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Sunday, December 25, 2011 

Hasidic discrimination against women in Beit Shemesh is getting disturbingly out of hand

I recently wrote about the case of a rabbi making a most revolting statement that it was better for a religiously minded soldier to die in battle than hear a female singer play. But that's just the tip of the iceberg of cases of - specifically - fringe elements of Hasidics who are enacting discrimination against women mainly in Beit Shemesh and it's getting disturbingly out of hand, and cannot be ignored. Let's start with this Jerusalem Post op-ed:
Discrimination and violence against women – purportedly motivated by religious sensibilities – have spiraled out of control.

In recent weeks, we have been witness to women attacked for refusing to move to the back of the bus to uphold a policy of gender segregation; women forced out of a venue where elections in a Jerusalem neighborhood were being held; women denied the right to come on stage to receive an official Health Ministry prize for research into the relationship between Halacha and medicine; women banned from a Jerusalem ad campaign to encourage organ donations; and women prevented from serving in key IDF positions due to the opposition of a growing, increasingly vocal group of religious male soldiers and officers. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

These incidents have generated a debate over what has been euphemistically referred to as the “banishing” of women from the public sphere. But chauvinism, discrimination or downright violence would more accurately describe this behavior.

On Saturday night, a young haredi man was arrested on suspicion of spitting at a woman helping girls onto a school bus at a religious-Zionist elementary school in Beit Shemesh.

The recent spate of incidents is so severe that it brought the issue of gender discrimination to the center of public discourse. Significantly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who opened Sunday’s cabinet meeting by denouncing discrimination against women, has called on haredi legislators to speak out publicly against the phenomenon and ask their spiritual leaders to do so as well.

In recent years, a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox community has adopted more extremist positions, especially with regard to questions of female modesty, known as tzniut in Hebrew. Women’s physical proximity, no matter how perfunctory, has been transformed by radical haredi men into an insurmountable hurdle.

The inner dynamics of the ultra-Orthodox community allow these men to leverage their influence. Moderation is viewed with disdain as a weakness. The result has been an unrivaled push for the radical revamping of the public domain.

Much has changed since Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895- 1986), the most important halachic authority in America, permitted men to commute to work on subways and buses because “unavoidable and unintentional physical contact is devoid of sexual connotations.”

Today, in contrast, where the zealots have a say, women simply do not exist. You can search in vain for a female presence in the ultra-Orthodox press. Pictures of women are taboo, even when the subject is an infant. If there is a doubt regarding the gender of a baby – say in a diaper ad – sidelocks or a kippa are added. Female names are even abbreviated.

This hyper-puritanical world view is, furthermore, being accommodated outside strictly ultra-Orthodox circles. As The Jerusalem Post’s health reporter Judy Siegel reports in today’s paper, at least two state-funded health funds – Clalit and Meuhedet – have published special brochures in deference to ultra-Orthodox sensitivities.

Neither “breast” nor “cancer” is mentioned in these brochures. Instead, code words are used. And even the most innocent photos of women or young girls are vigilantly removed. Faced with the prospect that segments of the ultra-Orthodox community would refuse to read these “sexy” brochures – and thus endanger women’s lives by failing to detect breast cancer early – the heads of the health funds apparently felt compelled to make these modifications.

Similarly, public bus companies, apparently motivated by economic considerations, have allowed haredi activists to enforce gender segregation. By caving in to these unreasonable demands, the bus companies and health funds are giving them legitimacy. And the inevitable side effect is a feeling of entitlement and self-righteousness that emboldens some particularly extreme haredi men to aggressively confront women – whether on the bus, in the streets of Beit Shemesh or elsewhere.

According to a recently released CBS report, by the year 2059, haredim – who currently make up 10 percent of the population – will grow by 580% and represent a third of Israelis. As it grows, the need for haredim to integrate into mainstream Israeli society and transform themselves from a parochial enclave to a full-fledged partner in the flourishing of a healthy Jewish state will grow as well.

What is desperately needed today in the ultra-Orthodox community is the sort of reasonable, pragmatic spiritual leadership personified by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that would enable such integration. Otherwise, coexistence will inevitably become more and more difficult.
Back in the late 1990s, there were a couple of similar incidents of would-be Hasidics who antagonized women they considered "immodestly" dressed (one witness said it was like being attacked by a sea of black), including spitting at or worse, throwing rocks at women whose dress style they disapproved of. There was no indication of whether any of the victims who experienced this horrific behavior were religious themselves, and at that time, one could pretty much say that the MSM exploited these cases as a way of smearing the right in Israel. That was one of the causes of anti-religious sentiment in Israel at the time, because they agitated people's take on Judaism, and led to the loss of the Likud in the 1999 election, partly because the Hasidic religious parties were seen as close to them. I can't help but wonder if their chilling beliefs stemmed from Islamic influence, since this kind of mindset might date back to the 19th century at the time of the Ottomans. And maybe I'm right; it could have something to do with that. (Not to mention the anti-Zionist Satmar sect.) I'm practically on the verge of suspecting that those fringe extremists were hoping to doom the right's electoral chances at the time.

As these recent incidents involving aggression against even religious women should tell, however, it's not just "secular" women who've been targeted by these near-misogynists who seem determined to destroy proper distinctions between Judaism and Islam. Even religious women have been victimized by this crazy mindset. Here's another recounting by a pious woman of her experience on a segregated bus in Beit Shemesh. The headline there hints at similarities with Rosa Parks, and it makes me think of how sickening it'll be if a black woman - whether religious or not - were to run afoul of any alleged Hasidics who espouse that kind of insanity and even go so far as to use racial slurs. I don't know of any actual incidents like this occurring yet, but if something concrete isn't done soon, it could happen.

Thank goodness that now, the right is making a more serious effort to confront problems like these. I suspect that one of the reasons why this has been taking place is because these fringe extremists - who certainly aren't following any true beliefs in Judaism with their behavior - must think having a conservative government in control makes it easy to get away with their offensive acts. Not so anymore as Netanyahu has wisely come out swinging clearly against these monstrous acts.

Many in Jewish society consider the image of an "evil Hasidic gangster", something that Fagin in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist may have led to, an offensive stereotype. Why are these nutcases going out of their way to legitimize such a filthy concept by stooping to violence against women (and even men) in Jewish society over disagreements with how they run their lives?

Here's some more past horror stories you should take note of, including a case of 10 teens of a "national religious" background who were assaulted by a mob of as many as 70, another one involving fringe extremists who terrorized religious girls out of hate for their gaining a school building, and there's videos there to check as well, and another with a letter by Rabbi Dov Lipman on arrests that thankfully were made. And here, most recently, is a chilling case of an 8-year-old girl who was threatened by these madmen (via JPI). More on the same situations is also available here and here. As these should make clear, it's not just "secular" women or even men who've been targeted, but also religious people from non-Hasidic backgrounds. And it's a very scary situation that needs to solved.

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