Advance of the Zealots

The Growing Influence of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel

Spiegel Online International/January 13, 2012

Veiled women, radical rabbis and gender segregation: Israel is facing a rise in the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their efforts to impose a strictly conservative worldview has led to growing tensions with the country's secular society. A resolution to the conflict is vital for Israel's future.

Outside is the Judean Wilderness, the Dead Sea shimmers in the distance. Naomi Machfud is sitting inside the self-built house, dreaming about making the world disappear. She wants to cover up her face with a veil, she says, her mouth, her nose and her eyes. A black veil, without even a vision slit, one that swallows every glance and submerges the world in darkness. The veil is the pinnacle of zniut, or modesty, the closest a person can get to God. But, she says with a sigh, "unfortunately I'm not that far yet."

But Machfud, a 30-year-old woman with six children, has already created an insulating layer of material between herself and the outside world. She is wearing a wool robe, an apron, a blouse, three floor-length corduroy skirts, a black skirt and trousers. She has a piece of black wool material wrapped loosely around her head. Underneath it is a tight, black veil, and underneath that is a pale pink veil. Not a single hair is visible. She is wearing a pair of earrings, but she takes them off when she leaves the house.

Machfud is a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man. They live in a settlement in the West Bank, but she dresses as if she lived in Afghanistan. In Israel, the veiled women are referred to as the "Taliban," while they refer to themselves as women of the shawl. Machfud claims that there are thousands of women like her, but it is more likely that they number in the hundreds. They are usually seen in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Me'ah She'arim neighborhood, black, shapeless figures, holding the hands of their daughters, who look like miniature versions of their mothers.

One could call these women crazy. Or one could see them as the product of a religious community that is becoming more and more extremist.

Gender Separation in Public

The ultra-religious are gaining power throughout the Middle East, including in Israel, where radical rabbis are expanding their influence. This is especially clear when it comes to women. Ironically, it is in Israel, a country that was already being run by a woman, Golda Meïr, in the 1970s, and where women fly fighter jets, that Jewish fundamentalists are trying to bring about gender separation in public -- in elections, on buses and in the street -- all in the name of a morality that is supposedly agreeable to God. Until now, this trend has been most noticeable in Jerusalem, in Beit Shemesh and in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, the country's ultra-orthodox strongholds. But increasingly it is becoming apparent in places where secular Israelis live.

Even a former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, is now warning that the ultra-orthodox are a bigger threat to the country than the Iranian nuclear program. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the conditions in Jerusalem remind her of Iran.

The odd coexistence of religion and democracy in the Jewish state was long unproblematic. But now the consequences are becoming clear, the signs of fatigue of an overstressed country, a country that is both a democracy and an occupying power, a high-tech nation in which a portion of the population still lives as if it were the 19th century, and a country that accepts immigrants from around the world, provided they are Jews, while at the same time mercilessly deporting refugees. As such, the settlers are, on the one hand, increasingly exhibiting a Messianic nationalism while, on the other hand, the ultra-orthodox pursue a fundamentalism hostile to the state.

Naomi Machfud says that she feels good in her headscarf and multiple skirts. So good, in fact, that she claims she doesn't even sweat during the summer, at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). She huddles on a worn sofa and tries to explain how it all began, with her and the veil. It is a story consisting of fragments and allusions, and it begins with a Jewish girl from New York who feels empty and spends her time in the streets, until she goes to Israel at 15 to attend an orthodox seminar. She becomes religious and, encouraged by the rabbis, starts wearing more and more clothing.

'Some Men Don't Like It'

Her rabbi was supposed to explain why exactly women are doing this, but he cancelled the meeting at the last minute. At the moment, it is not advisable to openly support the Taliban women, because a few of the ultra-orthodox have just imposed a new rule on them, which they announce in wall newspapers: "You may not cover yourself in abnormal and peculiar clothing, including veils, especially if your husband is against it."

Machfud smiles a Mona Lisa smile. "Some men don't like it," she says. "Suddenly we're more religious than they are." Therefore she is now trying to explain it all herself, and to support her argument she has placed a tattered book on the table. The title is "World of Purity," a bestseller in the ultra-orthodox community. She flips through images of women from past centuries, most of them Jewish, from Yemen, Morocco and Greece, but also of Amish women and Arab women. They all have one thing in common: the large, dark robes they wear, often including a face veil. This is how it was in the past, says Machfud, and it's how it should be again today.

Orthodox Jewish women wear long-sleeved blouses and skirts, and they cover their hair. But this doesn't go far enough for Machfud. She says that she sees too much fashionable clothing, garments that are too tight, too pretty and too indecent. The women, she says, attract looks that should be reserved for the husband. In her view, this leads to sin, and as long as there is sin, the Messiah cannot appear.

