Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem on May 28. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO

Jewish Agency, Reform movement cancel meetings with Netanyahu following Western Wall decision

The Jewish Agency’s board of governors canceled a scheduled dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Israeli government decided to freeze a plan to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

Also Monday, the heads of the Reform movement in the United States and Israel said they would cancel a meeting with the prime minister scheduled for Thursday in the wake of the decision. The meeting had been arranged several weeks ago.

The Jewish Agency announced the cancellation on Monday, the day of the dinner. The statement also said the group would change its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem “in order to address the ramifications of these decisions.”

A Knesset ceremony Monday to kick off the board of governors meeting also was canceled.

The Jewish Agency also announced that it had unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the Israeli government to reverse its decision to suspend the deal and a separate decision to advance a bill that would only recognize conversions completed under the auspices of the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

The resolution said the proposed conversion bill “has the devastating potential to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis from being a part of the Jewish people.” It also said the board “deplores” the decision to freeze the Western Wall agreement intended to “establish the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world, as stated: ‘One Wall for One People.’”

“The Government of Israel’s decisions have a deep potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky to establish Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people,” the resolution also said.

The Jewish Agency’s newly installed board of governors chairman, Michael Siegal, told Haaretz on Monday that his agency would re-evaluate its relationship with the Israeli government.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, explained in a statement that his movement had been “deeply encouraged” 18 months ago when Netanyahu and his Cabinet, over the objection of haredi Orthodox parties, had passed an agreement that was negotiated by the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

Jacobs said Netanyahu rescinded the agreement without discussion with North American leaders.

“The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time,” Jacobs said. “After yesterday’s shameful decisions, we feel that at this moment, after more than four years of negotiations, it is not clear that the current Israeli government honors its agreements.”

The agreement would have doubled to nearly 10,000 square feet — half the size of the Orthodox main section just to its north — a section where men and women could pray together on the western side of the Temple Mount. A committee of non-Orthodox leaders and government officials was to manage the non-Orthodox section, and a single entrance was to lead to both sections.

A high tech company which employs ultra orthodox women in Modiin Elit on Aug. 17, 2009. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash 90

Here’s how Israeli women are fighting for equal pay in tech

High-tech workers know there’s no problem that can’t be solved with a spreadsheet.

So a group of Israeli women seeking to combat the gender wage gap in the industry created one last month with data about their qualifications and salaries. They hope to empower one another in salary negotiations.

As of Friday, nearly 200 women had contributed to the survey, and the data showed a wide range of earnings — even for women with similar qualifications working in similar positions.

“We know from surveys and from personal experience that women tend to name lower salaries than men when we go into negotiations, and obviously employers never tell you to ask for more,” said Liora Yukla, 35, one of two women who spearheaded the effort. “This gives us something substantive we can look at to start feeling more confident about the kind of numbers we can name.”

Yukla’s group, XX+UX Israel, is a 2-year-old community for women who work in the field of user experience, which encompasses a range of high-tech jobs. Its some 1,500 members work together to promote women’s status in the industry, including sharing advice and support in their active Facebook group. The group is a largely independent branch of the global XX+UX, which was started by women at Google headquarters in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.

Anat Katz-Arotchas (Facebook)

Anat Katz-Arotchas (Facebook)

(In the United States, Tuesday is Equal Pay Day — the date when women’s salaries, on average 20 percent lower than men’s, “catch up” to men’s from the previous year.)

“It’s about helping women and solidarity,” said co-founder Anat Katz-Arotchas, who also runs a consultancy that advises tech companies about how to build female-friendly products. “Rather than dictating to women, we listen and let them tell us, ‘This is what we need and this is how to do it for us.’”

Katz-Arotchas said the survey, although unscientific, could serve as a much-needed reference for group members and empower them to be bolder in their salary demands. Professional industry surveys have not looked at women’s salaries separately, she said.

Despite narrowing in recent years, Israel’s gender wage gap is among the widest in the developed world, according to a report released last year — with women making less than three-quarters of what men earn. The gap is even wider in high-tech, where women have been found to earn a little more than half as much as men.

According to a recent Taub Center study, the biggest reason for the disparity is that on average, women work fewer hours than men. Another key factor is that women are more likely to be employed in lower-wage occupations and industries. Many have argued that those factors are influenced by discrimination as well.

The challenge of asking for higher pay came up recently in a discussion on the XX+UX Israel Facebook group. Shortly thereafter, two members of the group posted a Google spreadsheet for members to share information about their job, professional experience and monthly pay.

“We’re basically just a group of women who work in high-tech, and this is the kind of thing we talk about,” Yukla said. “It was a really long, vibrant discussion, so we realized a lot of us are probably interested in what the standard is.”

Liora Yukla (Facebook)

Liora Yukla (Facebook)

The survey, which the group plans to systematically analyze, showed monthly salaries ranging from 6,000 shekels (about $1,700) for a starting designer to 46,500 shekels (about $13,000) for a veteran product manager. It also found that some women with similar jobs and qualifications reported significantly different incomes. One project manager at a large company said she made 20,600 shekels (about $5,700) per month, along with bonuses and a company car. Another with the same education and six more years of experience said her salary was 16,000 shekels (about $4,400).

“One thing that was sort of surprising was you saw different salary levels for the same job, the same skill set,” Yukla said. “I think the question here is: Would it be different for our male colleagues?”

Group members responded enthusiastically to the survey.

In comments on Facebook, one woman wrote, “Well done, finally the real data and life.”

Another said, “Fabulous activism! This is super important and I’m sure it’s going to help many girls negotiate better in their next salary negotiations.”

Another commenter noted that despite what many agreed was wage discrimination in their industry, the women were fortunate to be part of Start-up Nation. The average Israeli high-tech worker’s salary was 24,000 shekels last year, according to an industry survey, compared to 10,000 shekels for all Israelis.

“Amazing! Fabulous!” she said. “Even though there are gaps, our situation compared to the market is really good!!”

Palestinian women stymied by suppressed employment opportunity

Despite having higher levels of education than their male counterparts, Palestinian women suffer from one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce in the world, according to a report by the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka.

Less than one in five women residing in the Palestine Territories are employed full time, says Samia Al-Botmeh, a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka and an assistant professor in economic studies at Birzeit University. This compares to an average of one-in-four women in other Arab workforces and just over one-of-two women throughout the rest of the world.

This despite the fact that Palestinian girls have higher rates of primary and secondary school attendance and are less likely than their male counterparts to drop out of the educational system before graduation.

The low rate of employment is believed to be a primary factor leading to greater incidents of poverty in the West Bank, an issue that has been acknowledged by Palestinian politicians. “There was a decision to raise the minimum wage to 1,475 [Israeli] shekels per month [about $390],” Zahira Kamal, general secretary of the Palestine Democracy Party, told The Media Line. “The raise has benefitted women more because many were only making 600-900 shekels [about $160 to $238], where men received 1000 shekels [about $264].  In Israel, though, that same minimum wage is 4500 shekels [$1200], but we are buying with the same prices as in Israel,” she said.

Kamal blames Israel for what she argues is an ongoing cause of low employment rates among women: the inability to travel around the West Bank to work due to Israeli army checkpoints. “We can't go from one place to another, the West bank to Jerusalem, for example…We need to end the occupation,” she said, adding that tourism, too, is an industry with great economic potential that is being stifled, leading to even lower employment among both male and female Palestinians.

Jumana Salous, a program manager at Business Women’s Forum, also identified obstructed travel due to checkpoints as a limiting factor for employment, but added that, “most jobs are here in Ramallah.”

Salous did not lay all the blame at Israel’s feet. She explained that most of the employers in the Palestinian Territories, “are male and prefer to hire men because they are seen to come without family obligations and restrictions on working hours,” she said.

Such cultural mores are hard to change but according to Salous, progress is being made. To underscore her point, she points to a project at the Bank of Palestine that stipulates an equal number of women and men must be hired – a scheme which has led to a number of women in senior management positions.

Salous’ organization, the Business Women’s Forum, is seeking to add to this with a project aimed at developing female entrepreneurs. “We provide the business development services. We have more than 200 women registered in the forum. Many of the women work in textiles, handicrafts, food and services sectors,” Salous explained.

However, it’s not guaranteed that free movement or even a change in attitudes would solve all of the problems for female workers. When there is a shortage of jobs, it is often the case that those that are available are filled first by men.

Al-Shabaka’s Samia Al-Botmeh believes that the root causes of the struggling economy and the subsequent lack of employment opportunities for women in the Palestinian Territories stem from an over-dependency upon the Israeli market. Al-Botmeh points to the economic imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, arguing that the $5 billion in imports from Israel and its reciprocal total from the West Bank of less than one-half billion pales as insignificant in comparison to Israel’s over-all imports of $90 billion.

