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Gender Segregation in Israel

As you’re no doubt aware — I gather the American media are slavering all over this story — there is a good deal of upset over here right now concerning the disgusting abuse hurled by some ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Bet Shemesh at an eight-year-old Jewish girl. She is herself orthodox, just not orthodox enough to suit their lofty standards. They have made a habit of insulting and harassing the poor girl on her walk to school, spitting on her and calling her a whore, thus turning the walk into a daily misery for her.

The revolting behavior of these zealots toward this child has caused outrage across the religious spectrum here, including, as The New York Times rightly points out, among other ultra-orthodox. An anti-extremism rally took place in Bet Shemesh on Tuesday night, organized by Dov Lipman, an orthodox rabbi who runs the Emergency Committee to Save Bet Shemesh. The rally was only modestly attended — estimates are in the high hundreds to low thousands — but it did attract nationwide attention. The day after the rally (yesterday), Bibi told the Knesset that Israel will not countenance the behavior of “anyone who harasses women, anyone who harasses people in the public sphere…This is part of what makes Israel a liberal western democracy.”

My response to all this is mixed. I wholeheartedly support the public shaming of these self-righteous lunatics, whose fear and dislike of women — even little girls — is so profound that they will disgrace their very religion in order to shove them out of sight. It’s incredibly offensive to see these people using Judaism to justify the tormenting of a child. I’ve long believed you can tell the general health of a culture by the way it treats its females, and this behavior strikes an ominous chord.

The fringe element has been here for a long time, and their behavior continues despite the attention. I’m reminded of when I was pregnant with my first child nine years ago. We had decided I was going to have him in Jerusalem, which entailed a drive there from Rehovot, where we lived at the time. The thing is, he was due right around Yom Kippur. There was thus a degree of danger — small, but present — implicit in our driving into Jerusalem. Jewish zealots have been known to stone cars daring to break Shabbat, and Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. (You can’t write, ride a bicycle, push a stroller, carry a bag, or turn on a light, but to these people, throwing rocks at moving vehicles is perfectly kosher.)

We made signs with big red stars of David on them and taped them to the windows of the car in hopes that that would deter any would-be stone-throwers. (The idea was to convey that we were on our way to a hospital.) We weren’t stoned, as it happened — he was born the day before Yom Kippur — but we had to take the possibility into consideration.

Jewish religious extremists have been active on other fronts besides the schoolgirl-tormenting detail, staging “price-tag” attacks on Muslim sites following Muslim attacks on Jews and even allegedly monitoring and tracking IDF forces.  This is a serious problem and one that must be addressed. But I’m troubled by two elements of the response to the Bet Shemesh situation.

First, there is an inclination among some secular Israelis to tar all religious Jews with the same brush of fanaticism, just as there is among the more closed-minded religious Jews an eagerness to believe that all secular Israelis are sinful, nihilistic hedonists. As Israel Harel points out in Haaretz, many secular Israelis are quick to hold the entire religious community collectively responsible for its lunatics while refusing even to acknowledge, let alone effectively contain, the behavior of their own unsavory elements. Bibi made the point in his speech to the Knesset that “we must beware of generalizing an entire population, because the vast majority of the Haredi [ultra-orthodox] public combines an adherence to Jewish tradition and a complete respect of the law.” (Considering his coalition partners, his point might have been rather cynically motivated, but it remains true nonetheless.)

And second, it drives me crazy that this kind of story — a story about the disgraceful behavior of a tiny minority of Israeli Jews — transfixes the attention of the international media while stories like this, and this, and this warrant little more than a cursory glance, if that. I try, as a rule, not to let the double standard get to me, but in my less defended moments I do sense a combination of relief and glee in the international media’s rush to swing the Klieg lights onto Jewish bad behavior. This is an appalling incident without question and it should of course be well covered. But the perpetrators do not represent all Jews, or all Israelis, or all orthodox Jewish Israelis. Unfortunately, the climate of international reporting on Israel requires that this obvious point be made.