Israeli protesters resist influence of ultra-Orthodox

December 7, 2011

With its department-store-sized windows, the Kolben Dance Company's
studio faces a busy Jerusalem plaza, but few passersby have ever
glimpsed one of the troupe's rehearsals inside.

The studio's
shades were drawn three years ago, after extremists from the city's
large Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish community threatened employees and
defaced their ads. The fundamentalists called the dancers' revealing
clothes and mixed-gender moves "provocative" and a violation of Jewish
modesty laws.

The management acceded to the pressure, but inspired
by grassroots protests against religious coercion that took place in
Israel last year, it reopened the windows in late November.

"In
the past few years, women have been segregated and eliminated from the
public sphere by religious extremists," said Rachel Azaria, a Modern
Orthodox Jew and a member of the City Council, as she watched the
dancers, dressed in tight costumes, rehearse a contemporary piece.
"Now," she said, "the public is finally out here campaigning."

Israel's
highly insular Haredi minority—roughly 8 percent of the total
population and about a third Jerusalem residents—values piety above all
else. What worries outsiders is when Haredi Jews use their size and
influence to impose that piety on everyone else.

Haredi Jews have
strict dress codes and enforce gender separation in their schools,
synagogues and weddings. Men who study Torah full-time are exempt from
mandatory military service, and large families barely scrape by on the
wife's wages, study stipends and public assistance. As their ranks have
swelled in recent years, so too has their influence in both the public
and governmental spheres, and not only in Israel.

Israel's
increasingly Haredi Chief Rabbinate, which has sole authority over
Jewish religious matters within the country, has raised the bar for
Orthodox conversions performed at home and abroad.

Haredi leaders
have convinced some merchants and government agencies to host men and
women separately. They have tried to ban women from singing at public
and military events and insist on gender segregation on certain bus
lines. Until recently, it was difficult to find advertisements in
Jerusalem featuring women or girls; that has started to change after a
public outcry.

Kimmy Caplan, an expert in Haredi society at
Bar-Ilan University, said the desire to impose rigid Haredi standards on
the wider world stems largely from fear. "There is a battle by certain
people in the community, who see women working and what men are being
exposed to" in secular society, "and are trying to put up barriers to
defend the community. That's what's happening in the public sphere."

Seth
Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and director of Itim, an organization
that helps Israelis deal with the religious establishment, places much
of the blame on politicians. "To a large extent, nonreligious
politicians have handed over religious issues to fundamentalists to
acquire yes votes on other issues," he said. "As a result, a small
minority are controlling Jewish life in this country."

Unless
Israelis actively counter this trend, Farber warned, "it could cause a
major schism in the social fabric of Israeli society."

To some
degree, that's already happening. A recent study by the Smith Research
Institute for Hiddush-Freedom of Religion in Israel, found that nearly
two-thirds of Israelis say "tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox
communities" are the no. 1 or no. 2 most acute domestic conflict.

"I
think there's a feeling of empowerment, a feeling that enough is
enough, perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring in our region," said Anat
Hoffman, director of the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center,
which has spearheaded many campaigns and filed numerous High Court
petitions on religious freedom issues.

For the past year,
Hoffman's office (affiliated with the Reform movement in the U.S.) has
dispatched hundreds of volunteer "Freedom Riders" to ensure that public
bus lines remain free of forced gender segregation. Israel's High Court
has called such segregation illegal, and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has
said the idea is "not Jewish law."

In November, thousands of
Israelis called on the country's Religious Affairs Ministry to restart
issuing marriage licenses to Tzohar, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical group;
the group was denied licenses because of pressure from Haredi leaders,
according to Tzohar director Rabbi David Stav.

The same month,
hundreds of people, ranging from secular to Orthodox, held songfests on
street corners to protest attempts to ban women from performing in
public places.

Military and government officials have also begun
to take action. A group of retired generals appealed to the defense
minister not to yield to Haredi pressure to exclude religious male
soldiers from events—or military operations—where female soldiers are
present. Israeli women, like their male counterparts, are required to
serve their country.

Jonathan Rosenblum, a Haredi commentator,
said the vast majority of Haredi Jews are law-abiding citizens who
reject extremism carried out in the name of religion. Writing in the
Orthodox journal Cross-Currents, Rosenblum said Haredi hardliners
"distort the Torah to make it something ugly," even as some Haredi live
in complete "harmony" with their neighbors.  —RNS