Botmeh also argued that the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement benefits the Palestinian economy and the issue of women’s employment. “In light of the fact that Palestinians are restricted from conducting ‘normal’ economic life under occupation…a significant opportunity for expanding the productive sectors arises from replacing imports of Israeli goods and services by local production.” Therefore, Al-Botmeh went on to argue, “the boycott of Israeli goods is a form of economic resistance that helps revitalize the productive sectors, hence women's perspective employment.”

Ultimately, the Palestinian Authority has limited scope to deal with all of these issues, according to Kamal. “The PA is unable to unilaterally change Palestinian cultural tendencies or economic dependency or Israeli army policy,” she said, explaining that, “The PA is an authority without authority. We are in a very complicated situation that has consequences for more than just women and girls.” In Kamal’s estimation, “When we talk about women, it is also a problem of the whole Palestinian people.”

Robert Swift contributed to this story.

Orthodox educator Rabbi Elimelech Meisels sued for sexual assault

Rabbi Elimelech Meisels, who runs four religious seminaries in Israel for young Orthodox women, is being sued for sexual assault and fraud.

The civil suit was filed Monday with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on behalf of four parents with daughters signed up for Meisels’ haredi Orthodox seminaries for the 2014-2015 school year. The parents are seeking to recover their tuition deposits.

The suit alleges that Meisels would lure girls under his charge “into late night coffee meetings and other private settings and then sexually assault them.” It says he threatened to ruin girls’ marriage prospects if they told and would “intimidate his victims by telling them that no one would believe that a rabbi and author with his reputation would have done such a thing.”

Meisels denies the allegations.

“The allegations are completely false,” Meisels told JTA in a phone interview from Israel. “My attorney has advised me to pursue legal action against all those who are wronging myself and the seminaries.”

The seminaries named in the suit are Peninim, Binas Bais Yaakov, Chedvas Bais Yaakov and Keser Chaya.

The complaint said that seminary attendance has had negative impacts on the marriage prospects of the Orthodox women who have gone there. The parents involved in the lawsuit allege that Meisels is committing fraud by misrepresenting the seminaries as institutions that help Orthodox girls become upstanding Jewish women. Aside from Meisels, other administrators at the seminaries are named in the suit.

The matter was initially brought to the attention of the Chicago Beit Din, a Jewish religious court, which concluded that “students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and it does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time,” according to the lawsuit. Following the Beit Din determination, two institutions that offered college credits to students attending Meisels’ seminaries suspended their affiliation with them.

Though Meisels claimed to have sold his seminaries following the Beit Din ruling, the Beit Din did not accept the sales as legitimate, according to the complaint.

Though the schools are based in Israel, Meisels and the other defendants named in the suit are U.S. citizens, and the non-profit organization that processes funds for the seminaries — Peninim of America — is a nonprofit charity in the United States, according to the complaint.

Israeli gov’t to fund abortions for women ages 20-33

Israeli women between the ages of 20 and 33 will be eligible to receive government-funded abortions in 2014.

The new eligibility is part of the country’s state-subsidized basket of health services for 2014, approved on Monday. Currently, the government only pays for abortions for medical reasons and for girls under 18.

Some 6,300 women between ages 20 and 33 are expected to have abortions in Israel in 2014. All the women still will be required to receive the approval of a government panel before undergoing the procedure; the panel approves nearly all cases.

The head of the health basket committee, Jonathan Halevy of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, said the goal is eventually to raise the covered age to 40.

Contraception is not covered in the health basket.

The committee announced the approval of 83 new drugs and treatments for 2014.  The basket still must be approved by the Ministry of Health and the Cabinet.

Father and daughter at the Wall: Battle of the heart

On July 8, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, attended a Woman of the Wall prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with his 11-year-old daughter, Noa. The Journal asked them to write about the experience, each from their own perspective.

Recently, I went to a Women of the Wall service for Rosh Chodesh Av. It was my first time at one of their services, and I thought I was prepared for the ugliness I would see on the other side. I wasn’t.

Charedi leaders bussed in more than 7,000 yeshiva girls my age and filled up the Kotel plaza to ensure that there was no room for us to pray. Jeering and yelling, blowing whistles and making faces, calling us Nazis and throwing eggs, with their eyes full of such hatred, it terrified me. These girls didn’t even know me, yet they despised me. They had been brought up to loathe all of the women I was praying with, and it was somehow deemed a positive learning experience for them to protest against us. Among the men, there was a 2-year-old boy being lifted up to view the spectacle, and it made me want to scream. How dare they? I thought. How dare they bring their children up to support such spiritual violence? How dare they intrude upon my religious beliefs? 

What was beautiful about the service was the power of the women. They stood through the protesting and raised their voices, never backing down. When they read Torah from a Chumash, the reader stood on a chair for all to see, including a bat mitzvah. When I saw this, I felt stronger, and more able to withstand the terrible. A group of girls were making faces at me and taking pictures of me with their cellphones. I blew them kisses.

[Read the other side of this story here: “Amid whistles, prayer endures” by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld]

That night, my father and I sat down and discussed what had happened. I expressed to him how upset the experience made me, only to be met with a compelling argument: If Jews wanted to bring instruments to the Kotel on Shabbat, to enhance the prayer, would our pluralism demand we support that? If Messianic Jews wanted to organize a prayer service at the Wall, how would we feel? Everyone has their lines, and everyone’s lines are different. Does pluralism mean anything goes?

I went to hear Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin speak about this topic at the Hartman Institute. Afterward, I decided that it is hard for me to accept that the Israeli government has taken my beliefs, my Judaism, our shared Wall, locked all of it up and handed the keys to a rabbi who has announced that the only way is his way. How can the State of Israel allow only one leader for such an important site? I believe that the government should take back the keys, and distribute them one by one to rabbis of different denominations of Judaism so that all movements are represented.

The worst part about this war is the fact that it is Jew against Jew. We all love the Torah, we all embrace mitzvot, we all believe in one God. So why this fighting? It hurts like mad to witness fellow Jews calling you names. Women of the Wall has been struggling for 25 years. Will the battle of the heart never end? 

Women head three major parties in Israel’s elections

For the first time in Israel’s history, three of the major parties are headed by women. The Labor party headed by Shelly Yacimovich is expected to become Israel’s second-largest party, Hatnuah headed by former Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni is set to win seven seats, and the dovish Meretz and Zahava Gal-On is projected at five seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Because the front-runner, the joint slate of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu ((Israel is Our Home), is only expected to get about 35 seats, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be turning to all of these parties as potential coalition partners.

“It’s an amazing advancement,” Dr. Galit Desheh, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network told The Media Line. “Two of these women have an amazing record promoting women’s rights and issues.”

The two she was referring to are Yacimovich and Gal-On. Livni is not seen as focusing on women’s issues, although she has begun to do so more of late.

Yacimovich, 52, was a popular journalist before entering politics in 2005. She has reinvigorated the Labor party by focusing on social and economic issues, and gotten tens of thousands of young people to join. Of the first 22 candidates on Labor’s list, seven are women.

Gal-On, 56, of the dovish Meretz party, has been especially active on women’s rights issues. A Knesset member since 1999, she has led the committee that fights the trafficking of women. Desheh ays she is the single most active Knesset member on women’s issues.

In contrast,  Livni, 54, is not seen as a major advocate of women’s rights. She has started a new party called Hatnuah, the Movement, after she lost the leadership of Kadima, a centrist party, in recent primaries. Livni, a former intelligence official, has focused on foreign policy.

In addition to these women, Asma Agbarieh – Zahalka, 39, heads the Da’am Workers Party, a socialist party that focuses on employment issues in the Arab sector of Israel. It is doubtful that it will receive enough votes to enter the Parliament.

There are currently 24 women in the current Knesset and that number is expected to rise substantially. Even parties headed by men have placed women in prominent slots. Netanyahu’s Likud which is running on a joint slate with Yisrael Beytenu, has put seven women in the top 30 slots. Yesh Atid, a centrist secular party headed by popular journalist Yair Lapid, has three women in the top 10.

In the past, the quickest route to politics in Israel was the army. Generals were revered and most of Israel’s prime ministers (with the notable exception of the sole woman, Golda Meir) had illustrious military careers. Now that is changing.

“We are seeing that some generals are not even getting elected, and yet journalists are having great success,” Dr. Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “This opens the door for women because there are more women journalists.”

Women are active in Israel’s labor force. While only 28 percent of Arab women in Israel work outside the home, (due to cultural factors which encourage women to stay at home with their children), about 80 percent of Jewish women have paying jobs. Israel has good day care and laws that encourage women to work. That said, women still earn between 17 and 30 percent less than men.

The Israel Women’s Network's Desheh says the three priorities for women are personal security, improving conditions for female workers and women’s health. As more women serve in the Knesset, it is likely that women’s issues will come to the fore.

“Research shows that men and women in the Knesset have different legislative behavior,” Rahat said. “This is a new stage in Israeli politics.”

Six women detained for wearing prayer shawls at Western Wall

Six women were detained by Jerusalem police for wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall as more than 100 women gathered there for the monthly Women of the Wall service.

