Sexism and the state of Israel

Driven by a theology that refuses to grant women equal rights, ultraorthodox Jews have begun to flex their misogynist muscles. But, says Catrina Stewart, a fightback has begun

As dusk falls in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem's most pious neighbourhood, black-clad and hatted Jewish men hurry home along the narrow streets lined by medieval-style houses where lights burn dimly in darkened windows.

Less than half a mile away, young Israelis mix in bustling bars in central Jerusalem, anathema to this religious ultraorthodox community that has tried its hardest to hide itself away from the temptations of secular life, and ensure a rigorous separation between men and women.

Ironically, though, it is the ultraorthodox community's efforts to impose its religious values on ordinary Israelis, particularly women, that many fear is undermining Israel's democracy, and which now poses the greatest threat to this community's survival.

When Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old woman from Ashdod, boarded a Jerusalem-bound bus late last year, she caused a stir by refusing to heed the demands of a religious male passenger to move to the back of the bus. Many of the ultraorthodox – known as Haredim – believe that modesty forbids women to sit at the front of the bus with the men, and it is common to see segregated buses with women seated to the rear, often crowded in while seats remain free at the front.

Ms Rosenblit became a minor celebrity in Israel, but her stance was not without consequences, earning her death threats for daring to challenge the religious community.

"The Haredim has always received special treatment in this country and people thought it was okay," she says. "But something has changed... in the sense that they feel they are going to control this country. That's disturbing."

The issue of creeping religious coercion over all aspects of Israelis' lives has taken on huge importance in recent years as the ultraorthodox spread beyond their traditional communities in Jerusalem and outer Tel Aviv in search of cheap housing. But the situation recently reached a head in Beit Shemesh, a town near Jerusalem, when an ultraorthodox man spat at and verbally abused an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, for what he considered was immodest attire.

Not for the first time, Israel's Haredim find themselves under attack. Making up about 10 per cent of the population, this impoverished and fast-growing community has long been viewed as an economic drain on society, but now some fear that their influence is extending far beyond their ghetto-like communities.

In a potent display of their sense of persecution, an extreme Haredi sect living in Mea Shearim recently plastered yellow stars on their children in protest, a symbol of Jewish persecution from the Holocaust that resonates deeply with Israelis, and inspired widespread disgust.

Young men in Mea Shearim insist that those who inspire such hatred are an extremist minority who do not represent the Haredim as a whole. "I think modesty on the buses is okay," says one, who works in a religious bookstore, "but to force that is not the way to behave."

But his view on tolerance is not one readily accepted in this insular neighbourhood. Moments before, a Haredi man with sidelocks spat on the ground next to this reporter, who was modestly dressed, and muttered "pritze", a Yiddish word meaning prostitute.

Meanwhile, the women within these communities are afraid to speak out, says Hannah Kehat, founder of Kolech, an ultraorthodox women's group. "It's social control. If they [the women] go against somebody, the [extremists] exclude them, tell people they are not religious enough, attack them, say bad things about their families," says Ms Kehat, who grew up in Mea Shearim. "It's terror," she adds.

While segregation on buses has come to epitomise discrimination against women, it is only a small part of the story. In a conscript army where the Haredim now play an important, if small, role, women have watched with dismay as the religious soldiers boycotted events where female soldiers were to sing, insisting it was sinful.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, an ultraorthodox Jew, recently walked out of a hospital dedication ceremony where female vocalists were scheduled to perform, and women were barred this month from speaking or taking part in panel discussions at a fertility convention organised by a religious medical group.

Even secular companies have acquiesced to pressure to banish images of women from their advertising on Jerusalem's billboards, fearful of a Haredi backlash against their products.

In religious elementary schools, an outspoken group of parents is fighting efforts by the ultraorthodox to limit the teaching of secular subjects, and force boys and girls as young as five to learn in separate classrooms. In the past decade, says Shmuel Shattach, executive director of liberal Orthodox group Ne'emanei Torah Ve'avoda, gender separation in state-run religious schools has gone from being the minority to the majority. He recalls how the principal of his daughter's school asked fathers to leave a performance put on by eight and nine-year-old girls, and says that the modesty rules become stricter every year, with young girls told to wear skirts that fall below the knees and don ever longer sleeves.

"I believe in modesty... and not dressing provocatively, but to ask a child of five [to do this] is ridiculous," he says. It is also critically important, he believes, to allow children to mix at that young age if his son is not to see girls "as a kind of demon", and argues that religious men who refuse to sit behind a woman on a bus are driven by ignorance and fear.

To a large extent, Israel's Education Ministry is complicit in the segregation of boys and girls, preferring to bow to ultraorthodox demands than see the children moved into the private Haredim education system, where the curriculum excludes core subjects such as mathematics and English language in favour of Torah study.

Such limited education ill-equips Haredi Jews to join the workforce, meaning that most devote their lives to state-funded religious study while women, who routinely bear up to a dozen children, can ill afford the time to hold down jobs. Ultimately, it is those who work who fund the ultraorthodox way of life, breeding resentment.

"When I look at who carries the burden, I feel like a sucker," says Alon Vissier, 22, who helped organise recent protests against segregated buses. "The problem begins with the government ... the [politicians] make compromises at our expense."

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that "women will sit in every place", ultraorthodox politicians, represented by two right-leaning political parties, have played the role of kingmakers within successive Israeli coalitions, and politicians tread carefully so as not to alienate the religious community.

But now the battle lines have been drawn, led by an empowered Israeli mainstream that took to the streets across the country last summer to call for social reform. These same Israelis are the ones calling for the restoration of democratic values, and the curbing of the ultraorthodox community's disproportionate influence.

Whether they will succeed remains to be seen. Rachel Liel, director of the New Israel Fund, holds out little hope in the near term, arguing that the broadside on women has been made possible by an increasingly reactionary climate in Israel. Politicians have proposed a slew of anti-democratic legislation, including efforts to muzzle the media, control the judiciary and halt funding to NGOs critical of the state.

"We see Arabs struggling for democracy [in the Arab Spring] while Israel is going backwards," she says. "We are stepping back from a vibrant democracy into something which is bad."

New ultraorthodoxy: protests turn nasty

* Last year, Haredim attempted to block a central Jerusalem road every Saturday in a bid to extend the no-go zone for cars on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. They threw rocks at drivers, prompting criticism of the police for failing to rein them in.

* In 2009, the ultraorthodox staged weekly protests against plans to open a parking lot on Saturdays, which they feared would bring an influx of tourists. Their weapon of choice against police was soiled nappies, plentiful in their large families. The municipality suspended rubbish collection in response.

* As Israelis gather annually to celebrate Independence Day in celebration of Israel's founding, the ultraorthodox Neturei Karta sect burn the Israeli flag in protest. This anti-Zionist group believes that the Jews can only have their own state following the coming of the Messiah.

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?