The past few months have seen a growth of public discord in Israel, but this time, the issue at hand has nothing to do with territory or terrorism. Instead, there has been a heated clash between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis over the treatment of women within the country.
Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as the Haredi, have grown steadily, despite the belief of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, that the extremely conservative, traditional group would eventually die out. Instead, the Haredi are growing at a rate faster than any other group in Israel, have joined government coalitions, and continue to live on government subsidies and exemptions for housing and children.
Had the Haredi continued their lives of Torah study, keeping mostly to themselves in their own, self-created neighborhoods, perhaps there wouldn’t be an issue in the country today. However, as their numbers increase, they have become much more vocal about their stringent beliefs, attempting to push them on the rest of the country. Secular Israelis are becoming disgruntled over the fact that due to their growing population and expanding political power, the Haredi have begun attempting to enforce their strict rules related to modesty and “appropriate” behavior.
In the last few months alone, a handful of controversies have occurred across the country, causing the Haredi to lash out, and the secular population of Israel to protest what they see as a growing mistreatment of women.
The Haredi have long held on to their rigid beliefs surrounding women and modesty, and are comfortable challenging anyone who defies these beliefs. Advertisers will no longer put up ads that include women in Haredi neighborhoods after vandals continued to black out women’s faces on posters. Women are routinely segregated to the back of public buses in Haredi neighborhoods, and recently, a female soldier was attacked for refusing to move to the women’s section of a bus.
The most talked about incident is that of an eight-year-old girl who was spit on by adult Haredi men on her way to school. Naama Margolese was harassed while walking to her Orthodox school. She was wearing her school uniform, consisting of a high-necked, long-sleeved shirt, and long skirt. However, this wasn’t modest enough for the ultra-Orthodox men who spat on her, taunted her, and called her a prostitute and a whore, because according to them, what Naama was wearing did not adhere to their higher standards of modesty.
Naama’s story quickly became global news, as people struggled to understand just how an eight-year-old girl could come under such ugly attack. The assault on Naama not only escalated the tension between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in her Beit Shemesh neighborhood (just outside of Jerusalem), but further increased the divide between religious and secular Israelis.
This past month, a conference on women’s health barred women from speaking publicly, prompting eight of the participants to pull out. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time Haredi influence prevented women from participating in a public event. A few months back, Dr. Channa Maayan received a prize from the Israeli Health Ministry for a book she wrote, but she was forbidden from actually going up on stage to accept it, instead having to send a male proxy up to receive it. All of these events continue to internally tear at a country that needs as much solidarity as it can to survive.
While current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken out against the far-reaching hand of the Haredi, many feel that he is simply trying to placate secular Israelis, while not actually doing anything substantial about the escalating situation since he relies on Haredi support within the goverment. Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, seems to echo the feeling of many Israeli citizens when it claims that Netanyahu is losing the fight against the ultra-Orthodox.
With the Haredi unwilling to back down, and the opposition from the secular community only growing stronger, tensions continue to grow over this issue of “haradat nashim” – the exclusion of women. Religious tension is on the rise, and the fear of what it will produce is palpable. When police stepped in to remove illegal gender segregating signs in Beit Shemesh, ultra-Orthodox protesters responded by pelting them with rocks and setting trash cans on fire.
Current President of Israel, Shimon Peres, condemned the violence, and hopes the country will stand up for equality. “We are fighting for the soul of the nation,” said the president, clearly aware of the potential damaging outcome as religious tensions wear on men, women, and country alike.