Immodest dress attacked in Israel (Ultra-Orthodox clash with secular women)

The Associated Press/August 1996

Jerusalem -- For the length of her skirt and the cut of her sleeves, Gilah Pedeh's tires were slashed.

Podeh, a worker at Israel's Ministry of Education on Wednesday became another casualty of the increasingly vitriolic battle between ulta-Orthodox Jews and secular Israel's ultramodern, Westernized society for the soul of Jerusalem.

The struggle was given new energy by the results of Israel's May 29 election, which gave unprecedented power to the country's religious parties.

"They are trying to dominate all the fields of life - how to eat, how to keep the Sabbath," said Zamira Segev, who came out to protest Wednesday against attacks on secular women. "They would like every one of us to dress like them. It's unacceptable."

On Wednesday morning, Podeh - bare-legged and wearing a short-sleeved dress cut above the knee - parked a block from the Education Ministry on the edge of the Mea Shearim neighborhood.

When she returned at noon, her car's tires had been slashed and its roof and doors coated with a sticky film of smashed eggs.

A flier taped to a nearby stone wall read "Parking in immodest dress is forbidden."

Police have recorded half a dozen such attacks in recent weeks, including several in which ultra-Orthodox Jews threw stones and spit at women. Earlier this week, an ultra-Orthodox man was arrested for throwing a rock at a police decoy wearing a short summer dress.

The huge, stone Education Ministry building, which takes up a full city block, is a fitting symbol of the cultural clash since it literally spans the two sides. On one side of the building, tourists in shorts stroll past a gleaming Mercedes-Benz showroom on their way to the Western Wall. On the opposite side, religious seminaries flank narrow stone streets with yellow signs that warn, "If you're a woman and you're not properly dressed - don't pass through our neighborhood."

When six secular Israelis marched through Mea Shearim on Wednesday afternoon to protest the attacks, several women - their heads, legs and arms covered - came out to berate a female reporter wearing a sleeveless shirt in the 90-degree heat.

Israel's 4.6 million Jews define themselves as two-thirds secular, one-third observant. Some half-million, roughly 10 percent of the Jewish population, belong to the country's ultra-Orthodox minority.

The ultra-Orthodox usually live in separate neighborhoods, obey their own rabbis and courts, and live by a strict interpretation of the Jewish Law.

They are easily distinguishable by their dress. Even in Israel's baking summers, men with long side curls typically wear broad-brimmed black hats, black suits and even black top coats. Women wear stockings and long skirts, sleeves below the elbow, and head scarves if they are married.

Unlike other Jews in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox rarely serve in the army and do not attend public schools. They believe a true Jewish state will arrive only when the Messiah appears.

Jerusalem's 128,000 ultra-Orthodox comprise 31 percent of the city's Jewish population and, with their tradition of large families, are rapidly increasing in their numbers.

In the May election, Orthodox parties won an unprecedented 23 seats in the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament, and they are crucial to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition.

Their ascent raises fears among many secular Israelis that they might try to impose their values on the rest of the country. The ultra-Orthodox believe for example, that restaurants, movie theaters, and even some city thoroughfares should be closed on Saturdays.

For some, the ultra-Orthodox militancy suggests unsettling parallels with Islamic fundamentalism. In some Muslim states, Islamic law requires women to cover themselves in public with the shapeless, head-to-toe garments called chadors and commonly forbids them to drive cars.

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