When women and girls are the enemy

The Sydney Morning Herald/November 21, 2011

Gender is the new battleground as ultra-orthodox Jews try to impose their conservative values in Israel, writes Ruth Pollard in Jerusalem.

Imagine a world where all photographs of women and girls - on posters, advertising material, buses, billboards and shop windows - gradually disappear from public view; where supermarket lines are segregated and men and women sit in different sections of public transport: men at the front, women at the back.

This is Jerusalem in November 2011.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community may be just a large (and growing) minority, but the impact of its deeply conservative values is being felt strongly in the country.

Not content with segregated streets, queues and buses, extremist members of the Haredi have turned their attention to the city of Bet Shemesh, 30 kilometres to the west of Jerusalem.

Here, Jewish girls as young as six, wearing a conservative uniform of skirts below the knee and shirts to the elbow, are being targeted by the Haredi, called ''pritzas'' (prostitutes) for being ''immodestly dressed'' as they walk into Orot girls school, a state-funded religious-nationalist school. The Haredi are demanding the girls cover up. And, it doesn't end there. Fresh from their fight last month to segregate an entire street in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Sharim during the religious celebration of Sukkot - the Haredi have set their sights on billboards and other advertising material that feature images of women.

So far the ultra-Orthodox have managed to ensure a public health campaign to attract organ donors only uses pictures of men, while an insurance company has removed images of girls from its child health promotional material.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio about his company's organ donor advertisements, Ohad Gibli, deputy director of marketing for the Canaan advertising agency, said: ''We have learned that an ad campaign in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak that includes pictures of women will remain up for hours at best, and in other cases, will lead to the vandalisation and torching of buses.''

Indeed, as Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch was quoted as saying during a September High Court hearing over the segregation of the Mea Sharim street, gender segregation ''began with buses, continued with supermarkets and reached the streets. It's not going away, just the opposite.''

Orot girls school may be the focus of battle between Jews in Bet Shemesh but it is also a reflection of a wider battle across Israel between the the ultra-orthodox on one side and and the religious nationalist and secular Jews on the other.

Last week Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat publicly intervened in the growing dispute over the display of women's images, writing a letter to Police Commander Niso Shaham stating: ''We must make sure that those who want to advertise [with] women's images in the city can do so without fear of vandalism and defacement of billboards or buses showing women.''

On November 11, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba to sing in protest at the Haredi stance against women and an incident at an Israel Defence Forces event, where four ultra-Orthodox male cadets left a function because women were singing.

Describing itself as a ''society of scholars'', the Haredi community is one of the fastest growing in Israel. A November 2010 report by Haifa University demographers, Arnon Soffer and Evgenia Bystrov, estimates 30 per cent of all Jewish newborns in Israel are Haredi, while government statistics predict that by 2025 the Haredim will have jumped from 9 per cent of the population to 15 per cent.

Tensions are also exacerbated by the fact that, in a country that has compulsory military service for men and women, most Haredi do not serve in the military.

And because of their focus on religious study, most Haredi men do not work, relying instead on social welfare provided by the government, or the income earned by their wives, who also give birth to large numbers of children, often up to eight or nine per family.

Meanwhile, many extreme Haredi do not recognise the authority of the government, the police or the courts, and describe themselves as ''anti-Zionist'' - they are against anything that is privileged over the Torah.

Tamar El Or, a professor of anthropology and sociology at the Hebrew University has lived with Haredi families as part of her research into the community. For many years, she says, they felt as if their communities were marginalised, that they were living on the fringe of the Zionist project. Now all that has changed.

''They feel very safe and at home in Jerusalem,'' Professor El Or says. ''When you walk through the streets of Jerusalem you can feel that the majority of the public looks either ultra-Orthodox or Zionist orthodox, and if you want to find the non-orthodox cultural sites, the non-Kosher restaurants, you now have to make extra effort.

''The balance has tipped, and the non-orthodox people in Jerusalem are the minority, not just on the numbers, but on the cultural feeling, the atmosphere.''

Meanwhile, Jerusalem women are fighting back with a guerrilla campaign of their own - having their photographs taken and hanging them from buildings throughout the city with the slogan ''returning women to Jerusalem billboards''.

''Many of these women are modern, Orthodox women who care about the religion and know that it is possible to live a full religious life without these social restrictions, without also stepping outside beliefs or morals,'' Professor El Or says. ''They believe in religious life as well as gender equality.''

The rise of the Haredim has been disastrous for the country's economy, according to Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel.

Gorenberg writes that Israel's ultra-Orthodox community is becoming ever more dependent on the state and, through it, on other people's labour.

''By exempting the ultra-Orthodox from basic general educational requirements, the democratic state fosters a burgeoning sector of society that neither understands nor values democracy.