The detainments Thursday, on the first day of the Hebrew month Kislev, follow the arrest at last month's service of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. Hoffman was not at Thursday’s service, as she was banned from the Wall for 30 days following her arrest on Oct. 17.

The detainments occurred before the service began as women were putting on their tallitot.

“We came to pray, especially today, for the peace of the state,” said Lesley Sachs, one of the detainees, referring to fighting in Israel’s South between Israel and Hamas.

Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the holy site nearly each month for the last 20 years on Rosh Chodesh, or the beginning of new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section. Western Wall regulations dictate that women cannot wear tallitot, or prayer shawls, as it contravenes the “local custom” as determined by the Western Wall’s chief rabbi.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall

While many of the women at the service wore tallitot, most wore them in the fashion of a scarf, sidestepping the regulation.

Following Hoffman’s arrest last month, the Israel Religious Action Center, which advocates for religious pluralism, said it planned to submit a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court aiming to change how the Wall’s regulations are decided at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Wall. Hoffman told JTA last month that Women of the Wall hopes to be given one hour to pray every month.

A mix of younger and older women attended the service, along with a handful of male supporters.

“It’s important for me to support women and men who want to come one hour a month,” said Laura Wharton, another detainee.

Lawsuit filed against haredi radio station for excluding women

The religious women’s organization Kolech filed a class-action lawsuit against a haredi Orthodox radio station for excluding women.

The nearly $26 million lawsuit filed Tuesday in Jerusalem District Court against Kol Berama alleges that the station does not hire women as interviewers or invite women to be interviewed.

“From the start, the station adhered to a patently illegal policy, and women’s voices were completely silenced,” the suit says. “At all hours, only men are heard in the station’s programs. A woman who wishes to be interviewed is refused, and is requested to send a fax to the station, which is read by the presenter.”

The station went on the air in 2009; the Reform movement had asked the Israeli Supreme Court to prevent its launch.

Earlier this year, Israel’s Second Authority for Television & Radio ordered Kol Berama to interview women in official positions or who are experts in their fields. It also called on the station to allow women to speak on the air for four hours a week, Haaretz reported.

The station claims to have hundreds of faxes from female listeners that are satisfied with the station’s format.

Thou shall not have images … on buses … neither men nor women

Fearing costly vandalism aimed at buses carrying advertisements that include images of women; to avoid legal issues of discrimination if only images of men appear; and to side-step head-on collisions with Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community; Egged, Israel’s public bus cooperative has ordered the company handling its on-bus advertising to stop running ads with pictures or representations of either men or women. As of August 1, a “faceless” policy was put into effect.

Vandalizing public advertisements bearing women’s pictures is not a new issue. Bus shelters, for instance, were frequently damaged or destroyed going back decades. More recently, issues of discrimination against women in the capitol have become headline affairs. The present issue came to a head eight months ago when the Yerushalmim organization – an NGO advocating for a pluralistic city of Jerusalem—sued in the High Court of Justice to force Canaan, the exclusive ad agency for the Egged bus company, to run its campaign featuring “The Women of Jerusalem.” Its legal effort was supported by the Ministry of Transportation, which submitted a brief objecting to any censorship of photos of women. According to Yerushalmim CEO Rabbi Uri Ayalon, at that point it seemed that the matter was solved and the ads, replete with photos, would be running on Egged buses.

According to Ayalon, the apparent understanding fell apart when the discussion turned to the specifics of the images submitted by the NGO to the ad agency for the buses to carry. At issue was the length of the sleeves the models were shown wearing. Yerushalmim insists that when it agreed to the sleeve issue, a new request was made to replace T-shirts with long-sleeve blouses.

While the back-and-forth was continuing, Egged decided to change its policy and ban advertising in the Jerusalem market that contained any human images at all. Canaan told Yerushalmim it would honor its commitment for a ten day period, after which time the agreement to run its ads would lapse. Ayalon told The Media Line that his organization did, indeed, submit its ads in a timely manner, but Canaan differed, saying the NGO failed to get the ads in before the contract expired.

Yerushalmim was established in 2009 by Jerusalem residents advocating a pluralistic city. Opposing the exclusion of women from the public sphere, the organization kicked-off its campaign one-year ago in response to the censorship of an ad campaign of women. It included ads displayed on balconies and street stands throughout the city of Jerusalem that featured images of women. Yerushalmim claims bus ads have been free of female images for the past eight years; and five years in the case of posters.

Nissim Zohar, director of marketing for Zohar advertising company, told The Media Line that “for years” his agency had been trying to place ads in Jerusalem that included images of women.  Zohar credited Mayor Nir Barkat with raising the issue six months ago, resulting in media coverage of the issue and subsequently, more than 500 posters were displayed around the city.

Advertisements that feature women have found a home on Jerusalem bridges, though.

Uri Neter, CEO of Rapid Vision, franchise-holder for billboards affixed to bridges in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that, “We divided advertising on bridges in large formats across the platforms. Currently we don’t have any ads with women, but [when we did] we didn’t have a problem because it is hard to get to the bridges and cause damage because of the height.”

Canaan CEO Ohad Gibli told The Media Line the “faceless” policy instituted by Egged and prompted by the Yerushalmim fracas has cost him his Jerusalem offices which he recently closed, citing a loss of more than $60,000 month. Gibli said for Egged, it’s just a business decision stemming from the financial costs the bus company has sustained in the past due to acts of vandalism.

A spokesperson for Canaan said that there is a lot of provocation around this story,  but since there is no problem of discrimination now, no decision is expected.

Ayalon, though, disagreed and told The Media Line that not publishing any human images in Jerusalem while allowing it everywhere else is also an act of discrimination, and that Yerushalmim will continue to pursue the issue. The group’s attorney, Aviad Hacohen, told The Media Line that, “It’s not only an act against women, but it’s an act against men – it’s against freedom of speech and equality.”

New glasses blur women for haredi Orthodox men

Charedi Orthodox men in Israel are buying glasses that will prevent them from seeing the immodest women that threaten their way of life.

The glasses, which are being sold for $32.50, have a special blur-inducing sticker on their lenses that provides clear vision for up to a few yards so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that becomes blurry — including women.

While it is not known how many have been purchased, the devices have gone on sale recently in Charedi Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and elsewhere, reported the Times of Israel.

The Charedi Orthodox community’s unofficial “modesty patrol” has developed a range of products to act as a first line of defense against the threat of seeing immodest women, Israeli media reported.

In an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle, the Charedi Orthodox in some neighborhoods have separated the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces.

Opinion: Don’t set back reproductive rights for Israeli women

In 1979, I moved from the United States to Israel, where I discovered that unlike in America, reproductive choice in Israel was by and large not an issue—not religiously, politically or socially.

As the director of the Israel Office for the U.S.-based National Council of Jewish Women for the past 17 years, I was always grateful and surprised that with all the problems regarding women’s rights in Israel, the consensus on abortion was to leave well enough alone.

I’m hoping that is not about to change.

At the moment, birth control and abortion services are not only legal but, in most cases, abortion is covered by health plans with a small copay. Women serving in the Israeli army are entitled to free birth control and abortions. But last month, Nissim Zeev, a member of the Israeli Knesset from the Shas party (the Sephardic religious party) submitted legislation seeking to limit abortions after the 22nd week of pregnancy.

Zeev claims that since technology now allows life outside the womb at 22 weeks, pregnancy termination after that is tantamount to “murder”—a word he actually used. He went on to argue that women are encouraged to end their pregnancies for social reasons, and they later regret their abortions and suffer depression because of them.

In effect, Zeev is following in the footsteps of the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who two years ago attacked the official committees that by law approve abortions. Eliyahu charged that “a million children have been cut down alive since the state [of Israel] was created.”

Luckily, the government opposes Zeev’s proposal. Most political analysts agree it was merely a ploy to draw attention away from issues such as drafting haredi Orthodox men into the Israeli army and ending gender segregation, both of which have roiled the waters between the haredi Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.

In Israel, all requests for a government-subsidized abortion through one’s health plan are reviewed by a committee that includes a family doctor, a gynecologist and a social worker. Knesset member Zahava Galon, who heads the left-of-center Meretz party, has drafted bills several times to eliminate all such committees—an idea the government also opposes and habitually keeps bottled up in committee.

Galon describes attitudes toward abortion as ranging from “indifference, to resistance, to a desire to control the right of a woman and her wish to decide her reproductive rights.” These attitudes, she says, “allow the state to continue to define the decision-making process on the termination of pregnancy.”

Such views are also contested in the United States, where despite President Obama’s support for abortion rights, congressional opponents succeeded in severely limiting government-funded abortions covered by the new national health reform law. Since the 2010 election, states have enacted a record number of laws intended to restrict or even eliminate access to abortion.

While I appreciate Galon’s desire to make abortion even more accessible to all woman in Israel by doing away with the committee that reviews requests for a government-subsidized abortion, it is still the case that with committee approval, every Israeli’s health plan covers abortion for most women between the ages of 18 and 42 for a small copay, and for free for women outside that age range. That is a stark contrast to the situation in the United States.

