The violence in Mea Shearim coming from proponents of public gender segregation has apparently started to get personal. Several activists who have been particularly vocal or public in their opposition to gender segregation say they have been threatened and stalked by gender-segregation fanatics in Jerusalem.
Avital Livny, the Volunteer Coordinator for the organization Yisrael Hofshit [“Free Israel”], whose contact details were posted on flyers and Facebook pages in advance of recent protests against gender segregation on the streets of Mea Shearim, reports receiving dozens of threatening phone calls trying to stop the organization’s activity. Similarly, Rona Orovano, the Vice Chair of the Bezalel Academy Student Union and founder of the Organizational Forum for a Free Jerusalem, said she has received threatening phone calls, emails and Facebook messages such as, “We are waiting for you with rocks,”and “We know where you live” — and even a death threat.
Orovano’s umbrella organization, made up ofmore than 20 groups from across the religious and political spectrum in Israel, has been conducting protests over the past month along with other groups such as Yisrael Hofshit against gender barriers on the public streets and on buses. “You had to see what was going on in Me’ah Shearim during Sukkot”, Orovano said. “Haredi men were shouting in megaphones screaming at people to separate. Men to this side, women to this side. You had couples walking down the street with a stroller, and these guys were screaming at them to separate. It’s crazy.”
A recent protest against gender segregation, attended by 100 men and women — religious and secular — followed two important court rulings, one that stated that it is against the law to set up gender barriers in public areas, and the other that protesters should be allowed to march the streets along Strauss Street as far as Kikar Hashabbat, which is in the heart of Mea Shearim. As a result of these rulings, the gender barriers were removed.
In Israel, segregated bus lines have been operating for about 10 years in different cities and neighborhoods, despite an ongoing legal battle, and in fact the Egged Bus Company recently announced that they are adding more segregated lines around the country. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ordered Transport Ministry Yisrael Katz (Likud) to give recommendations, and the committee he appointed said that segregation on buses should not be allowed. But Katz thus far refuses to comply with the recommendations of his own committee and has come out in favor of the amorphous “voluntary segregation.”
Tali Feldman, 28-year old activist with Elah, an international feminist student body fighting against sexual harassment at the university and other feminist causes, often rides the segregated buses, and refuses to sit in the back. “It’s really frightening,” she says of the experience. “All these men screaming at me and staring at me — there have been times when I’ve been scared for my life. One time there was so much screaming that the bus driver pulled over and refused to drive.”
Significantly, the activists have been buoyed by the religious women have been at the forefront of the struggle against gender segregation. “Haredi women were watching us from the windows during the protest,” recalled Laura Wharton, Jerusalem City Councilwoman for the secular Meretz Party, who has been instrumental in organizing the protests. “We received a few phone calls from Haredi women who said they were really grateful.”
Wharton added: “The truth is, there is probably only a small minority of people in the community who think that the extreme gender segregation is right. But the rest are unwilling or unable to protest.”
According to this recent report in The Jerusalem Post, the group responsible for most extreme behavior is a small sect called the Sikrikim, which allegedly threatens people physically and verbally who are not perceived as conformist and obedient enough to the strictest regulations.