"Would you wear a diamond in the market? No, you would hide it at home," adds Revital Shapira, 46, a woman with eight children who is sitting next to Machfud, her body covered in black, floor-length skirts, shawls and headscarves.

Shapira also found religion later than most. She studied literature and only became a Taliban woman after she had given birth to an autistic boy and a girl with heart disease.

'Little House' Crossed with Saudi Arabia

As different as they are -- Machfud soft and pretty, Shapira ideological and contrary -- both women want to live in a world in which women do housework, have children and leave their homes as little as possible. They envision a world without computers and washing machines, with organic food and homemade clothing, a mixture of "Little House on the Prairie" and Saudi Arabia.

"The woman should disappear from public. She should not go out, and she should not speak with strangers on the street," says Shapira. "Unfortunately, the majority of Israelis don't understand this, which is why we are building a parallel system." The two women do not talk to men, and they leave the room when a man comes in. And they are determined to see their daughters follow in their footsteps. "We are building the will in our children to want these things as well," says Machfud.

"For decades, the male leaders of the ultra-orthodox have talked about nothing but modesty," says Hebrew University sociologist Tamar El Or. "No matter what, women are always being lectured on morality, and even the most devout must listen, morning, noon and night, to how they, with their femininity, bring sin to men."

The length of skirts became the gold standard, and each additional layer of material was seen as bringing women a step closer to God. "Some women have started going to excessive lengths. It's like anorexia." According to El Or, this obsession with virtue is also a rebellion against husbands and rabbis, with women now choosing to define their bodies and their faith themselves.

Bruria Keren was a particularly extreme case. In the end she was wearing 27 layers of material. Known in Israel as "Mama Taliban," Keren is one of the leaders of the women of the shawl. Born in a kibbutz and abused by her father, she eventually became religious -- a typical story. As she became more and more obsessed with morality, she beat her children, forced them to pray and cut their hair in punishment, which is why she is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

Part 2: Witnessing an 'Extremist Trend'

"It started with a coat, and then there were three. Then she added trousers and a skirt on top. In the end there were 10 skirts, 10 coats and gloves," says her son, who chooses not to reveal his name. "Eight years ago, she covered her face with a veil, first outside and then at home, and finally she was even wearing it in the shower. I haven't seen her face since then. She set up a tent in the bathroom, so that even the walls couldn't see her naked." Keren also stopped speaking, only communicating with gestures or writing.

While his mother became more and more chaste, the son was having sex with his sister in the next room. He was 15 and she was 12.

It was a broken life, says the son, who is now 30 and still hardly dares to go out in public. He works as a laborer during the day and, at night, runs to efface his past. He has become one of the fastest runners in Israel.

"If my mother hadn't been religious, she would have been committed to an institution right away," he says. Instead, the ultra-orthodox community protected her and no one intervened. The ultra-orthodox prefer to solve their problems on their own, without the government. "And my mother's followers told me that she was a saint."

Yair Nehorai, the attorney who represented the son in court when he was charged with sexual abuse, has published a book based on his client's story*. Nehorai is not religious, but one of his ancestors was a prominent rabbi, which gives him credibility. He represents almost all of the ultra-orthodox who have problems with the authority of the state. One of his clients was an ultra-orthodox man who recently allegedly berated a female soldier who was sitting with the men in the front of the bus, calling her a "whore." And then there were the Yeshiva students from Beit Shemesh, who made headlines when they spat at female students from a religious girls' school, because their skirts only extended to just below the knee. Nehorai also represented the Sikrikim, self-proclaimed moral police who threw fecal matter at a bookstore until it bowed to their moral dictates.

Few Dare to Publicly Oppose Them

Nehorai has never been as busy as he is today. "There is an extremist trend in the ultra-orthodox community," he says. "These radicals were a very small group in the past, but they are becoming more important." Many orthodox Jews are opposed to the moral terror of the zealots, says Nehorai, but very few dare to publicly oppose them.

Synagogues and religious schools have long been single-sex. But then gender segregation began on buses a few years ago. At first only one bus line was "kosher," but soon the men were sitting in the front and the women in the back on more than 60 routes. The government did nothing, until a women's organization took its case to the Supreme Court. It ruled more than a year ago that the segregated seating arrangement is only permissible if it is voluntary. It is a ruling that reveals the court's unwillingness to take a clear position in the conflict between religious and secular segments of society.

Increasingly, supermarket checkout lines, hospital waiting rooms and wedding celebrations are segregated in orthodox neighborhoods. This is voluntary, and yet it is also the norm. But gender segregation is beginning to spread beyond the neighborhoods where the Haredim, or god-fearing ones, live.

Women have disappeared from advertising posters in Jerusalem. Swimming pools at the university have separate hours for men and women. Burial societies forbid women from giving eulogies. In an award ceremony at the Ministry of Health, the female researchers who were being honored were not permitted to walk onto the stage. The deputy health minister is ultra-orthodox.