Israeli law, which incorporates halachah, or Jewish law, makes abortion legal and justified in most cases. The U.S. pro-choice camp would love to have such liberal laws on the books.

When I made aliyah, it seemed birth control and abortion rights were a done deal in the United States. I hope that remains the case despite ongoing attacks there. And for Israel, my wish is that Zeev and his allies find something else to oppose and leave women’s reproductive rights at least as strong as they were when I arrived here more than three decades ago.

Shari Eshet is director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Israel office.

Israeli Chief Rabbinical Council OKs eulogies by women

Israel’s Chief Rabbinical Council ruled that woman can deliver eulogies at funerals, but that it is up to the community rabbi to decide on a case-by-case basis.

The ruling was issued last week in response to a request by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, head of a Knesset committee on women’s activity in the public domain, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, head of the council along with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, did not participate in the decision and has not expressed a clear opinion on the issue, according to Haaretz.

In January, Israel’s Religious Services Ministry told burial societies in the country that women may deliver eulogies. The ministry sent a directive to this effect to the more than 600 burial societies throughout the country.

Israel’s Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that women should be allowed to deliver eulogies and that the burial societies, or chevra kadisha, should not impose gender segregation in the cemetery. The ruling was in response to an incident in Petach Tikvah in which a woman was stopped from eulogizing her father. The court’s ruling was not backed up by the Religious Services Ministry until this year.

Israeli female scientist is top young researcher

JERUSALEM — She’s young, smart and aims to help treat life-threatening diseases.

Naama Geva-Zatorsky, 34, is among a growing group of Israeli women gaining recognition for their contributions to scientific research.

The Weizmann Institute biologist was in Paris last month to accept the International UNESCO L’Oreal Prize for Women in Science. Dubbed “Europe’s top young researcher” by the prize committee, she received a two-year, $40,000 fellowship for her postdoctoral work at Harvard University.

The selection committee cited the “excellence and the originality of her work.”

Geva-Zatorsky’s research focuses on probiotics, which are commonly known as “good bacteria” and have the potential to treat a variety of diseases.

Geva-Zatorsky, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in systems biology, believes there is room for more research on the potential benefits of probiotics. 

Her lab work has focused on the “good” microbes that live in the human intestines and protect our bodies by stimulating the immune system. Geva-Zatorsky will use her award to continue investigating what leads the bacterial molecule, known as polysaccharide A (PSA), to react this way.  

“There are 10 times more bacteria than human cells in the body, and I’m learning how do we interact with them and what the impact is on our health,” she said in a phone interview from Brookline, Mass., where she has been living since September with her husband, Amnon Zatorsky, and their two sons, Yonatan, 5, and Uri, 2.  

Despite the growing popularity of probiotics in an array of products — think kefir, a dairy product made of goat’s milk and fermented grains, or the trendy tea-based drink kombucha — both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority say that most claims made about probiotic products are unproven.

“There’s really a lot more that can be studied,” she said, noting that researchers already know that probiotics can be used to treat inflammatory bowel disease and now are investigating whether microbacteria can inoculate multiple sclerosis, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.

Additionally, Geva-Zatorsky said, certain bacteria can make humans develop more fat cells. Someday, she said, researchers may be able to create a pill to help obese people lose weight.

The same bacteria affect emotions, she said, and eventually may be used to treat depression.

Once her postdoctoral work is completed, Geva-Zatorsky plans to return to Israel to set up her own research team to probe how these bacteria can treat a myriad of diseases.

Weizmann biophysics professor Zvi Kam believes Geva-Zatorsky’s determination will carry her far. 

Noting that experiments are tedious and often fail, Kam said in an e-mail that the young scientist “never complained, never was let down, and never gave up. Her optimistic spirit and joy of doing science was never broken by the tough reality.”

Geva-Zatorsky’s success is unusual in Israel, given the dearth of women working in the fields of science and engineering. 

Despite Israel’s emphasis on research and development, a 2008 report by the European Commission on Gender Equality pointed out Israel’s low proportion of female researchers in higher education — 25 percent — compared to the 35 percent average found among European Union member countries. 

Those numbers combined with a highly publicized incident recently involving Channa Maayan, a Hebrew University professor who received an award but was told by Israel’s acting health minister, who is Charedi Orthodox, that a male would have to accept it for her. The incident outraged and re-energized women in the scientific community to speak out about their important role as researchers.

There are glimmers of light, however, for female scientific researchers. Geva-Zatorsky was among 10 women last year who received a Weizmann Institute of Science Women in Science Award. And she sees momentum at Israeli universities to increase the numbers of women in the field. 

She hopes that she can pave the way for others.

“I encourage women to be brave and ask questions,” Geva-Zatorsky said.

Geva-Zatorsky also said that gender bias alone is not the only reason that women are less inclined to do scientific research. 

In Israel, many believe that those who want to pursue academic careers should do research abroad, she said, where they can gain skills that will enable them to be better scientists at home.
Geva-Zatorsky said that’s more difficult for women, who are still expected to be the primary child rearers. 

The women who complete their doctorates are typically older than in other countries, she said, having first completed their military service and then started families. 

“This is why fellowships and awards that encourage women scientists to move are important, and also it helps if, mentally, people believe in us and that people would like us to go abroad and get new skills,” she said.

Geva-Zatorsky, who grew up in Moshav Ometz, a small cooperative village in central Israel, said her parents “nourished her curiosity and passion.”  

At 22, she arrived at Tel Aviv University and decided to study chemistry and biology.

For her doctorate, she studied how cancer cells respond to drugs and therapies. 

With a longtime passion for the arts — she studied ballet until she was 18 — Geva-Zatorsky also helped to organize an exhibition at Weizmann called “The Beauty of Science.” 

She praises her family as well as her husband for their strong support.

“They believed in me and pushed me forward,” she said. “There have been moments of self doubt, but they give me encouragement.”

Israel’s Cabinet approves plan to empower women

Israel’s Cabinet approved a plan to increase the participation of women in municipal government.

The plan, part of the Knesset’s marking of International Women’s Day, is meant to increase the representation of women on local councils from its current 12 percent.

The Cabinet also put into effect some recommendations of the Committee to Prevent the Exclusion of Women, which deals with complaints from the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women hotline, and an advertising campaign to increase awareness regarding the exclusion of women.

The recommendations from the committee put into effect:

* The Civil Service Commission issued directives against the exclusion of women at government and state ceremonies.

* The Transportation and Road Safety Ministry opened a hotline to deal with instances of women being excluded on public transportation. The ministry will require transportation companies to post signs banning such exclusion.

* The Religious Services Ministry will instruct burial societies, the Chief Rabbinate and religious councils to ban preventing women from participating in eulogies and the burial of loved ones.

* The Justice Ministry will evaluate instances in which women have been restricted in media subject to regulation.

* The Israel Police will step up enforcement regarding offenses against women.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the place of women in the public space must be ensured and equal.

“Israel is a democratic country. There is no place in it either for harassment or for discrimination,” he said. “We will act against cases of exclusion and will encourage the involvement of women in public life.”

Netanyahu added, “In a country with women pilots, women will be everywhere.”

Livni, Giffords on Newsweek’s influential women list

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni and several American Jews, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were included in Newsweek’s 150 “Women Who Shake the World.”

Livni was the only Israeli woman on the list.

“They are starting revolutions, opening schools, and fostering a brave new generation. From Detroit to Kabul, these women are making their voices heard,” Newsweek wrote on its partner The Daily Beast website in announcing the new annual feature.

The feature called Livni “one of the most powerful women in the country,” who is “known for her honesty and integrity.”

Among the American Jewish women appearing on the list are Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who stepped down from the Congress as she recovers from being shot in the head during a constituents’ meeting; Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, a lesbian rabbi who leads the world’s largest LGBT congregation in Manhattan; and Roseanne Barr, an actress and Tea Party activist.

Other notable women on the list are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actress and activist Angelina Jolie, British singer Adele and U.S. war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in Syria last month.

Who are the Charedim?

The disturbing recent episode involving the harassment of an 8-year-old Orthodox girl in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, and the ongoing controversy over separate seating for women on public buses in Jerusalem and elsewhere, has focused new attention on that group of Jews known as Charedim (or ultra-Orthodox). But who are they, and where do they come from?

In their own self-presentation, they are the direct heirs of a long-standing Torah-true Judaism. Indeed, they frequently declare the desire to walk in “the path of the ancient Israel” (derekh Yisrael sava), as if they represent an unbroken chain of tradition. And yet, Charedim are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish history, a group born in modern times, even though possessed of a decidedly anti-modern worldview. Insofar as they regard the world around them as corrupt and polluted, they believe that it is necessary to engage in a prolonged struggle to assure the purity of their Jewish lives. This leads to a set of impulses that often grate against one another: a martial impulse to join in battle on behalf of the Almighty, paired with a separatist impulse to isolate themselves from the rest of society in order to assure that purity. In both cases, they are motivated by “charada,” a Hebrew word that connotes a trembling fear or anxiety in the face of God’s omnipotence. From this state of vigilant anxiety issues the name “Charedim.”

