The Threat from Within
Recent incidents in Bet Shemesh and Meah Shearim involving members of various Haredi sects have twisted the meaning of “religiousness.” These episodes, primarily involving Ultra-Orthodox men, reveal deep-seated discriminatory tendencies and disdain for basic religious toleration. Disturbances have included: spitting on immodestly dressed women, bus segregation, disturbing protests in urban squares, and outright vandalism.
Public outcry stirred when Tanya Rosenblit of Ashdod refused to move to the back of a bus after being demanded to do so by Haredim. She has since become an icon in the fight against discrimination. In a similar event, a Haredi was arrested for harassing a 19-year-old soldier, Doron Matalon, in Jerusalem for not moving to the back of a bus. He was reported to have called her “shiksa” and “slut” for her refusal to move. Matalon courageously responded to the Haredi man, according to a December 29, 2011 Jerusalem Post article saying that she was “serving our country, which unfortunately means I am also defending you.”
Discrimination on Israel’s public transportation is not a new phenomenon. “Mehadrin” bus lines had officially provided segregated bus service to Ultra-Orthodox communities since the 1990s until last January when the Israeli High Court of Justice declared sex segregation unlawful and offensive. Despite the decree, many buses continue to unofficially segregate, relegating women to the back of the bus and men to the front.
Thankfully, governmental and rabbinic figures have responded to the events. Commissioner Yochanan Danino has applied a zero-tolerance policy for any sexist discrimination, which is now considered a criminal offense. In an interview with Army Radio, Chief Ashkenaz Rabbi Yonah Metzger stated, “We [the Haredim] don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others. This state does not belong to the Haredi community.”
Haredi extremism is not only taking place on public transportation. In Bet Shemesh, a group of radical Haredim, the “Sikrikim,” has been protesting the opening of the Orot Girls School, a dati leumi institution. Deplorably, they have decided to express their discontent with the school’s “immodest” dress code by spitting on young girls. Naama Margolese, a 7-year old American “olah” has become a national icon since a news report showed that she was too afraid to walk the 300 meters from the school to her home. Haredim continue to shout “Tistalku mikan” (“get out of here”) at women and prohibit women from walking on certain sidewalks.
The Sikrikim infamously go by “the Meah Shearim Mafia,” as well. Because of their actions, Meah Shearim has become a dangerous place even for the average modern Orthodox individual. On Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron every year, the Sikrikim chant hatred during the national sirens against the Zionist Israeli government. Most especially, they have forced Manny’s Book Shop in Meah Shearim to stop selling Zionist books. Sikrikim have reportedly raided and sacked the store for allowing tourists to walk into the store with immodest dress.
Despite the noise in the news that many Haredim are making, most Haredim support the State of Israel and keep their religious observance to themselves. It is only a small group of Haredim that demand women to sit at the back of a bus.
The silence of the moderate Haredim, however, is encouraging a bad reputation for religiosity. For many secular Israelis, religion is an irrational and, ironically, an unethical way of life. This results from the public behavior of the most outspoken religious Jews, namely, Haredim. Protests against Zionism, Tzahal, and women are comparable to the rhetoric of Israel’s adversaries. In areas like Meah Shearim, where many residents despise Israel for religious purposes, Haredim are even seen supporting the destruction of Israel and the formation of a Palestinian state in its place.
The Haredi protests climaxed when a rally was held in Shabbat Square on a Saturday night, comparing Zionism to Nazism. This false claim was officially the standpoint of the United Nations from 1975 until 1993 when the United States forced the international body to reject the resolution. The notorious Neturei Karta sect of Hasidim has also fervently called Zionism a modernized form of Nazism.
The Rally at Shabbat Square, however, was much more dramatized than any other “Zionism=Nazism” rally. Attendants wore yellow Stars of David with the “Jude” insignia over their clothes to demonstrate that religious Judaism is being annihilated just as the Nazis tried to eliminate the Jews. Some people dressed in blue-striped concentration camp clothes and stood behind bars. One particular boy posed with his hands in the air, referencing to the famous picture of a young boy in the ghetto surrendering to Nazi soldiers. Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a prominent figure in the Haredi community, supported this rally. He said that secular Jews are the “erev rav” (mixed multitude of non-Jews) who hate the real Jews (Haredim).
Is this what being a religious Jew means? Only 70 years after the Holocaust, men claiming to be frum promote hatred against Jews who do not conform to Ultra-Orthodox life. It is a disgrace on their part to their own cause. These “religious” Haredim ought to stare in a mirror and ask which type of Jew hates other Jews: the secularists or themselves. Until then, they mock the 6 million Jews who were murdered for being Jewish.
These anti-Jew rallies have been occurring simultaneously with “price tag” attacks in Judea and Samaria. A recent attack on the Ephraim military base by right-wing residents of the West Bank shocked the Israeli nation. It was clear that many Israelis are vehemently opposed to a Palestinian state in the West Bank. When Israeli citizens attacked the military base, however, politics turned into the birth of a civil war between reactionary Jews and the rest of society.
It is unclear when, or if, the conflict with conservative extremism will cease in Israel. Haredim are merely bringing their own complaints to fruition; through anti-Israel and anti-secular rallies, the Haredim influence secular Jews to hate the Ultra-Orthodox and religious community. Additionally, “price tag” extremists who terrorize Palestinians and the IDF are simply helping the Palestinian cause. Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, but young West Bank reactionaries uphold the peace with their forceful actions. Hopefully both groups will realize their faults before it is too late.