Sisterhood Blog

Israel's Unlikely 'Feminists of Zion'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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An ultra-Orthodox protestor clashes with an Israeli police officer during a prayer service held by Women Of The Wall on May 10, 2013 in Jerusalem.

The cover story, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” in the new issue of The New Republic is required reading for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the war against women playing out in Israel wherever extremist Haredi Jews hold sway against the images or presence of women — or even little girls — in public.

The article is written by former Sisterhood contributor (and current Haaretz columnist) Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate senior columnist Dahlia Lithwick. It uses the story of one national religious (modern Orthodox) resident of Beit Shemesh, Nili Phillip, who in 2011 was stoned by Haredim while riding her bike, as the frame for a discussion of both the larger issues and many of the specific ways in which Haredi pressure has been brought to bear on women’s visibility and safety.

The well-written, exhaustively reported piece looks specifically at the unlikely alliance between Phillip and other modern Orthodox women — most of them reluctant to embrace the feminist label — and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. IRAC began to work with Orthodox women’s groups in 2008, filing lawsuits that challenged rules requiring female mourners to stand separately from their male relatives in government cemeteries, and in some places barring women from eulogizing. As TNR’s article states, IRAC filed suits against Haredi radio stations, operating with government licenses, that barred women’s voices on the basis of modesty, and has subsequently gone on to file small claims court cases against bus companies and drivers for failing to uphold Israeli laws requiring gender segregation to be voluntary. Three of the six women on whose behalf IRAC sued were Orthodox.

The story includes video of the news program report on Beit Shemesh, called “Between the Suns” (hosted by Yair Lapid, a journalist before he was voted in to the government in the last elections).

Beit Shemesh continues to be Israel’s Ground Zero for Haredi-non-Haredi tensions as played out over gender segregation, and the resulting violence when someone refuses to conform. Beit Shemesh is where little Na’ama Margolese and dozens of other modern Orthodox girls were spit at and jeered as “sluts” and “gentiles” in 2011, when Haredim were attempting to take over their school, Orot Banot. Just last week a non-Haredi Orthodox woman actually attempted to comply with a Haredi request that she move to the back of the bus they were riding from Beit Shemesh to Bnei Brak when the driver called the police. Haredi protesters later smashed the windows of two other buses with stones and a hammer.

Despite intermittent court victories and rulings from government ministers, the violence promises to continue.

As Kaplan Sommer and Lithwick’s article notes:

The conflict has only become more intense as the growing Haredi population has expanded in “mixed” Israeli cities, like Beit Shemesh. In less than a decade, the Haredim, once a nominal presence in the city, came to dominate the political landscape, electing their mayor, Abutbul, in 2008. Haredi housing projects and schools were built alongside existing neighborhoods, and residents had no choice but to pass through them as they went about their daily business. Haredi families, meanwhile, felt they were being forced to confront influences they found profane, such as provocative clothing, music, and media….Haredim have sought to drive “corrupt” elements out of their neighborhoods by making them inhospitable places for those who are not ultra-Orthodox. The victims of this strategy are usually women, whose bodies have become the battleground in what is essentially a religious turf war.

Kaplan Sommer recently reported at Haaretz that Na’ama Margolese — the “symbol of struggle against Haredi coercion,” — and her mother, Hadassa, have moved out of Beit Shemesh, though reportedly in response to grief Hadassa received after complaining of being treated poorly by a local mikvah attendant rather than as a result of their harassment at the hands of the Haredim.

In the end, as The New Republic article illustrates, it will likely boil down to demographics. And as the Haredi community well knows, its high birthrate — its “facts on the ground” — is likely to make it the victor.

The article reports:

Already, many fear that efforts like Nili Philipp’s to stop ultra-Orthodox encroachment are doomed, simply because Haredim, nearly all of whom have more than five children and some of whom procreate in the double digits, are reproducing rapidly. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics projects that, at current growth rates, Israel could well be 40 percent Haredi by 2059. The activists worry, justifiably, that as the Haredi population continues to expand, so will its political influence. As Miriam Zussman, one of the plaintiffs in the case, puts it: “Thirty percent of the first-graders in this country are Haredi. They will have to go somewhere, live somewhere. … I say, do the math. They’re coming to you.”


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