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.
Today, about 40 percent of Beit Shemesh’s 90,000 residents are Haredi, including the city’s mayor, Moshe Abutbul. The other 60 percent includes longtime residents, several thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and a tight-knit community of English-speaking immigrants from the United States and Britain.
Naama’s British neighbor, Alisa Coleman, told me that the spitting and attacks began when Naama’s school opened in September. The Haredis, who have been fighting for a larger share of municipal funding and property, wanted the school building for themselves. Coleman volunteered to escort the girls during pickup and dropoff. Ultra-Orthodox men spat in her face and called her a shiksa, a derogatory Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman, even while Channel 2 TV’s cameras rolled. Coleman, who immigrated 18 years ago, said the slur sounded peculiar in Israel, especially because in England she’d be “shouted at for being Jewish.”
Other neighbors said the attacks weren’t only verbal. Mira Aharonson said her daughter returned to school after the Sukkot holiday break to find her classroom reeking of dead fish. Feces had been smeared on the wall.
In the Haredi neighborhood of Nachala Umenucha in Beit Shemesh, residents I spoke to were divided about the school. Zvika Borenstein, who works in a hardware store, answered my questions in between snatches of Yiddish he spoke to his customers. He said modesty is in the eye of the beholder, and that halacha, Jewish religious law, does not have all the answers about the proper way to dress. “There are many, many levels of modesty,” he said. “There are things in the halacha, and there are things that are beyond the halacha.”
Shulamit Frie, a 36-year-old Haredi teacher, claimed she didn’t know about Naama’s school. She said she had no problem with the treatment of women in her neighborhood in Beit Shemesh—including with the use of segregated sidewalks. “It is not written not to pass over there, just not to stand there too long,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable if a man is sitting in the women’s section of the bus,” she added. “What if I want to nurse my baby?”
Israeli TV captured ultra-Orthodox men saying little girls were scandalizing them. “They don’t dress modestly. It bothers me,” a local man named Moshe told the Channel 2 Crew. “To spit at a girl who isn’t behaving according to Torah law—yes, that’s correct.”
On the sixth night of Hanukkah, Naama’s parents, Hadassa and Benji Margolese, hosted a candle-lighting ceremony for their supporters. Hadassa was born in Chicago, Benji was raised in Toronto, and the couple moved to Beit Shemesh eight years ago. They are part of a vibrant English-speaking Orthodox community, and it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning their Jewishness: That night, their living room windows were plastered in paper cutouts of dreidels and menorahs. Hadassa said the attacks gave Naama anxiety, nightmares, and insomnia.
The Margoleses welcomed moderate black-hatted well-wishers to their home that night, including Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsallem. Amsallem was expelled from the ultra-Orthodox party Shas in 2010 for calling on Haredi men to serve in the army and work rather than study Torah. “Not all the Haredi public is crazy,” he said at their home. “The majority is sane. But the moderate public sometimes struggles to express itself.” Amsallem said he hoped the police would clean up the issue. “We don’t want to live here like in Tehran.”
According to Beit Shemesh City Councilman Shalom Lerner, tensions with the ultra-Orthodox residents have been building for years, centering on a fight for housing, funding, and schools. Lerner, who is Modern Orthodox, said the previous mayor was too soft on the Haredi community, including allowing them to mark the borders of their territory with signs instructing women to dress modestly. He said the local police have also been lax about punishing ultra-Orthodox residents who attack women because in the past the community reacted to arrests with riots, during which they burned garbage and stoned buses.
“The police response in the beginning was terrible,” Lerner said. “They said, ‘Oh, well, you should be careful,’ as if there were two sides to the story. We intervened, we went to the politicians, to members of Knesset, to ministers, we wrote letters and the press started writing about it. All of the sudden people have been arrested and taken to court.”
In response to the Channel 2 news report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on police to come down hard on harassment and exclusion of women. According to a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem police, District Commander Niso Shaham has made gender discrimination a top priority in both Beit Shemesh and Mea Shearim. This includes taking down signs and fences that keep women off the sidewalks. The police have been met with an aggressive response. On Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 Haredi rioters attacked television news crews. Another riot erupted days later. A spokeswoman for Shaham said the police have made 17 arrests of Haredis in Beit Shemesh in the last four months.
On the last Tuesday in December, at least 3,000 protesters rallied outside Naama’s school, including a wide array of parliamentarians, from Limor Livnat in the ruling right-wing Likud party, to Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party, to Shelly Yachimovich and Nitzan Horowitz of more dovish parties. The protest went smoothly, albeit under strong police supervision. Besides the Israeli politicians, American residents of Beit Shemesh were prominent at the podium. Baltimore transplant Dov Lipman was one of the main organizers of the protest. Hadassa Margolese thanked supporters for taking up the plight of her daughter.
Since the Beit Shemesh report aired, other stories of gender discrimination have become more prominent in the Israeli press. Jerusalem resident Shlomo Fuchs, 44, was indicted late last month for sexual harassment after a female soldier named Doron Matalon claimed he called her a whore on a bus. A few days later, a progressive group in Jerusalem appealed to the High Court of Justice, demanding that Egged, the public transportation company, carry advertisements featuring women. Until now, Egged has refused, claiming that they trigger costly vandalism by extremists.
While these gender discrimination cases work their way through the courts, last Friday 250 women in Beit Semesh gathered in the city center to dance in a flashmob to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But some residents say that long-term demographics in their town clearly favor the ultra-Orthodox: Plans are in the works for another all-Haredi neighborhood of more than 1,500 housing units.