Pious separation of the sexes

Clashes have broken out between ultra-Orthodox Jews and police in Israel's Beit Shemesh in the Jerusalem district. According to Israeli media reports on Tuesday, the demonstrators demanded, among other things, a strict separation of the sexes in public life. The dispute has been smoldering for a long time.

Several hundred ultra-Orthodox would have engaged in violent clashes with security forces; at least six people were arrested. A counter-demonstration has been announced for Tuesday evening. Up to 10 are expected.000 demonstrators. The rally is against the exclusion of women by ultra-Orthodox Jews and violence against women. As the Internet newspaper "Ynet-News" reports, representatives of various parties called on the Israeli Grand Rabbinate in an open letter to condemn the exclusion of women.

The riots were triggered, according to the media, by filming by a camera crew from Israeli station "Channel 2" of ultra-Orthodox bullying attacks on an allegedly lewdly dressed schoolgirl. Already on Sunday, ultra-Orthodox Jews had harassed a film crew. This had filmed signs asking women not to stop in front of a synagogue. Municipality and police announced plans to install up to 400 security cameras in the fight against extremist attacks on women and children.

Religious leaders of the ultra-Orthodox of Beit Shemesh condemned the violence in an official statement. At the same time, they blamed the media for the current escalation. Marginal actions of individuals would be presented as actions of the entire haredi population of the city.

Influence of the ultra-Orthodox continues to grow
But there is no denying that the influence of the ultra-Orthodox is growing. It started with buses in Jerusalem. Women should sit in the back pews so as not to give Orthodox Jews unchaste thoughts. Now even the army is capitulating to pious Judaism: a catalog of measures for more equality has been put on hold. Four years ago, the army's internal Segew Commission had already recommended the gradual incorporation of women into traditional male positions. The new rights should be accompanied by adapted periods of military service. Now pious prere has put a temporary end to the already slow implementation of the recommendations drawn up by the commission of Reserve General Yehuda Segew.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis fear the mixing of men and women in uniform, forbid joint celebrations and even the performance of female singers in front of religious soldiers. "The army of the people is becoming an army of rabbis," wrote the liberal daily Haaretz, warning of "surrender" to the extreme religious rabbis.

The scene of the religious advance and the resistance against it is above all Jerusalem. Now more than ever, a few hundred feminists said to themselves in early December. They moved onto Jerusalem's new "Bridge of Strings" to do exactly what ultra-Orthodox Jews fear most about women: They sang.

Threatening situation
Liberal Rabbi Uri Ayalon, himself the father of two daughters, also refuses to "live in a state where women are not allowed to sing". The fact that there is a debate at all about the pros and cons of public appearances by women shows "what a threatening situation we are already in today".

Meanwhile, the 41-year-old sees the biggest problem not with the controversy over female singing, but "with censorship in advertising". Not only do female models on Jerusalem billboards often have to be dressed more demurely than on Tel Aviv billboards. There are simply fewer and fewer of them. "The non-existence of women affects the subconscious," Ayalon warns. For gender equality, he says, women must be present first and foremost.

Ayalon's group "Yerushalmim" ("Jerusalemites") wanted to ensure this with a poster campaign: one motif shows a mother with two daughters, another two young women in conversation. In the first stage, members of the "Yerushalmim" hung the posters on windows and balconies; later they bought public advertising space for another 140 posters, which hardly led to any negative reactions. The action was "surprisingly peaceful". says Ayalon. A full five posters fell victim to the wrath of piqued Orthodox.

A small, extremely ideological group
But the resistance to the strict religious does not always go quite so smoothly. Former city councilor Rachel Azaria lost her post after she took Mea Shearim's sidewalks to court against gender segregation. It is unacceptable that "a small, extremely ideological group sets the tone," she scolds. After all, the public spaces are there for everyone.

Like the liberal Rabbi Ayalon, Azaria is a practicing Jew herself. "The leading forces in our struggle are religious women," she says, because "we are the most threatened". According to the original rules, gender segregation was intended for synagogue and bathing, "everything else is brand new". Nowhere in the Bible is it written that there must be no images of women in public.

At least Azaria carried off a victory in court. The judges ordered the police to settle the matter by the middle of next year. Gender segregation in public spaces is not legal, it was said in justification.

The Supreme Court had already ruled once on the ie of gender segregation. Last summer, the trial revolved around mass transit. Seating arrangements for men and women on public buses are not legal, judges ruled. It should be up to the individual, they said, whether or not he or she wants to practice gender segregation on public transport.

"If they had at least changed the seating arrangement," former Education Minister Jossi Sarid commented on the judge's ruling. If already gender separation in the bus, then the women should sit in front, thinks Sarid.

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