I sat in front of my computer screen Tuesday night watching the live broadcast from the demonstration in Beit Shemesh with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. My 9-year-old niece is a student at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh and a schoolmate of 8-year-old Naama Margolese, who was cursed and spat upon by Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] men on her way home from school. My niece, too, has been harassed by those men. But as speaker after speaker ascended the platform at the rally, a wave of disappointment washed over me. "Exclusion of women is degrading," said Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat. "Sidewalks forbidden to women are a dark stain on our society," said Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich. I realized with a sinking feeling that the politicians and journalists at the event thought it was all about the "exclusion of women" and were missing the much larger point.
The old feminist maxim that rape is a crime of power, not sex, applies in this case too. Although Naama and her classmates have been taunted with cries of "pritzus" [whores] and "shiksa" [a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman] and told they are not dressed modestly enough, the harassment they suffered has little to do with modesty. Instead, it is an intimidation tactic meant to make their parents abandon the school building and possibly even leave Beit Shemesh.
The school that Naama and my niece attend, Orot Banot, opened in September. It is a solidly Modern Orthodox institution in a town whose Haredi population is growing and gaining strength. The school was opened because the former building the school occupied was dilapidated and rat-infested. The Modern Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh fought for years to get a new school building and the Education Ministry finally agreed.
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When the new building was under construction, members of the bordering Haredi community claimed the building for themselves. As the first day of school approached, Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul received threats from local Haredim. He then told parents at the new school that if they entered the building as scheduled he could not guarantee their safety. Then, every day for months after the school opened, a group of about 20 Haredi men stood outside the school waiting for the girls to emerge and proceeded to hurl insults at them and intimidate them. These men are known as "Sikrikim" and belong to an extremist sect within the Toldot Aharon stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
The men stood on both sides of the street so the girls could not avoid them. They yelled "get out of here," "whore," and "shiksa" at the children. Police stood by and watched as grown men harassed small girls. They had received orders to keep the peace, not protect the children, and their stated policy was that the Sikrikim had a right to be there. These girls were dressed in sleeves below their elbows and skirts below their knees. The only difference between their dress and the Haredi dress code was that they did not necessarily wear stockings.
In fact, there are numerous videos on YouTube, for example here, taken by parents of the girls at the school. In one video, a woman in a tank top walks by and the loitering Haredi men do nothing. Then the girls come out of school and the men start taunting them. The claims that these little girls were not dressed "modestly" enough is a mere cover for their real motives, which is to gain power by making parents fear for their children's safety.
This kind of intimidation is not new to Beit Shemesh. My sister used to frequent a business establishment that had televisions installed for customers' enjoyment. When the televisions were suddenly removed, and my sister complained, the proprietress told her, "I'm sorry but they threatened to burn my house down."
My nephew, as well, had eggs thrown at him when he was 15 on Yom Ha'atzmaut, because he was celebrating Israel's Independence Day, which some Haredim oppose. The Modern Orthodox community has been complaining to the police for years, but still the police do nothing. Arrests in all of these incidents have been rare. Over the years, the rule of law has retreated from Beit Shemesh and the vacuum has been filled by thugs and bullies. Most Haredim do not like what the thugs are doing but they just say "these are crazies who have nothing to do with us" and go about their lives. It is not part of Haredi culture to get the police involved. Haredi rabbis and leaders, however, fail to speak out about the violence. When a small group of thugs intimidate everyone else into complacency, they indirectly gain power.
I have many relatives and friends who are Haredi, and have talked to them about this issue. One of my friends, whose mother lives in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, said there used to be an Egged bus on her street but a few violent people started stoning it because it did not have separate seating for men and women. Although she would certainly never sit next to a man, she has no problem riding a mixed bus and feels very annoyed that she and her elderly mother now have to walk out of their way to catch the bus. In fact, many Haredi women prefer mixed buses because they can sit next to their husbands who can help them with their children, among other things. But there is no law and order on the street, so an extremist minority gets its way. The police do not stand up to the thugs that the majority of Haredim oppose because they are afraid of even greater violence. But over many years, what happens is the violence gets worse anyway as the lawless types see they can get away with it.
The real issue is that the government and police are not asserting their sovereignty over entire sectors of the population, in the mistaken, short-sighted view that this is the way to avert violence. In fact, this inaction breeds even more violence down the line.
The public anger at what happened in Beit Shemesh is legitimate. But the media are mostly covering it in an irresponsible and hackneyed way. It is very easy to get the public riled up about religious people, especially Haredim, and their purportedly sexist ways. It is an easy day's work for lazy journalists. "Exclusion of women" is a real and worrying symptom. But it is one form the bullying takes, not the cause of the bullying. The real problem is weak and non-existent law enforcement. In Beit Shemesh, children are afraid to walk to school, and it is not because of sexism, it is because of long-standing government policies that have caused the government to lose control. That is the story newspapers should really be reporting.
Chava Boylan-Neustadter, originally from New Jersey, is an editor and mother of two. The above represents her own views and not those of Israel Hayom or its management.
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