In studying the Charedim, scholars such as the late Israeli historian Jacob Katz point to the advent of a “new traditionalism” in 19th century Europe. They note the influence of the German-born rabbi, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762-1839), known as the Hatam Sofer, who gained renown for his forceful opposition to currents of change in Judaism in his time. This opposition was immortalized in the Hatam Sofer’s famous credo: “Chadash asur min haTorah” — innovation is forbidden as a matter of Torah. He himself left his native Germany for Pressburg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to establish a yeshiva that would gain renown for its traditionalist curriculum and rigor. There he would join forces with an unlikely partner, the Galician-born Chasidic Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, to combat the “modernizers” — such as the first Reform Jews, whom they believed were undermining the true faith. (Chasidism was an 18th century populist movement of spiritual revival that took aim at elitist Torah scholarship inaccessible to the masses.)

The unlikely pairing of a non-Chasidic Germany rabbi and a Chasidic rebbe from Galicia reveals one of the characteristic features of Charedi Judaism: its diversity. There are not only non-Chasidic and Chasidic components to the phenomenon, but many variants of Chasidism within the Charedi world. The same Austro-Hungarian Empire where the Hatam Sofer settled proved to be, in the late 19th century, the chief incubator of this new experiment in religious traditionalism. In particular, Hungary was the site of an intense battle among differing Jewish factions including the Neolog (akin to Reform), Status Quo (somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox), Orthodox and Charedi camps. Already in the late 19th century, the Charedim insisted on a new degree of ritual stringency in Jewish communal life. The descendants of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum were especially energetic in insisting on new standards of kashrut, gender segregation, modest dress for women, and resistance to secular studies. The most famous of those descendants, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), also gained renown for his fierce and unrelenting opposition to Zionism, which he regarded as a violation of the rabbinic injunction against “hastening the [messianic] end.” 

As a matter of fact, opposition to Zionism was a key feature of the many new forms of traditionalist Judaism that took rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is best to think of these new forms as occupying a spectrum that included more moderate and more radical versions, though the differences would not be readily discernible to the average observer. For example, a new traditionalist movement took rise in 1912, the Agudat Yisrael, composed of Chasidic and non-Chasidic Jews from Poland and Germany, with the express mission of warding off the secularizing influence of the Zionist movement. They were not joined, however, by the leaders of Hungarian Charedi Judaism such as Joel Teitelbaum and the Munkaczer Rebbe, who, in fact, forbade their followers from having any contact with the Aguda. This reminds us that the impulse to engage in battle that has been so central to Charedi Judaism was often directed against one’s putative allies. The Hungarians regarded themselves as purists and branded the Aguda as collaborators, for reasons that will soon become clear.

For all of their opposition to Zionism, Charedim of different stripes — moderates and radicals alike — felt a deep bond with Eretz Yisra’el and sought to settle there. The more radical among them established in 1919 their own “Edah Charedit” (Charedi Community) in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. This community served as an alternative, anti-Zionist source of religious authority, with its own synagogues, yeshivas and kashrut norms in various Jerusalem neighborhoods, as well as Bnei Brak. Their own curious blend of quietism and activism rested on the belief that while one should not seek to establish Jewish self-government in Palestine in advance of the Messiah, one should not surrender the Holy Land to the Zionists, with whom compromise was impossible.

The Aguda adopted a different tack. In 1933, it entered into an agreement with the Zionist-led Jewish Agency to receive 6.5 percent of the immigration certificates to Palestine that the agency had to distribute. And in 1947, the Aguda was partner to the famous Status Quo agreement that David Ben-Gurion, soon to be Israel’s first prime minister, proposed that guaranteed that the new state would observe the Sabbath, maintain kashrut in government institutions, and cede control over education and personal status matters to religious authorities. 

Over time, the Aguda has become more and more integrated into Israeli political life; its representatives serve as deputy ministers and members of Knesset. Some would say that the price to pay for the Status Quo agreement — and the Aguda’s involvement in Israeli public life — is a high one: coercive Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel. That may well be, but what transpired in Beit Shemesh — and the battle over gender segregation on buses in Israel — result from the more radical Charedi component, whose roots extend back to the Edah Charedit. While adamantly separatist — for example, their leaders do not serve in the Knesset or in government ministries — they are, at the same time, an increasingly aggressive, visible and populous component of the Israeli public square. Their heavy-handed and at times violent tactics are not new. They have their roots in the formative Hungarian setting of Charedi Judaism. The key question is: Will their growing numbers necessitate a greater integration into and accommodation to Israeli society, thereby mitigating their separatist and martial impulses? Or will their increasing prominence and sense of empowerment result in ever-deeper fissures in Israel’s social fabric? To a great extent, the future of Israel hinges on the answer to these questions.

David N. Myers is chair of the UCLA History Department; he is writing a book, along with Nomi Stolzenberg, on the Satmar Chasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

Israeli women’s rights moving to front of bus

Anat Hoffman, the progressive Israeli activist who made headlines two summers ago when she was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall, comes to California next week with a clear message for American Jews: What’s happening in Beit Shemesh is as big a threat to Israel as what’s happening in Tehran.

“Americans have been trained to care about Israel’s security and think of it in terms of Israel being surrounded by millions of enemies,” Hoffman said in a phone interview in advance of her Los Angeles visit Feb. 3-4, during which she will speak at shabbat services at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. “But security is not just measured by soldiers on the border. It’s also measured by an 8-year-old girl’s ability to go to school without being bullied.” Hoffman was referring to Naama Margolese, the Beit Shemesh girl who became a household name after Channel 2 TV aired a report revealing that she had been spit on and called a “whore” by ultra-Orthodox men while on her way to school. Their complaint was that the shy Modern Orthodox girl in a long skirt was not dressed modestly enough.

A native of Jerusalem, and a city councilwoman there for 14 years before becoming executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) — the Reform movement’s legal advocacy arm in the Jewish state — Hoffman, 57, has been fighting for decades to ensure that things like this don’t happen. Now, as the story of Naama Margolese reverberates throughout the Jewish world, Hoffman’s moment may have arrived.

For the first time, Hoffman said, issues of gender equality and religious pluralism are poised to figure heavily in the Israeli political debate. “I see this as a very important window of opportunity, because we are on the eve of an election,” she said.

Moreover, the Israeli populace is still fired up and feeling politically re-engaged by the protests of last summer, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets and — setting a precedent for the American Occupy movement — erected tent encampments to protest economic and social inequalities.

“The question now,” Hoffman said, “is are we going to be put to sleep again and focus only on the security bit, or are we going to focus on the internal issues?”

Hoffman is convinced that those internal issues — gender equality, religious pluralism and minority rights chief among them — pose as great a threat to Israel’s future as the prospect of a nuclear Iran. But she’s not sure American Jews agree. “Ask a hundred Israelis right now what is the most dangerous thing for Israel, and most will not say the atom bomb. Ask a hundred American Jews, and they’ll say the Iranian bomb. I say, let’s not think about Iran for a bit. Let’s ask Israel, ‘Why can’t a woman have a bat mitzvah at the Wall?’ ”

Hoffman has been fighting for more than 20 years for a woman’s right to pray and read from the Torah at the Kotel. As chairwoman of the group Women of the Wall, she has long been at odds with the Orthodox establishment that controls Jerusalem’s holiest Jewish site. But it’s not just their influence over religious sites that irks her. As extremist factions of the ultra-Orthodox minority have grown ever more brazen, their influence has spread beyond the confines of their cloistered communities.

The practice of gender segregation on public buses exploded into the public debate last December after Tanya Rosenblit and, later, Israel Defense Forces soldier Doron Matalon were harassed by ultra-Orthodox men for refusing to sit at the back of a bus.

But Hoffman has been chipping away at the problem for years. In 2007, IRAC filed a petition on behalf of five women who had been harassed on gender-segregated buses, and last January, Israel’s Supreme Court deemed the practice illegal. Since then, Hoffman has regularly led “Freedom Rides,” wherein she and other Jewish women sit at the front of gender-segregated buses to ensure the court decision is being upheld. When they are harassed by ultra-Orthodox men, bus drivers often don’t interfere, Hoffman said, deferring to the customary practice of separating the sexes. “We have 13 lawsuits against drivers for not enforcing the law, and it’s very effective,” Hoffman said. “Those suits for damages are helping to unlearn what 10 years of segregated buses have taught.”

But why have these issues only reached a boiling point in recent months? According to Hoffman, women’s role in Israeli society is changing on a broader level, and the powers that be are threatened.

In Israel’s secular world, a deeply entrenched culture of sexism is finally beginning to crack. A law protecting women from sexual harassment that passed more than a decade ago is challenging the male establishment, and 2011 saw Israel’s former president, Moshe Katsav, begin serving a seven-year prison sentence for rape. “Once the law began to be implemented, behaviors that had been tolerated in the army and government suddenly became illegal,” Hoffman said. “The bastards changed the rules and didn’t tell Moshe Katsav.”

