Naama Margolese—an 8-year-old Israeli girl taunted by ultra-Orthodox men who think she is immodest—is the new face of Jewish women’s rights
When former Israeli president Moshe Katsav walked into central Israel’s Maasiyahu prison early last month to begin serving a seven-year sentence for raping a female employee, feminists rejoiced that sexual abuse had been punished at the highest level in the land. But just two weeks later, the plight of an 8-year-old girl drew their—and the country’s—attention to the city of Beit Shemesh, the new ground zero of discrimination against women in Israel.
Naama Margolese, a shy blonde girl with blue eyes and glasses, became a household name in late December when Channel 2 TV aired a report about the ultra-Orthodox men who regularly taunted her on her walk to school.
In the report, Naama whimpered, “Mom, I’m scared,” as she clutched her mother’s hand during the 300-yard walk from their home to school. In footage, Naama wears skirts to her ankles and covers her shoulders like the rest of the students at her Orthodox school, called Orot, for girls aged 6 to 12. But ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men call Naama and her friends whores and spit on them. The school’s ultra-Orthodox neighbors told the TV reporters the Orot girls deserved to be sworn at and attacked for violating the Torah’s command to cover up.
Naama’s story is the latest incident of ultra-Orthodox harassment of women to be reported in recent weeks. Days before Channel 2 aired their report, Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old woman from Ashdod, publicized the half-hour standoff that ensued when she refused an ultra-Orthodox man’s demand to move to the back of a public bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem. In September, nine religious male soldiers refused to stay in an auditorium where women were singing during an official military ceremony. In response, the army expelled four of them from their prestigious officers’ course.
Ultra-Orthodox demands on women in the public sphere are not new: In Jerusalem’s insular neighborhood of Mea Shearim, for example, signs imploring female visitors to dress modestly have plastered the stone walls for decades. But in recent years, the calls have radiated out of that Jerusalem shtetl to larger Orthodox sections of Jerusalem and beyond. Health clinics and post offices have begun to hold separate hours for men and women. Advertising agencies have stopped featuring women on billboards in Jerusalem—even after they covered up their models with long sleeves—because fundamentalist Jews would vandalize the signs.
In the past, these stories garnered only minor news coverage. But Naama’s story sparked a public uproar because she is so young, because police seemed to be doing nothing, and because all the lead characters are religious. Late last month, at a conference for Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres called on Israelis to “save the majority from the talons of the minority.” He added: “We are fighting for the soul of the people and for the substance of the state.”
Founded in 1950 by Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria, Romania, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco, Beit Shemesh’s old city is full of the stucco-sided public-housing blocks typical of ’50s Israeli construction. It was once a mostly traditional or Orthodox town, but in the last two decades, more stringent ultra-Orthodox newcomers have moved in from Jerusalem.
These new ultra-Orthodox residents tended to congregate in their own neighborhoods. They postered public walls with pashkevilim, large block-print Hebrew papers that are vital media for people who shun mainstream Israeli TV, radio, and print news. On a sidewalk near a synagogue, they put up signs asking women to cross to the other side of the street and not to stop to chat because doing so would attract undue attention from the pious. On buses that run through their neighborhoods, the ultra-Orthodox have managed to impose an unofficial rule that women must sit in the back. Beit Shemesh is also home to a new, tiny sect of ultra-conservative women who cover up in the style of the most observant Muslim women, from head to toe.
In March, we’re going to have a daughter in Israel, our chosen home. But recent events have us doubting if this is the best place to raise her.