Nili Philipp (third from right) and other residents outside the Beit Shemesh court house / Courtesy of Nili Philipp
Beit Shemesh has featured prominently in the news over the past several years as a hot spot for violations against women and girls, from the Orot school scandal to several highly publicized assaults against women, to routine harassment of women in the city’s streets.
But June 16 marked a new phase in the struggle for gender equality in Beit Shemesh, three years after I was attacked by a Haredi man who threw a rock that hit me in the head as I cycled along a main thoroughfare, and two years after a mob of Haredi men attacked Vered Daniel, who was holding her infant in her arms at the time, alleging that she wasn’t dressed sufficiently modest, which prompted three other religious women and myself, all residents of Beit Shemesh, to demand that the city address the increasingly frightening attacks against women and girls.
With the help of our lawyer, Orly Erez Likhovsky from the Israel Religious Action Center, we sued the Beit Shemesh municipality for 100,000 shekel (29,200 US dollar) after they repeatedly ignored our pleas to remove the large and imposing illegal signs that harass and threaten women in public areas of the city. The signs loom over main commercial centers and are signed by the local leading Haredi rabbis, ‘requesting’ that women dress modestly. The signs also define modest dress: long sleeves, long skirts, high necklines, no pants, nothing tight. Other signs instruct women to avoid walking or lingering on certain sidewalks, public city sidewalks that were built and maintained with taxpayers money. Not coincidentally, in these very same areas where the illegal signs hang, women deemed insufficiently modest have been habitually harassed, threatened and attacked, lending strength to the thesis that one law violation abates another.
We had several reasons for requesting that the city remove the signs. First, the signs are illegal and intimidating. Their harassing message is an invasion of privacy and freedom. Second, they promote an atmosphere of anarchy by blatantly violating the rules of the State with the tacit approval of the municipality. Third, we wanted a clear public statement that violations of women’s rights wouldn’t be tolerated.
(Haaretz) — It was as frightening as any terrorist attack, recounted the young woman assaulted in broad daylight at a bus stop in Beit Shemesh last week.
But in fact, it was probably worse.
After all, one might presume that if an Israeli Jewish woman had been attacked by a Palestinian in the middle of the street, the bystanders around her would have rushed to her assistance, or at the very least, hastened to call the police. But that’s not what happened when this 25-year-old woman sitting at a bus stop with a toddler on her lap was verbally and physically assaulted by an ultra-Orthodox man last week who cursed at her and screamed that she wasn’t dressed modestly enough.
No one, she said, came to her aid or called for help, when he pulled her by her hair and threw her on the ground.
The attack was reported in the print media, but the young woman who was attacked at a bus stop in the haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet went on television this week and related the full harrowing story herself. Her face was blurred on camera, but her story was clear and detailed, and painted a troubling picture of life in Beit Shemesh only a few weeks after its ultra-Orthodox mayor was reelected. The event turned the national spotlight on Beit Shemesh once more, has reinvigorated the struggle of a group of Beit Shemesh women to fight against intimidation in their city through the legal system, and revived discussion of whether coexistence is possible in Beit Shemesh or whether the non-haredi population would be wise to either pack their bags or divide their city in two, that is attempt to formally secede from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
The woman was sitting at a bus stop with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, dressed in a skirt with her head covered, when she was accosted by a haredi man. “He put his face right in front of mine and shouted “Slut! You weaken men!” she said in her Channel 2 news interview. “I was completely frightened by him, and I screamed.”
Somehow, I did not put two and two together.
I read Hadassa Margolese’s post (in Hebrew) on the Maariv website back in May about her negative — even traumatizing — experience at her local mikveh (ritual bath) in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Then, recently, I read several Facebook posts she wrote about her family’s move to a new home. However, I didn’t realize until Tuesday that these two things were related. I finally made the connection when I read this JTA article about how Margolese, a reluctant activist, was driven out of Beit Shemesh not by the Haredim she had previously stood up to (when they harassed and intimidated her young daughter over her dress), but rather by her fellow Modern Orthodox neighbors.
Coincidentally, I also read on Tuesday a new e-book by Allison Yarrow, titled, “The Devil of Williamsburg,” about the notorious Nechemya Weberman sex abuse case. It’s all about how Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community covers up everything from minor misdoings to major crimes, routinely shunning community members who dare shine a light on them.
One can’t exactly compare the reporting of crimes like rape and child abuse to the writing of a column about nasty mikveh ladies who over-scrutinize you and don’t give you enough privacy. But, from what I understand, there seems to be a trickle-down effect happening. It’s no longer just Haredi Jews who are hounding and ostracizing those who air dirty laundry in public.
