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The Tipping Point

“The film was enough to make your blood boil. Bearded hassidim talking about how it was God’s will to spit on little girls who didn’t follow the dress code.”

“No woman should wait to hear the last kaddish for the obvious reason that women should make their exit before the men, lest they mingle with them… No woman aged less than forty should attend the synagogue for the afternoon and evening services…whether on a weekday or on the Sabbath, with the exception of the New Year and the Day of Atonement.” New regulations in Beit Shemesh? It wouldn’t be hard to believe. But actually, the above paragraph refers to regulations adopted by the Jerusalem Rabbinate in 1854 and is taken from the fascinating book by Prof. Margalit Shilo: Princess or Prisoner: Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1840- 1914.

The book also talks about a dress code in place in Jerusalem, with women forced to cover themselves from head to toe and even to veil their faces with a white sheet known as a lizar. “We have agreed by all force, and by an overwhelming majority, that no daughter of Israel, even elderly women, may walk in the market without a covering over her clothing.”

Attempts by modern-day extremists to turn back the clock to the last century, not to mention the Middle Ages, are not as widely popular among the haredi community as populist writings in major Israeli dailies, haredi and secular alike, would have us believe. In fact, if recent haredi writings are to be believed, under the surface of a smooth, united front, there bubbles a cauldron of diverse opinions reflecting outright opposition to extremist and reactionary behavior that has apparently left many members of the haredi community upset, embarrassed and ready to rebel. I’d even argue that a tipping point of sorts has been reached.

I began to realize this quite by accident when I passed by a newsstand selling the latest issue of the popular haredi English-language publication Mishpacha. On a background photo of haredi youngsters in Holocaust garb, shouting haredi men and television crews, the headline reads: “Intolerant? Fanatic? Solve our image problem.”

Intrigued, I bought a copy and read it cover to cover. To my surprise, I found almost universal condemnation of the Nazi-inspired haredi demonstration against “incitement.” One letter to the editor condemned the “terrible goings on in Eretz Yisroel,” even protesting that the magazine had printed a photo of it. “It was appalling enough to read about it.”

Authors Binyamin Rose and Rachel Ginsberg summarized their headline article, “Making our Case,” this way: “Violent demonstrations. Segregated buses. Nazi effigies. Degrading headlines. The charedim definitely have an image problem.”

Was this the first time I was seeing a crack in the united front that the haredi world often puts forth in public in the name of solidarity when condemned over the actions of its extremists? Or had I just been unaware of self-criticism that goes on in that world? One of the public relations experts consulted in Mishpacha, Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg, a Brooklyn-born hassid, put it this way: “It’s not that there is no discussion. It just takes place where the outside media doesn’t see it. There are many differences in outlooks and opinions under the very wide umbrella ‘haredi.’”

I decided to investigate this claim by going to the haredi website Hadrei Haredim, which has a reputation as one of the few places where members of the ultra-Orthodox world feel able to freely express themselves under the cloak of cyberspace.

Under the talkbacks relating to the Shai Gal film aired on Channel 2 on the Yair Lapid show about the goings on in Beit Shemesh, I was amazed to find a wide array of opinions – and a great deal of information. The film itself was available for viewing on the site.

The film was enough to make your blood boil. Bearded hassidim talking about how it was God’s will that they spit on little girls who didn’t follow the dress code and how haredim were eventually going to take over the country and impose their standards on everyone else.

Footage of little Na’ama Margolese, still traumatized by the incident in which she was spat upon by haredi men for not being dressed “modestly” enough, crying in fear as she held her mother’s hand and made her way 300 meters from her home to school.

There were over 250 responses to the film. Some were one-liners expressing disgust at the haredim or disgust at the media for maligning haredim. But in between were a number of thoughtful responses that showed sensitivity as well as a valid alternative point of view.

Said a haredi in Beit Shemesh: “As a regular normal haredi (like 98 percent of the haredi population, which you will never see on television) and as a resident of Beit Shemesh these past five years, I feel ready to explode when I see such a slanted view. There is a very fanatic group. But ve-r-r-ry. Made up of a few dozen families, they are connected to extreme chassidic sects like Satmar and Toldot Aaron. They live in two places: in Meah Shearim and a specific neighborhood in Beit Shemesh. There is absolutely nothing in common between them and the general haredi public… Unfortunately, their neighborhood adjoins the place where the municipality, in its wisdom, decided to build the modern Orthodox girls school.”

Someone identifying himself as a haredi journalist completely disagreed: “To my sorrow, we are now talking about 90% of haredim. In this film, I identify chassidim from Gur, simple Jerusalemites, and Breslavers side by side with Neturei Karta. If this is the true face of my society it’s time for me to throw away my streimel.”

A reader named Shalom agreed. “It’s true that the troublemakers are a small minority, but there is a swathe of rabbis and wheeler-dealers involved from the center to the fringes… who feel that they have to toe the line being set by the extremists, and who persecute yeshiva boys that seem too liberal to them.”

And finally, there was the talk-back that enforced the idea that the Mishpacha article represented a widespread and growing sentiment in the haredi world, which indeed seems to have reached a tipping point: “As a haredi, I take my hat off to these journalists. As long as a strong condemnation doesn’t come from Rabbanim in the haredi world, these destructive people won’t be stopped. We are seeing the haredi world fall apart in front of our eyes. The attitude towards us and understanding of what it means to be haredi depend entirely on us. If we don’t wake up in time to make a real change in our approach our silence will have terrible consequences.”

In a January 20 op-ed in The New York Times, Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, courageously decided to pick up the gauntlet:

“The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women… In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women… once you judge a female human being only through a man’s sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-yearold girl into a seductress and a prostitute… All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law… But it’s actually a complete perversion… The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze – the way men look at women – that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.”

