Israel's Unlikely 'Feminists of Zion'

The cover story, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” in the new issue of The New Republic is required reading for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the war against women playing out in Israel wherever extremist Haredi Jews hold sway against the images or presence of women — or even little girls — in public.

The article is written by former Sisterhood contributor (and current Haaretz columnist) Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate senior columnist Dahlia Lithwick. It uses the story of one national religious (modern Orthodox) resident of Beit Shemesh, Nili Phillip, who in 2011 was stoned by Haredim while riding her bike, as the frame for a discussion of both the larger issues and many of the specific ways in which Haredi pressure has been brought to bear on women’s visibility and safety.

The well-written, exhaustively reported piece looks specifically at the unlikely alliance between Phillip and other modern Orthodox women — most of them reluctant to embrace the feminist label — and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. IRAC began to work with Orthodox women’s groups in 2008, filing lawsuits that challenged rules requiring female mourners to stand separately from their male relatives in government cemeteries, and in some places barring women from eulogizing. As TNR’s article states, IRAC filed suits against Haredi radio stations, operating with government licenses, that barred women’s voices on the basis of modesty, and has subsequently gone on to file small claims court cases against bus companies and drivers for failing to uphold Israeli laws requiring gender segregation to be voluntary. Three of the six women on whose behalf IRAC sued were Orthodox.

The story includes video of the news program report on Beit Shemesh, called “Between the Suns” (hosted by Yair Lapid, a journalist before he was voted in to the government in the last elections).

Beit Shemesh continues to be Israel’s Ground Zero for Haredi-non-Haredi tensions as played out over gender segregation, and the resulting violence when someone refuses to conform. Beit Shemesh is where little Na’ama Margolese and dozens of other modern Orthodox girls were spit at and jeered as “sluts” and “gentiles” in 2011, when Haredim were attempting to take over their school, Orot Banot. Just last week a non-Haredi Orthodox woman actually attempted to comply with a Haredi request that she move to the back of the bus they were riding from Beit Shemesh to Bnei Brak when the driver called the police. Haredi protesters later smashed the windows of two other buses with stones and a hammer.

Despite intermittent court victories and rulings from government ministers, the violence promises to continue.

As Kaplan Sommer and Lithwick’s article notes:

Kaplan Sommer recently reported at Haaretz that Na’ama Margolese — the “symbol of struggle against Haredi coercion,” — and her mother, Hadassa, have moved out of Beit Shemesh, though reportedly in response to grief Hadassa received after complaining of being treated poorly by a local mikvah attendant rather than as a result of their harassment at the hands of the Haredim.

In the end, as The New Republic article illustrates, it will likely boil down to demographics. And as the Haredi community well knows, its high birthrate — its “facts on the ground” — is likely to make it the victor.

The article reports:

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

Israel's Unlikely 'Feminists of Zion'

Thank you!

This article has been sent!