While much of the world’s attention is focused on the freedom movements in countries in the Middle East, oppression in Israel has been overlooked. Evan O’Quigley explores the rise of extreme religious groups in Israel and the conflict with secular forces
There has been some recent debate in the media over aggressive protests by ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews in Israel. The extremist faction has been protesting, often violently, against the ‘immodest’ dressing of women within the country. Haredi Judaism, the most conservative of all forms of the religion, makes up a small minority of Israel’s community (approximately ten per cent), although there are larger concentrations in cities including Jerusalem, the nation’s capital.
Israeli President Shimon Peres recently spoke out against the protesters and urged the nation “to save the majority from the hands of a small minority” amid ongoing tensions between the country’s religious and secular communities. Thousands of Israeli citizens have gathered to protest against these events, including a recent attack on an eight-year old girl by the extremist faction for dressing “immodestly”. Haredi protesters have spat and shouted “whore” and “Nazi” at schoolchildren and their mothers.
Israel is regularly celebrated as being liberal in relation to women’s rights in contrast to its Arab neighbours, where there has been alarm over newly elected Islamist leaders enforcing Hijabs and banning immodest clothing, but it is now is under threat of becoming embroiled in religious conservatism from a small minority of Israelis.
Earlier this month Haaretz, an Israeli paper that publishes in both Hebrew and English, reported that businesses in the small town of Sderot signed up to a modesty agreement over the past several months that guarantees that their female workers will dress modestly. More than twenty businesses have signed this agreement. The agreement has been described as “religious coercion” by members of the ultra-orthodox fringe by a local clothing store owner, who also stated that many of his co-workers are unhappy with this. The shops and businesses worry that by not agreeing to the modesty dress code they could harm their business interests.
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has recently condemned sexist attacks by ultra-orthodox protesters, as have Haredi leaders. It is generally accepted that extremist protesters are a small minority within the Haredi community and most Haredis do not support the minority right-wing faction. The protesters have also caused alarm over religious pronouncements that men should walk out of army ceremonies that host female singers, as well as attempts to remove advertising in order to erase women’s faces from advertisements and billboards.
Jewish women, both within Israel, and in Britain and the US, have been urged to send in photographs of themselves holding signs saying “women should be seen and heard” by the New Israel Fund (NIF), who have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the extremist Haredim. The NIF plan to compile these photographs into advertisements that will be placed in parts of Jerusalem to fight back against the vandals. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barket, has also publicly opposed this Haredi campaign and stated “We must make sure that those who want to advertise [with] women’s images in the city can do so without fear of vandalism and defacement of billboards or buses showing women.”
Of course, gender segregation within the ultra-orthodox community has always been evident, but it is only recently that there has been a rapid increase in stronger expressions of their views and the demands that those views are imposed on others. This is further adding to the ‘culture-clash’ that is now taking place within the Jewish state.
There is concern that the rise of Haredi violence is damaging Israel’s image abroad. “The violent clashes show Israel in a horrible light and cause a great deal of damage to its image in America,” one Hasidic rabbi said recently in an interview with Haaretz. The Jewish communities in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, in which ninety-five per cent of its residents are Hasidic Jews, feel that the violent extremists in Israel’s Haredi camp are giving a bad name to the “virtue of modesty” and have also denounced the somewhat tepid response of the Israeli authorities. This could be particularly problematic as the United States is Israel’s closest ally, being the largest cumulative recipient of US aid since World War Two.
This could be potentially damaging to Israel’s image as a “democratic, Western, liberal state” in the words of Netanyahu, and added that the current situation is much of a social issue as it is a legal one. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, also criticised the Haredi’s demands for gender segregation and the exclusion of women in the public sphere last month. At a private meeting in Washington, Clinton argued that the vilification of women was reminiscent of extremist regimes, and compared the practice of separating women and men on public buses (which is being heavily advocated by the orthodox groups), to racial segregation in the American south before the Civil Rights Act.
Netanyahu was right to point out Israel’s place as a liberal democracy. After the state was first accepted as a member of the United Nations in 1949, the ‘Labor Zionist’ movement led by David Ben-Gurion dominated Israeli politics in its early years. Ben-Gurion’s Israel was largely secular, revolving around the revival of Hebrew culture and the creation of a state for the Jewish Diaspora, many of whom had been the victims of anti-Semitic crimes in Nazi Europe, and in Arab lands, rather than on religious grounds. If Israel is to maintain its reputation as a liberal democracy, it will be necessary for its government to stamp out this theocratic coercion from extremist protesters.
However, this is not to say that the Israeli Prime Minister is entirely without criticism. Netanyahu himself has been attacked in the Israeli press for including extreme right-wing Haredi parties in his government coalition. While his own party, Likud, represents the Israeli liberal-right, Shas, which holds four cabinet posts in government, align themselves with religious conservatives. Many members have been recorded previously attacking homosexuality, Palestinians, and have shown excessive leniency in punishing mosque burning and attacks on Arabs. Some have argued that this has strengthened the position of extremists, which has led to the recent problems.
This clash between the secular and religious communities should not be taken lightly, as not only does this situation affect the women who have been demonised and protested, but also the many followers of Haredi-Judaism who do not represent the minority extremist faction. The protests and violent attacks by the extremists have led to demonisation of all ultra-orthodox followers, general fear of Haredim in the Jewish state, and a divide between the secular and religious communities.