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 27 January, 2012.

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12 comments on “The Tipping Point”

  1. Pingback: The Ultra-Orthodox’s PR Problem - Naomi Ragen נעמי רגן - Novelist, Playwright and Journalist

  2. Damir

    Hmmm. Someone brihsung aside Rebecca Watson’s point by noting that Muslims are so much worse than the case she’s discussing.Nope, this tactic has never backfired on anyone. Carry on, Major!

    • Teniyaa

      they weren’t real Jews , I chose my words carefully. As long as the men in that scene were born to a Jewish mtheor, or converted to Judaism, then regardless of their actions, they are 100% Jewish. So please don’t try and make out that my argument is fallacious.I said their actions do not represent Orthodox Judaism. To give an analogy, did the scientists that truly believed in the field of eugenics, were convinced that it was possible to improve society in such a way, represent mainstream science as a whole? They might have thought it was science, but the general consensus is that eugenics is not science. Does that mean they were not scientists? Absolutely not. They were still scientists. They were simply not practising science.The actions of a person that is taught an idea, preaches said idea, and then does something that is completely opposite doesn’t represent said idea. It means they are a hypocrite. And that is what these people are. Amongst other things .These idiots were not practising Judaism. They are distorting Judaism for their own personal gains and that is WRONG. However, there are many, many Jews who are on a similar religious level as these people who don’t chant abuse at 8 year old girls wearing immodest clothes or throw fecal matter (I honestly did not see any fecal matter thrown. Would someone please actually tell me the time in the video that it was thrown), or do anything of the sort. I honestly hope that none of you infer from what I am saying that I am condoning their actions. I cannot stress enough how much I am not doing so. But, whilst these people are almost certainly 100% Jewish, their actions do not represent Judaism, Jewish teachings or Jewish practices.

  3. Robert Light

    It is a reality that the resolution to this problem lies in the the reaction of the Haredi leaders and their rank-and-file followers themselves. If the leaders come out and speak against these lunatics and publicly ostracize these nut cases, then all the wounds will heal.

    If the Haredi leadership is silent – the wounds will fester and ultimately explode.

    These nut cases must be excluded from the community and hopefully they will find somewhere else (more secluded) to live. Otherwise, the nut cases should move to America – where we arrest people who assault children.

  4. Rabbi Phil Cohen

    I’ve been following this issue from the U.S. As an American Jew, on the one hand, I feel this is an Israeli problem to be solved by Israels. On the other hand, I am a lover and follower of what goes on in Israel.

    So, a couple of comments. One, I resist with all my soul the notion that what’s being done bears any relationship to the treatment of women in Muslim countries such as Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban–if only because this atrocious Haredi behavior is located in small sectors of Israel and it does not threaten Israeli society broadly.

    Two, as Naomi’s article indicates, there is significant pushback from within the Haredi community itself.

    Third, it seems to me, from a distance for certain, that were this behavior to persist and increase, Israelis from across the spectrum would act to make certain that this terrible behavior would cease, or at least be contained.

  5. Sonia Levy

    They are exactly like the fanatical Islamists. They are an embarrassment to the Jewish religion

  6. Rabbi Jeffery Feinstein

    As a Reform Rabbi, the actions of the fanatics in the Heredi are anathema to me as are the actions of the fanatical fringe in any movement. We rail at the fanatics in Islam for their perversion of the quran. What the Heredi community are doing is exactly the same only with the Torah/Talmud. What was done to Na’ama Margolese was assault and the perpetrator should be arrested. What is being done to all of us on the world stage is a problem of much greater consequence. When we say Am Yisroel Chai we include each of us, not just that group or this group. Let us not become the golem with the aleph erased from truth.

  7. randi

    2 points:
    1) anything written in english tells you nothing about the israeli haredi community. american and british “haredim” are a different breed altogether.

    2) for those that say it is just a tiny minority, why is it that every demonstration (against a parking lot, a haredi criminal being arrested, etc)brings out hundreds of haradim (and those hundreds include only includes the head of household in each family). whether majority or minority,it is definitely not a tine group on the fringes.

  8. Rabbi Fleishig

    There really is no limit to a fanatic’s perverted imagination. If “no daughter of Israel, even elderly women, may walk in the market without a covering over her clothing”, I’m surprised the next generation of holy rabbis didn’t demand that the covering over the clothing also be covered.

    • Silva

      You state that: israeli civil law foirdbs people from different religions (damn, even from different flavours of judaism) from marrying. This is untrue. Israeli law does not in any way address the issue of interfaith marriage. Israeli marriage law is essentially a holdover from the British legal system whereby certain religious groups were permitted to conduct marriages and have those marriages recognized by the state. It is up to those religious groups who are authorized to perform marriages to set the criteria for interfaith marriages.Israelis who do not belong to a religious group authorized to perform marriages can have those marriages performed by Israeli civil authorities. Israelis who do belong to a religious group who refuse to marry them can have marry overseas or even in a foreign embassy in Tel Aviv and have their union recognized.Yes, it is true that the marriage system in Israel is an antiquated holdover from the British rule of Palestine but your statement that Israeli law does not recognize interfaith marriages is false. Furthermore, Israelis identify themselves as nonreligious or secular at several times the rate of the United States. Israel is a democracy and religious Jews may not even constitute a majority of voters. Religious extremists constitute a modest minority. Contrary to your claim, it is statistically impossible to have a Democratic country where a small religious minority has the majority of control. Religious conservatives make up a much larger percentage of the US voting population than the Israeli voting population, but the United States most certainly is not a theocracy.

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