While Purim is still more than a month away, Israeli bakeries are already full of hamentashen and newspapers and magazines are full of advertising campaigns for children’s costumes.
In the charged atmosphere of Beit Shemesh, even Purim has now become a battleground in the escalating ‘exclusion of women’ in the ultra-Orthodox community.
But the moral of this particular story is that fighting the trend can be successful when fought quickly and effectively, and using the buying power of the non Haredi-extremist community as a key weapon in the battle.
It all began when Hadassah Margolese — mother of the now famous eight-year-old Naama — was appalled to find that the circulars in her mailbox running advertisements for Purim costumes with the faces of the little girls dressed as fairies and princesses were blurred into obscurity.
A Los Angeles-based filmmaker and acting teacher named Robin Garbose recent published this essay in Haaretz, explaining why she became Orthodox as an adult. In her piece, Garbose laments that with the current criticism of Haredi values like gender separation, “the baby is being thrown out with the dirty bathwater.”
Garbose writes about why she was attracted to Haredi life; her desire “to transcend this toxic cultural climate” in which images of women are digitally altered to become thinner, more “perfect,” in advertising of all sorts purveying products “in the hope of remedying our gross inadequacies.”
I had an opportunity to step into the mysterious and remote world of Haredi Jews. I appreciated that tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty) shifted focus from the body to the person, from objectifying and sexualizing women to valuing inner beauty. Though I didn’t own a long skirt, I saw these ancient concepts as a refreshingly counterculture expression of female dignity.
I don’t understand how Garbose can willfully ignore the plentiful evidence that the obsession with women’s external “modesty” is not about the dignity of women, but rather its perversion: the control of women in every possible form. It even included, not long ago, spray painting out the face of the “woman” on this poster of Adam Sandler dressed in drag for his latest movie.
A 27-year-old woman was attacked last week while she was hanging posters on behalf of her employer. Natali Mashiah was in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood when she alleges that a group of Haredi men called her a “slut,” a “shiksa,” and smashed her car’s windshield and windows while she was inside of it. They also threw a rock at her head, punctured the tires and poured bleach inside the vehicle, she said. Police arrested three suspects at the scene.
The financial newspaper Globes is asking why social justice protest leader Stav Shaffir, recently profiled in the Forward, reportedly accepted VIP perks, such as accommodations at a 5-star hotel and an chauffeured Audi, while recently in Munich for a conference.
Knesset State Control Committee chairman Ronnie Bar-On is calling for broader implementation by rabbinical courts of a law that allows rabbinical judges to impose punitive sanctions on men who refuse to give their wife a Jewish divorce document, or a get.
Dear Ariel Beery and Erin Kopelow:
Congratulations on the impending birth of your baby girl.
When I saw your essay on Tablet questioning whether it was wise to raise a daughter in Israel at a time when “war is waged against girls and women” I understood the feeling. I had my first child when I, like you, was living in Tel Aviv, way back in 1996, just after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and during the height of terrorist suicide bombings. I, too, was worried about the place I had decided to raise kids.
You correctly point out the disturbing domination of the ultra-Orthodox establishment on the state. You knew that the rabbinate wasn’t your friend when you moved here, and that you would face problems regarding Erin’s halachic status — her mother underwent Conservative conversion during pregnancy — and that this would affect your future children. But now that a baby is on the way, that reality is upon you. Add that to the current crisis over the “exclusion of women,” the situation in Beit Shemesh, the issues over buses and women’s singing in the army and I can see why it would concern you.
I was sure that your piece was heading for a discussion of how to raise an Israeli daughter confident in both her Jewish and her female identity under these circumstances. Instead that the article was essentially a 911 call to American Jews, arguing that Diaspora leaders need to “demand” Israel “make liberalization of the rabbinate a priority.”
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.
Last night, Israel’s first mass demonstration in protest of the increasing waves of Haredi violence against women took place in Beit Shemesh. It was a remarkable event, in its strength and diversity. There were speakers representing a range of organizations, Knesset members from five different political parties — including three women, two of whom are heads of their respective parties — and citizens religious and secular who have become symbols of the struggle against the removal of women from the public sphere. Yet, while history was being made, the event also raised some difficult questions, such as who the demonstrators are, what are they protesting, and to whom are they addressing their demands?
