The ultra-Orthodox tighten their grip in Israel (WASHINGTON POST OP-ED) By Ruth Marcus BEIT SHEMESH, Israel 08/08/12)
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The rock hit Nili Philipp on the side of her helmet as she biked last
year along the main road in this Jerusalem suburb. A few years
earlier, the spitting had begun, as Philipp jogged on a road
bordering an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Men called her names:
Shikseh, the derogatory term for a Gentile woman. Prutzah, whore.
But Philipp’s story is not one of conflict between the defiantly
secular Israeli majority and an increasingly assertive ultra-Orthodox
minority. She is an observant, modern Orthodox Jew, dressed, on the
day we speak, as she is for her runs — a kerchief covering her red
hair, a skirt that falls modestly below the knee. It speaks volumes
about intolerance among the ultra-Orthodox that Philipp has become
enraged, even radicalized, by the behavior of her neighbors.
“Whenever people tell me, respect their society — their society
doesn’t respect me,” Philipp says, voice quivering as she describes a
recent incident in which a woman with an infant was pelted with
stones while shopping here. “We all see ourselves as vulnerable, and
we’re all scared.” The latest skirmish involves signs instructing
women here to stay off certain sidewalks so as not to brush up
In a chilling parallel to the escalating fundamentalist tendencies
within Islam, the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, have adopted a version
of Judaism that requires strict separation between men and women. The
more they fear assimilation, the more extreme their practices have
become. And, as their numbers mount, they have stepped up demands
that society accommodate their religious needs.
On a day-to-day basis, the ultra-Orthodox, insular and detached, make
little difference to the average Israeli. You can order a decidedly
unkosher grilled calamari in Eilat or go clubbing in Tel Aviv even
after Sabbath begins on Friday night.
Few secular Israelis experience the de facto segregated public buses
that run through Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem; men sit in the
front, women in the back, despite court-ordered signs advising
passengers that they can sit where they choose. When I rode the No.
56 from Ramat Shlomo to Mea Shearim with representatives from the New
Israel Fund and the Israel Religious Action Center, no one said a
word when I sat up front — even if ultra-Orthodox men chose to stand
rather than occupy vacant seats nearby.
Instances of intimidation such as Philipp experienced are more
episodic than constant, more localized than countrywide. When they
hit the news, as with the spitting and yelling at Philipp’s daughter
and other young girls heading to their religious school in Beit
Shemesh last year, there tends to be public outcry and, at least
briefly, official intervention.
One difficult set of questions in a country where religion and
government are officially entangled is how much the state should
accommodate the religious needs of the ultra-Orthodox — for example,
the ultra-Orthodox public radio station that bleeps out the voices of
female members of the national legislature, the Knesset, lest men
suffer from “impure” thoughts on hearing women’s voices, or public
health clinics with separate days for men and women. If higher
education is key to integrating the ultra-Orthodox, should the state
fund scholarships for gender-segregated classes?
Even more troubling are the mounting instances in which the ultra-
Orthodox have insisted that their religious needs take precedence —
for instance, demanding separate seating at public ceremonies or
even, as happened last year, barring a female pediatrics professor
from going on stage to accept an award from the ultra-Orthodox health
With the country now debating how to integrate the ultra-Orthodox
into the armed forces — the long-standing draft exemption has been
declared unconstitutional — questions of gender equity will become
even more pointed: Will conscription of the ultra-Orthodox come at
the expense of women’s rights in an egalitarian military? Will ultra-
Orthodox men take orders from women?
These clashes between the legitimate rights of a religious minority
and the essential freedoms of the majority threaten to become ever
more intense as the ultra-Orthodox population multiplies and its
political clout grows. The ultra-Orthodox now constitute about 10
percent of Israel’s population, but the Central Bureau of Statistics
estimates that the Haredi share of the population will reach 30
percent within 50 years.
“I moved to Israel and the rock that was thrown at me wasn’t from an
Arab, which I was prepared for,” said Dov Lipman, a Beit Shemesh
community activist who came here from Silver Spring, Md. “It was
thrown by another Jew, which I wasn’t prepared for.”
No one should have to be. (© 2010 The Washington Post Company
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