religious tensions rise as women fight segregation in Jewish Halacha law
On New Year’s Eve, thousands of Ultra Orthodox men came out in protest of what they called religious prosecution. In recent weeks, tensions in Israel between religious and secular Jews escalated after Israel’s main TV news, Channel 2 filed a report. It showed Ultra Orthodox men in the city of Beit Shemesh attacking an 8-year old Orthodox girl for not dressing modestly enough. The report sparked nation-wide outrage and brought thousands to Beit Shemesh in protest. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky spoke to Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush as well as to Member of Knesset Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition and MK Sheli Yechimovitch, the leader of the Labor Party.
LIA TARACHANSKY, TRNN: I’m Lia Tarachansky with The Real News in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem. On New Year’s Eve, thousands of Ultra Orthodox men came out in protest of what they called religious prosecution. To emphasize that point they wore yellow Stars of David, with the word Juden, a throw back to Nazi Germany. Because the Ultra Orthodox Haredi community is hierarchal many refused to be interviewed on camera. Ultra Orthodox women do not speak to the media and being a woman myself, I could not interview the men, therefore a male friend had to convey my questions. When we were finally able to convince a group of men to speak with us it was on the condition that we not film their faces.
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: We’re very reluctant to speak to the media. We feel in the past few days we’ve had bad stuff in the media against us. We feel that the media is out to get us, they’re out to paint us in a black picture, that we’re parasites, we’re against women, that we do all kinds of crazy things that we actually don’t do. That’s why we’re reluctant to speak to the media.
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: The… non-Jews… the how do you call them, the Hilonim [secular], they’re very against us. Why they’re against us? Because they don’t… ‘cuz whatever, let’s not go into the reasons for this. They try to undergrade (sic) Judaism. So whenever they have a certain… certain reason for it they’ll jump on it and they’ll do it.
TARACHANSKY: Tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel and the fight against gender-segregation are not new in Israel. To understand it, The Real News spoke with Rabbi Uri Regev.
RABBI URI REGEV, HIDDUSH: Just a couple of days ago, the head of human resources in the army testified before the Knesset committee on Foreign Relations and Security and pointed to the fact that today 26% of Israeli Jewish first graders study in Ultra Orthodox schools and if nothing changes there is room to fear for the security of Israel. Because when it comes to the point where 26% claim exception from military service because of their insistence that they be able to study in Yeshivas and not take part in the civil yolk of defending Israel, of entering into the workforce, etc, then both Israeli security and Israeli economy are going to be under tremendous jeopardy. So today for instance the per capita support for the Yeshiva world is approximately 1.4 billion Shekels, as it is reflected in the updated budget. Something that most Israelis are resenting tremendously.
TARACHANSKY: In recent weeks, tensions in Israel between religious and secular Jews escalated after Israel’s main TV news, Channel 2 filed a report. It showed Ultra Orthodox men in the city of Beit Shemesh attacking an 8-year old girl for not dressing modestly enough. In the report, the girl, Naama Margolese, tells of how every day on her way to school the men spit on her and call her derogatory names. The report sparked nation-wide outrage and brought thousands to Beit Shemesh in protest.
SPEECH (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): It’s time for the government of Israel to stop ignoring incidents of violence against women, vandalism against advertisements with women’s faces, verbal and physical violence and segregation, and all other cases of violence that threaten the nature of this state. This country is not only Jewish but also democratic.
RABBI URI REGEV, HIDDUSH: All studies, all public opinion polls that are conducted in Israel in recent years demonstrate without exception that the majority of the public objects to this imposition. When you ask “are you satisfied with the way the government is handling matters of religion and state?” eighty percent say “we are dissatisfied.” When we go to the nitty gritty, “do you support introducing civil marriages?”, “do you support public transportation on Shabbat?”, “do you support equality to the non-Orthodox streams?”, you find consistently about two thirds of the Israeli Jewish public responding in the affirmative. When you ask questions about should there be equal military service or national service for the Ultra-Orthodox, should they be enforced core curriculum in their schools, should the subsidies be reduced, you again rise in the public response and you find between seventy five to eighty plus percent who say “yes, they should have equal participation in either military or civil service and they should teach core curriculum, etc.”
TARACHANSKY: Beit Shemesh which has seen a boom in ultra-orthodox families moving in, is striving to follow in the footsteps of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. Because Mea Shearim has almost total autonomy and during the New Year’s Eve demonstration police did not even come into the neighborhood. At the entrance street-signs warn groups not to enter and request that women dress modestly. Even during our filming, several men approached us demanding that being a woman, I not stand with my male colleagues on a public balcony.
UNIDENTIFIED: We’re just trying to film…
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Yes, but she’s a woman. She’s a woman. You know, a woman.
UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t understand.
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: It’s not allowed for a woman to be here.