At the same time, in the Orthodox world, women are gaining power and influence. Hoffman points out that it’s women who receive a more worldly education — and therefore pay the mortgage and balance the checkbook — while men receive only a religious education. “Women are in the world, and the kids see that the women know more. So how else can the Orthodox world keep them in their place other than to say, ‘You might know more in the modern world, but in the religious world, you should know your place.’ ”

As Hoffman — who earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA — prepares to address Jewish audiences in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, she said she hopes that American Jews will hold Israel’s feet to the fire on social issues. “Don’t go easy on us,” she said. “Israel needs to hear the truth from its supporters. To be a Zionist is not a spectator sport.”

Anat Hoffman will be speaking in Los Angeles on:

Feb. 3, 7:30 p.m. “Between the Stones and a Hard Place: The Challenge to Gender Equity in Israel.” Hoffman will speak during Shabbat Unplugged Service-In-The-Round. Following Kiddush, she will also speak from 9:15 to 10:15 p.m. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. Free and open to the public.

Feb. 4, 9 a.m. “Civil Rights in Israel.” Shabbat Morning Worship. Temple Beth Am, 1039 South La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Free and open to the public.

Feb. 4, 4 p.m. Women’s Rights in Israel. Mincha, Seudat Shlishit, Maariv and Havdallah. Temple Beth Am, 1039 South La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Hoffman will speak during Seudat Shlishit. Free and open to the public.

Woman assaulted by haredi men in Beit Shemesh

A woman hanging posters for Israel’s national lottery was assaulted by haredi Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh.

The men reportedly surrounded her car, slashed her tires and stole her car keys. A stone thrown at the car hit the woman in the head.

The posters did not contain any photos of women.

Police helped the woman and arrested three suspects, Ynet reported. Other attackers reportedly fled the scene and are being sought by police. The woman filed a complaint with the police.

Beit Shemesh has been the scene of tension between haredi Orthodox and city residents as well as visitors over the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

The back of the bus

If Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy teaches us one thing, it’s that the fight for civil rights is not particular to a time, a place, a people or a gender.

It’s still shocking to watch vintage 1960s TV footage and see moms and dads yelling at someone else’s children for simply walking up the steps of a high school.

Now, we watch all-too-similar images on YouTube as we confront what’s happening to women and girls in Israel.

In Beit Shemesh just last month, TV cameras captured a frightened 8-year-old child walking to school with her mother. That girl, Na’ama Margolese, was terrified because Charedi Jews who don’t like the length of her skirt or the sleeves on her shirt regularly have spit on her and cursed her. The girl’s mother, Hadassa Margolese, who grew up in Los Angeles, talked to our reporter, Larry Derfner, in this issue of The Journal (p. 13) about her fight to maintain her child’s rights and dignity in their hometown of Beit Shemesh.

In recent years, ultra-Orthodox Charedi Jews in Jerusalem routinely have forced women riding bus lines that pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to sit at the back.  And now, as the freedom fighters did in the American South, in Israel, protesters have come together to defy such rules. Earlier this month, groups of men and women boarded buses in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, sitting together to draw attention to the gender segregation on public transportation that the Charedi community has demanded.

It would seem a no-brainer that, in a democracy, public spaces belong to all people — the civil rights of all human beings cannot be limited by the desires or wishes of a single group. But that is what has been going on for years in some neighborhoods of Israel, where not only are rules of segregation enforced through harassment, but the government has not stepped in to right these wrongs.

Whether by race or by gender, segregation in public spaces defies the dignity of human beings. No democracy can tolerate this.

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, let us remember a story he told at a Friday night Shabbat service at Temple Israel of Hollywood, right here in Los Angeles, on Feb. 26, 1965.

“Some time ago, Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India, and we had some marvelous experiences. … I remember one afternoon that we journeyed down to the southernmost point of India in the state of Kerala. And I was to address that afternoon some high school students who were the children mainly of parents who had been ‘untouchables.’ And I remember that afternoon that the principal went through his introduction, and when he came to the end, he said, ‘I’m happy to present to you, students, a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.’ And for the moment, I was peeved and shocked that he would introduce me as an untouchable, but pretty soon my mind leaped the Atlantic, and I started thinking about conditions back home. And I started thinking about the fact that I could not go in to most places of public accommodation all across the South.

“I started thinking about the fact that 20 million of my black brothers and sisters were still at the bottom of the economic ladder. I started thinking about the fact that Negroes all over America, even if they have the money, cannot buy homes and rent homes of their choices, because so many of their white brothers don’t want to live near them. I started thinking about the fact that my little children were still judged in terms of the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And I said to myself, ‘I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States is an untouchable.’ And segregation is evil, because it stigmatizes the segregated as an untouchable in a caste system. We’ve been in the mountain of segregation long enough, and it is time for all men of goodwill to say now, ‘We are through with segregation now, henceforth, and forever more.’ ”

King’s uplifting words — here and throughout his writings — can give to us, today’s untouchables, the inner peace to turn the other cheek, to keep walking forward with our daughters toward a better tomorrow.

Let us honor King’s memory and walk to school with Hadassa and Na’ama Margolese; let us send our support to the freedom fighters in Israel who refuse to have their children spat upon or to sit at the back of the bus.

A spit of death

I am sickened to hear the recent reports from Israel concerning eight-year-old Naama Margolese who is afraid to go to school because “orthodox” extremists spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.” In addition to violating the biblical commandment of Ahavas Israel, and Maimonides warning against extremism, this fanatical behavior can have disastrous consequences.

Some 30 years ago I was asked to meet with an Israeli woman who was involved with the Church of Scientology. Here is her story.

When she was 12 years old her uncle took her by train from her home town of Haifa to Jerusalem.  This first trip to the holy city would be her special Bat Mitzvah present. Upon arriving at the old Jerusalem train station she got separated from her uncle and turned to a religiously dressed man for help. She was wearing a sleeveless top because of the summer heat and the individual who could have helped her, decided it was more important to spit on her because he disapproved of her immodest dress.

She cried uncontrollably and eventually told her uncle that if this is the way religious Jews act she want nothing to do with them or their religion. 

Years later during the six-day-war she was assigned to a unit in the Sinai and witness the depression war brought upon the soldiers. Out of nowhere she heard music and witnessed a bus load of Chabadniks arrive with a friendly smile and a few L‘Chaims. She thought to herself, “Maybe not all religious Jews are bad.”

After the war she married and settled down in Haifa. Her first daughter was born with a disability that prevented her from walking. Every hospital told her there was no hope. In desperation they traveled to visit medical experts in London and New York. The prognosis was awful. Nothing could be done.

Depressed and out of money she sat on a New York City park bench holding her daughter and crying. A taxi stopped and the driver asked if she needed a ride. Upon hearing her situation the Israeli driver said, “Let me take you somewhere you can get help.” He dropped her off outside the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office in Brooklyn. The Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Binyomin Klein greeted her in Hebrew and invited them to stay with his family. He also arranged to have all the medical records presented to the Rebbe for his advice and blessing.  Weeks passed and the Rebbe finally recommended she move to Los Angeles. With nothing to lose she accepted the Chassidim’s financial assistance and traveled to LA.

It was a USC Medical Center where is discovered a new treatment that helped her daughter. Then on Yom Kippur her daughter had a relapse and needed to go to the emergency room. She asked a neighbor for a ride and once again contrary to Jewish law a “religious” and dare I say ignorant Jew, refused to help her. Some secular Israelis came to the rescue and drove them to the hospital and though there friendship introduced her to Scientology.

I was able to help her see though the propaganda of Scientology and invited her to Shabbat dinner at the original Westwood Chabad House. I will never forget the moment she arrived with her husband and daughter who walked in unassisted. She sat with my wife singing Shabbat songs together. I started crying and thanked God for the opportunity to witness this miracle.

For the third time this woman, who could have been turned off to Judaism forever, saw that not all religious Jews are bad and this time she committed herself to staying actively involved in Jewish life.

As the Talmud teaches, we must ask ourselves if our actions save a Jewish life or destroy it. Do we draw a person close with kindness or push them away with anger.

I hope the extremists wake up and realize they are making a horrible mistake and I also hope Naama reads this story and it warms her heart and gives her hope.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founder and director of Jews for Judaism International. He is dedicated to keeping Jews Jewish and can be reached at

Women may deliver eulogies, ministry tells Israeli burial societies

Women may deliver eulogies at funerals, the Religious Services Ministry told Israeli burial societies.

The directive released Tuesday comes after the ministry adopted a halachic ruling issued more than a year ago by Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger. The Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar is also expected to rule on the issue, according to reports.

Israel’s Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that women should be allowed to deliver eulogies and that the burial societies, or chevra kadisha, should not impose gender segregation in the cemetery. The ruling was in response to an incident in Petah Tikva where a woman was stopped from eulogizing her father. However, the court’s ruling was not backed up by the Religious Services Ministry until now.

