Women Fight Religious Segregation in Israel
On New Yearâ€™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 Israelâ€™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 [sic]. To emphasize that point, they wore yellow stars of David with the word Juden, a throwback to Nazi Germany. Because the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community’s hierarchical, 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.
HAREDI JEW: 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 [incompr.] all sorts of crazy things [incompr.] don’t do. That’s why we’re reluctant to speak to the media.
HAREDI JEW: There are–whether or not the–how do you say it?–hilonim [seculars], they’re very against us. Why are they against us? Because they don’t–’cause whatever. Let’s not go into reasons for this. They tried [incompr.] Judaism. So whenever they have certain reasons 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. 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 percent 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 that 26 percent claim exemption from military service because of their insistence that they be able to study yeshivas and not take part in the civil yoke to–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 ILS 1.4 billion 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, that the men spit on her and call her derogatory names. The report sparked nationwide outrage and brought thousands to Beit Shemesh in protest.
UNIDENTIFIED (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.
REGEV: 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, 80 percent say we’re 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 to apply core curriculum in the schools, should the subsidies be reduced, you again rise in the public response and you find between 75 percent to 80-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 enter 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.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, but she’s a woman. She’s a woman. You know, a woman.
UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t understand.
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s not allowed for a woman to be here.
TARACHANSKY: I’m sorry?
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s not allowed for a woman to be here. So–.
TARACHANSKY: Why is it not allowed for a woman to be here?
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s the legal laws.
TARACHANSKY: It’s the legal laws for who?
UNIDENTIFIED: From the Torah.
TARACHANSKY: Okay, so that’s the Torah laws, not legal laws.
UNIDENTIFIED: That’s legal by Jews.
TARACHANSKY: Some orthodox women have taken the segregation principle 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.
UNIDENTIFIED (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 segregated 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. 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 Haaretz journalist Tamar Rotem as they boarded a segregated Israeli 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."
HAREDI JEW: Yeah. So spitting at a girl, that’s definitely not a right thing to do. That’s not everyone. That’s just a few extremists, like in every society there are a few people who are nuts. Whatever. I’m not explaining it. That’s extremists. But on the other side, you have to know that the not-observant Jews over there, they really hate observant Jews. They don’t like them, for no good reason. Why do they have to sit on the front of the bus? It’s–like, it’s a Jewish place, a Jewish community. It’s–like, it’s a private–.
TARACHANSKY: Whether it is the work of a few extremists as the Mea Shearim men say or a widespread practice, politics plays a major role. While the ultra-Orthodox make up only 8 percent of the Israeli population, they hold almost 18 percent of the seats in Parliament. That percentage goes even higher in the cabinet, for while the ultra-Orthodox refrain from taking up the visible ministerial positions, they make up 40 percent of ministerial deputies. Religious parties also make up 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 ceding power to Netanyahu. Previously she was the minister of foreign affairs under Ehud Olmert, who attacked Gaza in 2009. So when the opposition protest in Beit Shemesh took place, Livni jumped on board. She spoke to The Real News shortly before delivering her speech.
TZIPI LIVNI, LEADER OF KADIMA PARTY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): 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: 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: Do you think it says something about freedom of religion here?
LIVNI: It means a change is coming, it’s reached a peak, that people have had enough. And that’s a good thing.
UNIDENTIFIED (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!
TARACHANSKY (ENGLISH): Shelly Yachimovich 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?
SHELLY YACHIMOVICH, JOURNALIST AND POLITICIAN (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): 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 unfortunate 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 buses, 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 the issue of the rights of Palestinian women, religious freedom for all, or the occupation. For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Jerusalem.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.