There are now campaigns against the so-called Haredization of public life. Women are singing in the streets and refusing to sit at the back of the bus. Several thousand people attended one demonstration against the radicals of Beit Shemesh. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that all of this will reverse the trend.

Festering Since the Country's Establishment

At issue is a culture war that has been festering since the country's establishment, because it is still unclear today what exactly Israel is supposed to be: a theocracy for Jews? Or a democratic sovereign state? The orthodox appear to be on the road to winning this fundamental battle of principles.

Although they are a minority, with only 10 percent of the population, their birth rate is almost three times as high as that of secular Jews. If this remains the case, the Haredim will make up a third of the population in less than 50 years. A quarter of Jewish first-graders are already ultra-orthodox. They also constitute 40 percent of the members of parliament in the coalition government, as well as 40 percent of new army officers and soldiers in combat units. This gives them a disproportionately large amount of influence, which they utilize.

Even in the army, women are now being assigned to units with ultra-orthodox soldiers with decreasing frequency. A few months ago, religious officer candidates left a party where women were singing, saying that this could lead to impure thoughts. An influential rabbi said afterwards that he would rather stand before a firing squad than listen to a woman singing.

Since then, members of parliament, generals and rabbis have addressed the issue of women singing. Israel's chief rabbi has released an eight-page religious opinion, in which he argues that the army should prohibit women from singing when religious students are listening. A lawmaker from the "Party of Sephardic Torah Guardians," or Shas, proposed that religious soldiers be provided with earplugs in the future.

Shas is led by 91-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Josef, who is known for underscoring his comments with slaps in the face. His son, also a rabbi, seriously believes that women should not be allowed to drive. Far from being an outsider, Josef is one of the most powerful men in Israel, and his party has been part of almost every government in the last two decades, including the current government. Prime ministers bow to him when they ask for his approval of decisions involving war and peace.

Independent of the Government

In many ways, Israel already resembles Iran more than Europe. It is a country where there is no civil marriage, and where rabbis rule on weddings and divorces. It is also a country where ultra-orthodox schoolchildren learn neither mathematics nor English, where every kindergarten and every military battalion has a rabbi, and where an infrastructure minister wants to place power plants under the supervision of rabbis so that even electricity will be in compliance with religious purity laws.

All of these things have been around for decades, but now orthodox radicals are increasingly occupying key positions, thereby imposing their stamp on the secular majority.

For a long time, the politicians did nothing. They were constantly giving their religious coalition partners more money and housing for their ultra-orthodox clientele. Otherwise, they left the orthodox to their own devices -- and to the extremists.

That's why men like Joelisch Kraus, 38, are now setting the tone. Kraus is one of the Israel haters of Neturei Karta, the ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist group. He lives in Me'ah She'arim, in the middle of Jerusalem -- and yet he is part of a parallel society from the 19th century. He has never watched television, has no identification card and speaks Yiddish. He only takes buses that are not operated by the government-owned transportation company, Egged. Garbage disposal presented a problem to Kraus, but he has solved it by tossing his garbage into his neighbor's garbage can. All of this makes him independent of the government and the government independent of him. He is slowly undermining the government from within by refusing to participate in society. He believes that this is the way it should be, because, as he says, Jews should not rule the Holy Land until God sends the Messiah.

It is early evening, and Kraus has just returned from Torah lessons. His son jumps into his lap and pulls on his sidelocks. His wife is sweeping the two-room apartment with an enormous broom. They have 13 children. Seven of them sleep in their parents' bed, two on the window seat and the rest on the floor.

Stoning the Buses

What are a woman's duties? He looks puzzled. "Well, she should be at home and do all the things that have to be done, like having children, raising them and doing the laundry. That's their role," Kraus explains with the gentle amiability of a person who commits crimes out of conviction. "That's all."

To keep it this way, Kraus is leading a crusade against the modern age, so that women will not want education and jobs one day and thus throw the world of the ultra-orthodox out of balance. It is no accident that the culture war is being waged now, as more and more religious Jews participate in the military and working life, despite all the rabbis' bans.

Me'ah She'arim today resembles the Gallic village that is defending itself against the Romans, and Joelisch Kraus is Asterix. The Romans are the representatives of the state and the seculars. Kraus and his fellow ultra-orthodox Jews divide up the streets during religious festivals, with one side for women and the other side for men. If they had their way, the same separation would also apply to everyday life. They threw stones at the non-segregated buses passing through Me'ah She'arim until Egged shut down its service in the neighborhood for more than a year. Now the buses are back in operation, but with police escorts.

"The non-religious Jews have long since lost Jerusalem. They may have a secular mayor, but they just imagine that they are in charge." Kraus laughs. He is familiar with the birth statistics and he knows that time is on his side. "We run Jerusalem," he says.

Translated from the German from Christopher Sultan

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