The inter-ministerial committee for the prevention of women’s exclusion, at its first meeting two weeks ago, decided that the ministry should rule to allow women to eulogize their dead and join the procession to the gravesite.

The Ministry’s directive “is an enormous victory for the moderate voices in Israel,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center. “Each year, we receive tens of complaints from women – both religious and secular- who were denied their right to express themselves at funerals in Israel. It is refreshing to see the religious establishment stand up for what is right and just, and not capitulate to the extremist forces within the ultra-Orthodox camp.”

There are more than 600 licensed burial societies in Israel.

Haredi Orthodox children attacked in Jerusalem

Two haredi Orthodox children say they were attacked in Jerusalem by non-Orthodox Jews in recent days.

An 11-year-old haredi Orthodox boy filed a complaint with Jerusalem police Tuesday alleging that two non-Orthodox teens attacked him and shouted at him at a bus stop in Jerusalem, and tried to prevent him from getting on the bus because he is haredi Orthodox.

On Sunday, a haredi-Orthodox girl, 11, told police that a non-Orthodox bus passenger on a Jerusalem bus spit at her and pushed her, saying “We will destroy the haredim.”

The haredi Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat reportedly opened a hotline for haredi Orthodox people to report violence against them. It has reportedly received numerous responses.

Females sit in the front to protest gender-segregated buses

Dozens of female demonstrators in Israel sat near the driver at the front of gender-segregated buses to protest the separation of men and women.

The protesters rode buses Sunday evening leaving from Jerusalem and Ramat Gan through the haredi Orthodox community of Bnei Brak and through Beit Shemesh, where a Modern Orthodox girls school on the cusp of a haredi Orthodox neighborhood has thrust the issue of the exclusion of women in the public sphere into the spotlight.

Be Free Israel, which according to its website is a nonpartisan movement working on behalf of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, organized the protest of the mehadrin, or sex-segregated, bus lines. Men also participated in the protest.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that voluntary sex segregation is permissible on public bus routes.

Also Sunday, the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces told a meeting of military rabbis that they must work to prevent the exclusion of women in the military.

“There will be no exclusion of women in the IDF,” Rabbi Rafi Peretz said. “We especially, who know the importance of respecting a woman, must make sure this controversy won’t penetrate our ranks.”

Where do Israeli haredim stand on haredi violence?

The cascade of condemnations started pouring in almost as soon as the Israeli TV report aired. It’s subject was an 8-year-old girl harassed by haredi men on the way to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh.

The Israeli prime minister and president vowed that Israel would not tolerate haredi violence against women, whether directed at schoolgirls or women on public buses. Israel’s opposition leader, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, went to a demonstration of thousands held Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh.

In America, too, the condemnations came fast and furious: Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and the haredi Orthodox umbrella body Agudath Israel of America were among the many groups that responded.

There appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent about the violence: Israeli haredim.

That’s because there is some ambivalence among haredi Israelis when it comes to religious zealotry.

“The question isn’t how many haredim support haredi violence and how many do not,” said sociologist Menachem Friedman, an expert on haredi life and professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University. “In all the conflicts involving haredi violence in Israel, from the British Mandate period until today, violent haredim were always a small minority, and I believe that the vast majority feel uncomfortable about them.

“The problem is that most haredim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them,” Friedman continued. “Some, perhaps a small segment, really do support the violence; some, perhaps a larger segment, do not support the violence but understand the extremists, believing that actions like these, even if they are not pretty, at the end of the day are a true expression of religious sentiments,” he said. “And the majority perhaps opposes the violence and knows that ultimately it’s bad for Judaism but doesn’t have the courage to go out and oppose it publicly.”

There were one or two notable exceptions this week.

“If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken,” the Jerusalem-based leader of the Belz Chasidim, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, said Sunday during the nightly Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at his synagogue, which holds upward of 6,000 people.

Rokeach’s comments, though tepid by secular standards, marked a rare foray into current events by the rebbe, who has an estimated 45,000 followers worldwide.

But the roundabout way the rebbe’s message was delivered, and the scant media coverage given to haredi opposition to the violence aimed at non-haredim, is indicative both of the difficulties outsiders have with discerning shades of gray in haredi society and the ambivalence within the haredi world toward using violence to achieve religious aims.

For one thing, Israeli haredi condemnations of violence are not delivered the same way as condemnations in the non-haredi world. They are generally directed inward, not outward; they tend to be delivered not in statements to the press but as words of Torah to followers; they are often spoken not in English or Hebrew, but in Yiddish; and they are expressed less as a reaction to current events than as calls for dignified behavior by Torah-observant Jews.

“The Belzer rebbe is one of the few people who has the guts to say something,” Tuvya Stern, a haredi attorney who lives in Beit Shemesh, told JTA. “But he’s not going to condemn the extremists; that’s not his way. He’ll just advocate for a different approach.”

Rokeach’s speech, which was reported in haredi media and noted by Israel Radio, was unusual both because it referred to current events and because it was aimed, at least in part, at a wider audience: The rebbe had invited an Israeli Knesset member, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to be with him when he delivered his speech on Chanukah’s sixth night. Because Rokeach made his remarks in Yiddish, it’s not clear whether or not Sa’ar picked up on their significance.

Rokeach’s reaction, however, was exceptional. Most haredi leaders stayed silent.

The violent zealots are drawn largely from the Edah HaHaredis, a community of anti-Zionist haredim that is particularly strict even by haredi standards and has strongholds in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The Edah is closely aligned with the Satmar Chasidic sect.

Haredi support for fighting a culture war against secularism extends beyond the Edah HaHaredis, but most haredim who espouse such views won’t go so far as to become defenders of the faith themselves. Haredim often invoke a classic metaphor to describe this approach: You may not want to live with a cat, but you need cats around to eat the mice if you want to prevent infestation.

This week, the “infestation” is the presence of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, adjacent to a haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. At other times, it has been the mixing of sexes in Orthodox neighborhoods, the operation of parking lots or roads on Shabbat in haredi neighborhoods, and attempts by women to pray with the Torah at the Western Wall.

Similar behavior can be found in certain Islamic societies and fundamentalist Catholic and Protestant communities, Friedman said, noting that a key difference with haredim is that any violence is relatively limited in scope, not involving serious injury or death.

Then there are haredim who oppose extremism but fear speaking out because they do not want to be seen as lax in matters of religion.

When Rabbi David Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon sect of Chasidim, spoke out a few years ago against religious violence via a Yiddish-language Torah exegesis of the story of Pinchas the zealot in the Book of Numbers, he quickly was condemned in placards posted around his neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem.

Other haredim don’t speak out because they see fights like the one in Beit Shemesh not as a battle between extremists and moderates but as part of a broader Israeli assault on haredi life led by the mainstream Israeli media.

“The source of the pollution is in halachah [Jewish law] itself,” former Knesset member Yossi Sarid wrote in a column published Friday in Israel’s daily Haaretz. Sarid called for the disqualification of haredi parties from the Knesset. On Haaretz’s English-language website, the article was titled “Orthodox Judaism treats women like filthy little things.”

Facing such hostility, some haredim say, why get involved at all?

And then there is the large segment of haredim who see themselves as totally apart from the haredim perpetrating the violence. Their attitude is that if it’s not their community members, it’s not their business and they don’t need to get involved.

While to an outsider all haredim may look alike—with their black coats, hats and beards—the haredi community is as fractured as the Jewish community as a whole. In Israel, the haredi community is divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Chasidic and non-Chasidic, moderates and extremists. Within the Chasidic community, too, there are multiple sects—and sometimes even competing grand rebbes within the same sect.

But in a world seen by outsiders as monolithic, all haredim inevitably are associated with the extremism of a few, and haredi silence is seen as affirmation of haredi bad behavior.

It’s something that may irk haredim who are engaged with the outside world, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to haredim who aren’t.

That nonchalance is alien to the non-haredi Jewish world, where organizations and leaders go out of their way to denounce ideas, people or actions they find distasteful. That goes for everything from terrorist attacks to the bombing of churches in Nigeria, which at least four Jewish groups issued statements condemning this week.

When the main haredi umbrella organization in America issued its statement this week condemning the violence, it also took a shot at those denigrating haredim in general.

“Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended,” the Agudath Israel of America said in its statement. “It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.”

Until haredim take to their synagogue lecterns, the airwaves or the streets, however, that’s a message that’s unlikely to be heard by the Jewish public.

To be sure, there were a few haredim who joined Tuesday’s demonstration in Beit Shemesh against the violence. Some were members of a new local haredi party called Tov (Hebrew for “good”) whose platform espouses moderation and open-mindedness.

“It was a very hard decision” because many of the protesters were engaged in anti-haredi sloganeering, explained Stern, the haredi attorney from Beit Shemesh, who is a leading Tov activist. “There were signs at the rally saying ‘Haredim leave Beit Shemesh.’”

Nevertheless, he said, it was important to make a public statement.

“There are rabbis in the haredi world who believe in violence as part of a religious duty,” Stern said, “but they are not a large group of people.”