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: No women.
TARACHANSKY: I’m sorry?
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: It’s not allowed for a woman to be here so…
TARACHANSKY: Why is it not allowed for a woman to be here?
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: It’s the legal laws.
TARACHANSKY: It’s the legal laws for whom?
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: From the Torah.
TARACHANSKY: OK, so that’s the Torah laws, not legal laws.
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: That’s legal by Jews
TARACHANSKY: Some orthodox women have taken the segregation practice further by deciding their normal modest clothing was not enough and have adopted a burqa-style dress that completely masks the shape of their body. Ironically this initiative was not respected by the chief rabbis in the community who condemned the women for interpreting the holy texts for themselves.
CHANNEL 2 REPORT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The Hasidi women continue to advocate what they call the Torah of Modesty. The phenomenon now includes thousands of women and is only growing. It is now spreading even to little girls.
TARACHANSKY: However some women have also taken a stand against segregation. Buses that connect Ultra Orthodox communities have become separated in recent years with women being forced to sit in the back. In Jerusalem, a 28 year-old secular student made national headlines when she refused to move to the back of the bus. But opposition has also come from inside the community. Yocheved Horowitz is an ultra orthodox woman from the southern city of Ashdod. Last week she was joined by Ha’aretz journalist Tamar Rotem as they boarded a segregated bus but instead of moving to the back, sat at the front. While one ultra orthodox man demanded they move, she replied, “Nowhere in rabbinical law does it say that it is forbidden to sit behind a woman, not in the Shulchan Arukh and not in the Yoreh De’ah [two classical compilations of Jewish law]. What is written in the Torah and in rabbinical law is that it is forbidden to humiliate sons and daughters of Israel.”
ULTRA ORTHODOX RESIDENT OF MEA SHEARIM: Yeah, so spitting on a girl, that’s definitely not the right thing to do, that’s not everyone, that’s just a few extremists, just like in every, every society there are a few people who… whatever, I’m not explaining. Extremists. But on the other side you have to know that the non-observant Jews, they really hate observant Jews. They don’t like them for no good reason. Why do they have to sit at the front of the bus? It’s like, It’s a Jewish place, it’s a Jewish community so… it’s a private…
TARACHANSKY: Whether it is the work of a few extremists as the Mea Shearim orthodox we interviewed say or a widespread practice, politics plays a major role. While the ultra orthodox make up only 8% of the Israeli population they hold almost 18% of the seats in parliament. That percentage is even higher in the cabinet, for while the ultra orthodox refrain from taking up the visible, ministerial positions, they make up 40% of the ministerial deputies. Religious parties are also a major part of the ruling coalition, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the last elections Tzipi Livni won the majority of the votes but failed to form a coalition with the religious parties, thereby ceeding power to Netanyahu. Previously she was the Minister of Foreign Affairs under Ehud Olmert who that attacked Gaza in 2009. So when the opposition protest in Bet Shemesh took place, Livni, jumped on board. She spoke to The Real News shortly before delivering her speech.
MK TZIPI LIVNI (LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION): This speaks to the nature of the State of Israel. If it’s a country where little girls get spit on and women thrown to the back of the bus…
TARACHANSKY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): But what about freedom of other religions here? Such as the law against the Muslim call to prayer?
LIVNI (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): It’s all connected in my view. Whoever burns a mosque, writes on it “price tag” and spits on girls has the same twisted mentality.
TARACHANSKY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Do you think it says something about freedom of religion here?
LIVNI (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): It means a change is coming, it’s reached a peak, that people have had enough and that’s a good thing.
SPEECH (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The cry we are calling out today, will be heard all the way to Jerusalem and through the Judea valley, and will reach each and every citizen in Israel. The people demand a Zionist Beit Shemesh! The people demand a Zionist Beit Shemesh! The people demand a Zionist Beit Shemesh!
TARACHANSKY: Shelly Yehimovich is the leader of the historically powerful Labor party. She is seen by many as the upcoming opposition leader.
TARACHANSKY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Why do you think they are emphasizing today that this is a Zionist protest? As opposed to what?
MK SHELLY YECHIMOVICH (LEADER, LABOR PARTY): As opposed to Ultra Orthodox elements that don’t recognize the authority of the state. They don’t recognize the authority of the government. They undermine the state’s authority, therefore it is important for them to emphasize that Israel’s identity as a Zionist state is attacked.
TARACHANSKY: Last year several Israeli women turned to the Supreme Court leading to a ruling that banned gender segregation on all busses, whether private or public. The Ultra Orthodox saw this as discrimination, saying the state is getting involved in their religious practices. They therefore continue to unofficially segregate buses. Despite the feminist tones in this movement it has not raised issues of the rights of Palestinian women, religious freedom for all, or the occupation. For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Jerusalem.