The National – 9 September 2008
JERUSALEM // Scrawled across a wall on a busy main street is the statement in Hebrew: “Fashion equals promiscuity”. For women in some Israeli communities, such public sentiments are not simply idle graffiti – they are a warning, and one that is increasingly backed by threats of physical violence.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, religious fundamentalists who believe it is more important to follow their interpretation of God’s precepts than abide by Israeli laws, choose to live in separate neighbourhoods and towns, often close to the holy sites of Jerusalem.
Known locally as Haredim (literally, “God-fearing people”), they are the fastest growing community in Israel – and already comprise one-tenth of the population. The men are recognisable by their attire – a uniform of black hats or skullcaps, with black suits worn over white shirts – that dates to the community’s roots in eastern Europe several hundred years ago.
But faced with what they see as the threat of modern culture, sections of the Haredim are demanding a more rigorous enforcement of Jewish religious laws, or halakha. Under the label of “modesty patrols”, groups of ultra-Orthodox men are turning into vigilantes, targeting in particular Haredi women whose behaviour they disapprove of.
Reports of women being attacked on the street or in their homes have been steadily rising in the local media.
In one widely publicised incident over the summer, a 14-year-old girl from Upper Beitar, a large ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank south of Jerusalem, had acid poured on her face and body in what is believed to have been the work of a modesty patrol.
The girl told a paramedic treating her that she had been repeatedly threatened before the attack. According to local media, the girl was wearing loose-fitting trousers at the time of the attack.
Several rabbis have denounced women as immodest for wearing trousers. One of the most prominent, Rabbi Shlomi Aviner, ruled last month: “In general, a woman must always wear modest clothes even when she is alone and in the dark.”
Last week an ultra-Orthodox man, Elhanan Buzaglo, was indicted on suspicion of breaking into the home of a woman in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem along with six accomplices, armed with a bat and tear gas. The woman, divorced from a Haredi man, was beaten and told that she would be killed if she did not leave the area.
According to the charge sheet: “The defendant and the others shoved the complainant, dropped her to the floor, beat her, slammed her head against the floor and kicked her all over her body.”
Other complaints against Buzaglo soon came to light, including an attempt to run down a girl with a car.
Inat Horvi, of the Religious Action Centre, associated with the more liberal Reform Judaism movement, said modesty patrols have probably been a feature of Haredi life for decades.
But she said there was a growing trend of religious extremism among the ultra-Orthodox, as well as more generally in Israeli society. “Older ultra-Orthodox women report that their daughters cannot wear clothes that they themselves wore when they were their age,” she said.
She said that in most Haredi communities men and women remain strictly separate in public places, with examples of segregated shops and even pavements.
The modesty patrols have also been running a campaign against MP3 players, threatening store owners and in some cases burning down shops.
Not all communities, however, are taking the growing wave of vigilantism quietly. In Beit Shemesh, a town west of Jerusalem whose mixed population comprises less strict Orthodox Jews as well as the Haredim, 1,500 people protested against the modesty patrols late last year, demanding police and the municipality take greater action.
The demonstration followed two incidents involving the patrols. In one, five ultra-Orthodox men attacked a man and woman for sitting together on a bus, and in the other, a family was threatened because their television screen was visible from the street. Women also say they have been warned not to jog in the town.
The key battleground for the modesty patrols has been the segregation of men and women on public buses, known as mehadrin or “kosher” lines. Modesty patrols insist that women sit at the back of buses only.
The Religious Action Centre is currently petitioning the Supreme Court to force the national bus company, Egged, and the transport ministry to end their official co-operation with the practice on 30 routes. Many additional routes are informally segregated, enforced by ultra-Orthodox passengers.
“We do not, in principle, dispute the right of the Haredim to demand segregated buses inside their own communities,” Ms Horvi said. “But our petition is designed to stop Egged and the transport ministry from using public funds to enforce segregation on services open to the general public.”
Ministry officials have washed their hands of the issue, saying the mehadrin lines are the outcome of agreements between Egged and the Haredim. However, the court has ordered a response to the petition from both Egged and the transport ministry by the end of this month.
Ms Horvi said a growing number of bus routes between major towns have become segregated in the past few years following demands from ultra-Orthodox passengers, although none is marked as segregated.
“Egged has caved in because it knows that the Haredim feel strongly enough that they will stop using the services and set up their own unlicensed bus lines. It also knows that in most cases the non-Haredi public has no choice but to carry on using the lines, even when they are segregated.”
A dozen women who have suffered threats or beatings are party to the petition. One, Naomi Ragen, a 58-year-old writer, has termed the segregated routes “Taliban lines”.
Hanna Pasternak, 58, an Orthodox Jew and feminist, said she has suffered a series of humiliating confrontations with ultra-Orthodox men when she has chosen to sit at the front of the bus.
“In one incident, a man demanded I sit at the back, but I refused,” she said. “The journey lasted an hour, and he didn’t stop shouting at me for one minute. He called me various bad names.”
Later he turned to other men and talked to them in Yiddish, a language spoken by older central European Jews. “He didn’t realise that I understood everything he said. I heard him telling the men that they should find out where I lived and teach me a lesson. I left the bus terrified.”
Not all rabbis agree with the new emphasis on modesty.
Israel Rosen, a leading settler rabbi, decried the Haredi tradition of omitting women’s names from newspapers and invitations. “Is there no psychological connection between the hypocrisy of concealing the name and hiding the face under the ‘Taliban-style’ veil?”