Who can blame the women of Beit Shemesh for wanting to cut loose? Times have been tough: They’ve been in crisis mode since the opening of school and ultra-Orthodox extremists began harassing the girls at the Orot Banot school. Not to mention the ongoing issues of increased gender segregation on buses, separate sidewalks in parts of town and harassment in the streets of Haredi areas if their dress is deemed insufficiently modest.
And ever since the story of the harassment of school girl Na’ama Margolese hit Israeli television, they’ve also had to cope with the glare of the media spotlight on their community.
So with the goal of generating positive energy and showing the world that they are unbowed in the face of religious extremism, a group of Beit Shemesh women, primarily from the Modern Orthodox community, began a campaign on Facebook to create a female “flash mob” in their community. On the morning January 6, 250 women came together in the center of town to dance joyously in unison to the triumphant upbeat lyrics of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.
Since we’re talking about Beit Shemesh, where even lighthearted activities draw controversy, the flash mob wasn’t immune from attacks.
Some commenters on Internet news reports of the dancing said that by dancing in the streets, they were proving that they deserved the insulting shouts charging them with immodesty. From the left-wing secular quarters came criticism that the event was “antagonistic and “counterproductive.” Roee Ruttenberg argued in +972 Magazine that by holding an all-women event and adhering to the norm of separate-sex dancing at Modern Orthodox events, the dancers themselves were perpetrators of gender segregation they were protesting, and charged them with hypocrisy. He wrote:
What really would have made a statement in Beit Shemesh would have been mixed-gender dancing in the square. That would have been genuinely provocative, though perhaps catastrophically confrontational and counter-productive (and thus, not a move I would have supported). But that would have really been a statement of defiance. But here is the irony: these women, who are happy to antagonize the ultra-Orthodox black-hat extremists (yes, extremists!) of Beit Shemesh, would themselves feel less comfortable (and perhaps equally unwelcoming) to a group of progressive and/or secular Jews coming and having a mixed-gender “flash mob” in the middle of their public square.
Perhaps. But all of the people I’ve met in the non-Haredi community of Beit Shemesh have been pretty welcoming of anyone coming in to support of their struggle, even if their politics and lifestyle aren’t their cup of tea.
In any case, if there’s one thing that Beit Shemesh women are good at by now, it’s rising above criticism, no matter the source. And, when necessary, dancing above it.