Men and women must walk on separate sidewalks and sit segregated on public busses. Stores are forbidden to sell lingerie or any red clothing item, considered to be the color of passion. A shoe store is forbidden from displaying high heeled shoes in its windows. A medical clinic is forced to remove the word ‘women’ from its sign. A pizzeria is required to have separate hours for men and women customers. Stones are thrown at women joggers and bags of soiled diapers target storeowners refusing to give in to the demands of a modesty “police” force.
These stories are not coming from the harsh regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but rather from a small city not far from Jerusalem. Beit Shemesh, once a quiet town attracting little attention, has become the front line of the battle for Israel’s Jewish identity, and in this town, the side of reason is losing.
Beit Shemesh is home to 85,000 residents, and it is where my sister-in-law and her family live. About 40% of the population is haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, but that segment of the population is growing rapidly. As the average haredi family has more than six children, some 63% of the school population is already ultra-Orthodox. Ten percent of the of the town’s schoolchildren are secular, with the rest being, like my family there, modern, national religious. The national religious sector is one that works, serves in the army, and pays taxes. The haredim, on the whole, do not work or pay taxes, yet they are fully supported by the State.
The ultra-Orthodox were attracted to Beit Shemesh by its low cost of living, and in many ways, they became much more extreme than the haredim who live in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. In Beit Shemesh the haredim live in separate neighborhoods. It is on the borders of those neighborhoods that the town’s religious wars are taking place.
As reported this weekend in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, the Beit Shemesh municipality recently erected a park bench at the top of a hill in the town but the haredim feared that this would lead to a situation where a man and a woman would sit down together. The municipality built a second bench, which would allow separate seating for men and women. Both benches were destroyed. The ultra-Orthodox felt that the two benches were too close together.
The latest incident to take place was at the opening this week of a new religious girls school, located on the fringe of an ultra-Orthodox district. We’re talking about a school for girls only, one in which the students must wear long sleeved blouses and fully cover their legs. A few days before the start of the school year, ultra-Orthodox youths broke into the building and extensively damaged the premises. The reason for their actions? They refuse to live in close proximity with the “immodesty” of these young girls.
For its part, the ultra-Orthodox community insists on its right to live in separate neighborhoods, safe from the influences of what it determines to be the immodest influences of secular society. A spokesman for the community told the newspaper that just as secular residents would not want a yeshiva school in their neighborhood, the ultra-Orthodox don’t want a girls school near their homes. The spokesman contended that acts of violence were being perpetrated by a small extremist segment of the ultra-Orthodox population and should not be considered as acceptable policy by his community as a whole.
A negotiated compromise, which would have seen a row of trees planted to hide the girls school from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, was rejected by haredi extremists.
The image in this article was originally posted to Flickr.com by CopperKettle and was taken from Wikimedia Commons and used under the license provided on that site.