Haredi man indicted for harrasment after insulting female Israeli soldier on bus

A haredi Orthodox man who insulted a female soldier after she refused to sit in the back of a city bus was charged with sexual harassment.

Shlomo Fuchs, 44, was indicted in a Jerusalem court Thursday, a day after he was arrested by Jerusalem police for calling the soldier, Doron Matalon, 19, a “whore” and a “shiksa” on a Jerusalem bus; he was joined in the insults by other passengers. The bus driver pulled over and called police.

Also on Thursday, female members of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women rode on a segregated bus from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem.

Haredi Orthodox male passengers reportedly called out insults to the women, who sat in the front of the bus, and complained of provocation. Some saw the television cameras and opted not to get on the bus, according to reports.

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Wednesday called on the public to file complaints with the police over such harassment, Ynet reported.

Thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh on Tuesday night to protest the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

Israel will take action against haredi extremists, Netanyahu says

Israel will take action against haredi Orthodox extremists who harass women in the public sphere, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned.

“We won’t accept spitting on people in the street just because someone doesn’t approve of their dress,” Netanyahu said Wednesday at the Knesset, Haaretz reported.

He also warned against generalizing all haredi Orthodox people because of the actions of a few.  “The vast majority of the Haredi public combines an adherence to Jewish tradition and a complete respect of the law,” he said.

Netanyahu made his comments a day after thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh to protest the exclusion of women and violence against women in the public sphere.

American Jewish groups condemned the public violence against women in Israel.

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said in a statement that it stands firmly against discrimination with regard to gender, religion and race.

“We denounce recent attempts by extremists to segregate and discriminate against women in public spaces in Israel,” the organization said. “All of our institutions … are fully committed to equal opportunity for all.”

The organization praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres “for their public statements and call on religious and political leaders everywhere to join them in condemning and committing to end extremist positions against women.”

The Jewish Federations of North America also praised Netanyahu and members of the government for their public condemnations of religious extremism and violence against women

“Our movement includes Jewish people from all streams and persuasions. Yet, despite our differing backgrounds, we unite today to strongly condemn, with one clear and loud voice, all acts of violence, intimidation, coercion and extremism, especially those that are undertaken, incredibly, in the name of Judaism,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA. “We know that ‘deracheha darchei noam’ – the Torah’s paths are ways of peace. We stand firmly and resolutely behind the voices of reason and moderation in Bet Shemesh and throughout Israel.”

Man arrested for insulting female Israeli soldier on bus

Israel detained an Orthodox man on Wednesday on suspicion of calling a woman soldier a “whore” on a public bus for refusing his appeals that she move to the back of the vehicle, a police spokesman said.

The incident came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of harassment by religious zealots, with the publicity surrounding these cases risking upsetting his political alliances with Orthodox parties.

Much of the controversy has surrounded complaints by women against ultra-Orthodox men trying to force them to sit separately in the backs of public buses in deference to their religious beliefs against any mixing of the sexes in public.

Soldier Doron Matalon said on Israel Radio that a devoutly religious man had approached her and insisted she move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem earlier on Wednesday, after she had embarked at a station near her military base.

“It was very frightening,” Matalon said, saying the incident was not the first in which she had been asked to move to the back of a bus but that this time she felt more defiant.

Matalon said she replied to the man: “You can move to the back if you want. Just like you don’t want to see my face, I don’t want to see yours.” She added that she was “serving our country, which unfortunately means I am also defending you.”

The man responded by shouting at her “whore, go sit in the back,” Matalon said, adding that the driver later stopped the vehicle and police arrived.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld confirmed an Orthodox man was taken into custody and “questioned about his motives” for insulting the soldier, but no decision had yet been made as to whether he would be charged.

Some bus lines that serve predominantly religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities have been segregated despite complaints from women’s groups that their civil rights were being violated.

Under Israeli law women are entitled to object to sitting in the back, but they risk verbal and physical abuse for refusing to do so.

Several thousand activists demonstrated in the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on Tuesday against incidents in which ultra-Orthodox zealots have spat at and insulted women and female children, complaining they were immodestly dressed.

Some Orthodox politicians have condemned the violence as the actions of an extremist fringe but see the controversy as an effort to incite public opinion against their politically influential minority in the Jewish state.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan

Haredi violence in Beit Shemesh catches Israel’s attention

For several years now, the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh has been the site of on-again, off-again religious violence.

But it wasn’t until the plight of a fearful 8-year-old girl from a Modern Orthodox immigrant family from America was broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 over the weekend that the religious tensions in Beit Shemesh captured the nation’s attention, including that of Israel’s prime minister and its president.

In the broadcast, the girl, Na’ama Margolis, told a reporter that she is afraid to walk the 300 yards from her home to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school for fear that the haredi Orthodox men who protest outside of the school will hurt her. Video showed Na’ama’s mother encouraging her to walk the short way to school punctuated by the girl’s whimpers and cries of “No, No.”

Some haredi residents of Beit Shemesh, a suburb of some 80,000 people, are upset about the opening in September of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, across the street from their neighborhood. Confrontations between haredi Orthodox activists and Modern Orthodox opposite the school have waxed and waned since the beginning of the school year, and often resulted in violence.

Haredi protesters have thrown eggs and bags of excrement at the young girls and called them “sluts” and “shiksas.” Haredi opponents of the school say the girls and their mothers dress immodestly, with sleeves and skirts that are not sufficiently long.

After Margolis’ story aired over the weekend, the dispute in Beit Shemesh became national news and the violence ratcheted up a notch.

On Sunday, haredi rioters surrounded and threw stones at city workers removing signs calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets. When haredi activists put up new signs to replace them, the police who returned to remove them Monday encountered rioting by about 300 haredi men who threw stones at police and burned trash cans, according to Haaretz.

Fisticuffs also broke out when news teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi extremists when they attempted to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.

On Tuesday evening, some 2,000 defenders of the girls—secular and Modern Orthodox—struck back with a rally at the school against attempts to exclude women from the public sphere in Israel.

“Free Israel from religious coercion” read one sign at the rally. “Stop Israel from becoming Iran” read another.

“We are struggling over Israel’s character not only in Beit Shemesh and not only over the exclusion of women but against all the extremists who have come out of the woodwork to try and impose their worldview on us,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, said at the rally.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence aimed at women. Netanyahu also reportedly spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from public spaces are enforced.

“The exclusion of women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Netanyahu told participants at a Bible contest Tuesday evening.

Kadima lawmaker Nachman Shai submitted a bill to the Knesset on Tuesday that would make “publicizing, inciting, preaching or encouraging gender segregation in the public sphere” a criminal act punishable by three years in prison.

Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend Tuesday’s rally.

“Today is a test for the nation, not just for the police. All of us, religious, secular, traditional must as one man defend the character of the State of Israel against a minority which breaks our national solidarity,” Peres told reporters Tuesday.

The haredi Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbul, decried the violence against young girls and the exclusion of women.

“Beit Shemesh denounces such behavior. Violent men belong behind bars. I urge the Israel Police to act with a firm hand against all the rioters,” he said, adding that reporters should not make assumptions about all haredi Orthodox Israelis.

Following the violence, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

Rally in Beit Shemesh protests exclusion of women

Hundreds participated in a rally in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh against gender segregation and violence against women by haredi Orthodox extremists.

The rally Tuesday evening was held near a national religious girls school which has been at the center of the controversy. It is the school attended by 8-year-old American immigrant Na’ama Margolis, who was featured in an Israeli television news program, saying she was afraid to walk to school following harassment by local haredi Orthodox men.

The rally was organized on Facebook. More than 4,000 users responded on the Hebrew Facebook page, “1,000 Israelis are going to Beit Shemesh to protect little Na’ama” that they will be attending. Organizers had expected some 10,000 people to participate.

Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend the rally. “Today is a test for the nation, not just for the police. All of us, religious, secular, traditional … must as one man defend the character of the state of Israel against a minority which breaks our national solidarity,” Peres told reporters Tuesday.

“Discrimination against women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the audience at an adult Bible contest gathering Tuesday evening as the rally was getting underway.

The rally comes a day after clashes between haredim and police in two neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, a northwestern suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 80,000. Two residents were arrested.

About 300 haredi Orthodox men threw stones at police and burned trash cans Monday after the police removed a sign calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets, Haaretz reported. The signs had been replaced after being removed the previous day.

Rioters on Sunday reportedly surrounded and threw stones at the city workers who removed the signs. Some reportedly called the police who came to break up the riot “Nazis.”

One sign called for women to cross the street in front of a local yeshiva; another called for women to dress modestly in public. The sign removal began Sunday evening, when it was assumed that residents would be in their homes lighting Chanukah candles, Ynet reported.

Following media reports of attacks on women by haredi Orthodox men, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

News teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi Orthodox men attempting to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.

Netanyahu over the weekend called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence against women in the public sphere. The order came from Netanyahu Saturday night through Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch following the television news report about Na’ama.

Netanyahu reportedly also spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from the public space were enforced.