''And to protect their own growing settlements, Haredi parties are now essential partners in the pro-settlement coalitions of the right,'' he warns.

It is a subject close to the heart of Jerusalem's deputy mayor, Naomi Tzur, who describes the city as one of the country's poorest, partly because the growth of the Haredi community.

Yet despite the sustained Haredi campaign to impose their values on others, Tzur is optimistic about returning the city to a place where secular Jews feel comfortable.

The ''tide is turning'', she says. Previous Jerusalem city councils dominated by the ultra-Orthodox allowed new Haredi neighbourhoods to be built without sufficient infrastructure, such as kindergartens and medical clinics, to support them.

Instead these services were placed in the wider community, creating an opportunity for the closed religious communities to expand and then attempt to impose their restrictions on the secular residents, she says.

''We are saying 'no' to this,'' Tzur says. ''We are not allowing any new residential developments to go ahead without the appropriate institutions to ensure this imbalance is being redressed.''

She describes this expansion of ultra-Orthodox institutions into secular neighbourhoods as ''wicked'' and highlights the need to restore a ''demographic balance'' to the conflicted city of Jerusalem.

''And by that I do not mean a demographic balance of Jewish, Christian and Muslim … I mean getting a better balance of families where both parents are working and paying taxes,'' she says.

In September the city opened 30 new kindergartens in the ''general sector'' for about 900 children, she says. This indicates there has been an increase in secular and orthodox families moving to Jerusalem, who will contribute to life in the city, she says, as opposed to the many ultra-Orthodox who live on social security from the state and ''only take, never give''.

In the Haredi neighbourhood of Mea Sharim, a suburb close to Jerusalem's Old City, where ultra-Orthodox Jewish men dress in long black overcoats and large black hats, and where women cover up to ensure as little skin as possible is exposed, it is like taking a step back in time.

Large black and white posters are plastered throughout the neighbourhood urging women to dress appropriately, and the battle to guard its residents' morals is hard-fought.

''We beg you with all our hearts, please don't pass through this neighbourhood in immodest dress. Modest dress includes closed blouse, long sleeves, skirts - no pants,'' one poster reads.

Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) is strictly observed - the streets are closed off with police barriers from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening, and there is a ban on driving and the use of electricity.

Gender segregation is extensive - the supermarkets have men-only and women-only queues, and the ice cream shop has separate entrances. The simple ritual of gathering for ice cream, along with a love of music and books, are three pastimes the extremist Haredi have tried to suppress.

Manny's book shop, a large, ultra-Orthodox book store brimming with texts in Hebrew and English, as well as an excellent selection of Hanukkah candles and other religious artefacts, is one of several businesses in Mea Sharim that has born the brunt of the Haredi fury.

Since it opened in March 2010, a small segment of the ultra-Orthodox community has criticised its customers (some of whom are not dressed modestly enough), its books (some of which are published by secular publishers in English), its signage (too colourful) and its advertising (which focuses on having a good time).

On many occasions Marlene Samuels and her husband Manny have arrived at work to find every single window of their shop smashed, their locks glued, the windows defaced with paint, and excrement strewn throughout the store. Other owners of the bookstore have been threatened and their homes vandalised.

But Marlene she says the group of 60 to 100 men who carry out these acts are on the fringes of the ultra-Orthodox community.

''They are a zealous group of extremists - they are not religious, they do not represent the religious community in Mea Sharim or the Jewish people at all … this is not Judaism,'' she says.

''They are thugs, hooligans and criminals, and like any criminal they have got to be arrested and put into prison.''

Frustrated by the lack of action by police, despite her constant reports and the provision of video evidence, Samuels went to the media.

''The police do not like to come into this area because of the violence they encounter when they do. These thugs throw stones at their cars, they break the car windows, they attack the police when they get out of the cars.

''But eventually the police did come in and make some arrests and things started to quieten down.''

''It is such a bad reflection on the religious community because people who are hearing the news are then going to feel negative against the Haredim. But this is a desecration of God's name.''

Other moderate Haredim, such as Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Rosenblum, agree ''the zealots'' are tarnishing the reputation of the entire community.

''A lot of religious movements give people license to unleash their psychopathic tendencies,'' he says. ''But they are a very small part of the picture. They are not socialised to live in a mixed community.''

It is wrong to ''impose religious rules'' outside Haredi communities, he says, while within these societies ''it is impossible to draw the wagons much closer.''

As the symbolic battle over women and the public display of their image continues, a new report from the World Economic Forum indicates women's status in Israel is deteriorating year by year.

On measures such as economic participation, health and education levels and political empowerment, Israel has fallen in the rankings on the Global Gender Gap index for the second year in a row, and now sits at 55 of the 135 countries measured for the report, down from 52 in 2010 and 45 in 2009.

It's hard to see how removing images of women from public life will improve the nation's performance.

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