Part of the demonstration was undoubtedly local. Throughout the event, there were ongoing calls from the crowd for the Haredi Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul to resign. “You destroyed this city,” protesters called out during a speech he made about his intentions to put violent citizens behind bars. Several speakers and many signs referred to the current plans to build 30,000 new housing units exclusively for Haredim. There is no obvious gender issue in the housing plans, and the fact that this was a theme of the event suggests that many people came to protest the seeming Haredi take-over of the city, and blamed local and national politicians for that.
Another major theme of the event was a protest of religious extremism in Israel generally.
Israel has a new and unlikely national heroine. She is a small, blond, bespectacled Orthodox 8-year-old girl, the daughter of American immigrants who live in Beit Shemesh. Her name is Na’ama Margolese and she was featured in a news broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 about the ongoing Haredi harassment of the girls who attend the Orot Banot School, and about the problem of extreme Haredi control in Beit Shemesh in general.
Naama spoke on camera of her fears while walking the short distance from her home to her school, after numerous occasions when she was cursed at and even once spit on by the Haredi demonstrators. Israeli viewers watched as her mother, Hadassah, holding her hand, tried to convince her to make the short walk as she cried, whined and protested; it’s a ritual they go through every school day.
To the residents of Beit Shemesh (and to readers of The Sisterhood) the story of Beit Shemesh and the intimidation of Orot Banot girls is nothing new.
The end of the long string of Jewish holidays in the fall is normally a time for relief and celebration for Israeli parents who are weary of entertaining their children during the long weeks of school vacation.
But for the parents of girls at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh, back to school marks a stressful and unpleasant return to battle. Extremist ultra-Orthodox elements have resumed their campaign to harass them into moving the school from its location on the border of their neighborhood. Earlier posts on the struggle in The Sisterhood can be found here and here.
The war over the school for Modern Orthodox girls has been taking place since the beginning of the school year. There was a period of respite from the men in black shouting curses and insults over the holidays, both because of school vacation, and because the demonstrators were busy celebrating the holiday. Hope emerged that dialogue between representatives of the school and rabbinic leaders in the ultra-Orthodox communities might bear fruit.
It’s not right that the denim-skirted young girls of the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh should be the front-line soldiers in the battle for religious tolerance and co-existence in their city. But as they face jeering men and hurled eggs, and tomatoes as they walk to and from their classrooms, that’s exactly what they are.
Back on Sept. 1, I wrote here at The Sisterhood about the national religious girls school Orot Banot winning an important battle merely because it was able to open its doors for the school year.
The opening of the school took place in spite of opposition from a group of extreme Haredi neighbors who zealously opposed the girl’s schools’ location on the seam between national-religious neighborhoods and a Haredi neighborhood. Their campaign to prevent the school from opening won the support of the city’s mayor, who was subsequently overruled by the Ministry of Education.
Just when you thought the policing of Haredi women’s appearance couldn’t get more extreme — it does. According to Ynet, a kosher certificate for women’s fashions now exists. An ultra-Orthodox body called “the Committee for the Sanctity of the Camp” has begun supervising clothing stores offering such heckshers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula.
Here’s how it works: The merchandise of various stores is inspected for sufficient modesty by female inspectors armed with such rabbinical standards as making sure skirts are not too short or necklines too low. Afterwards, the names of those with the official stamp of approval are published in ultra-Orthodox publications, and women urged to buy there. Presumably, those retailers that do not measure up will run the risk of protests, boycotts or worse.
An advertisement taken out for the Committee states that stores that do not sell sufficiently modest clothing are “damaging our camp’s modesty” and “experience shows that there is no other way to defeat this horrible breach other than having rabbis supervise the clothes’ kashrut.”
Modest Western clothing, of course, is not enough for the small but growing cult-like group of Jewish women concentrated in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem who insist on completely draping their bodies in clothing burqa-style.
The politics of Muslim women and the burqa has sparked debate and grabbed headlines worldwide. Numerous communities and countries have been wrestling with the question of whether banning modest dress that covers the face is protecting — or violating — human rights.
Here on The Sisterhood and in numerous feminist circles, it has been hotly argued. Jews have appeared on both sides of the debate. Some agree that fully veiled women in public is disturbing and a security risk. Some on the left, view it as free expression. And many Orthodox Jews fear the slippery slope — one day burqas and veils are banned, the next, all forms of religious garb could be in danger.
The phenomenon of veiled Jewish women has been a non-existent to fringe issue in the debate. It was unheard of until a few years ago when some extreme Haredi women in Beit Shemesh in Israel began covering their faces. The media spotlight shone briefly on the phenomenon, when one of these women, dubbed the “Taliban Mother” in the Israeli press was accused of child abuse.