Israeli lawmaker rapped for favoring segregation in maternity wards

A right-wing Knesset member was slammed for saying Arab and Jewish mothers in Israel’s maternity wards should be placed in separate rooms.

In a Twitter post Tuesday, Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home party said, “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down [in a bed] next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.”

Smotrich added that “Arabs are my enemies and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them.”

Soon after their posting, the tweets were criticized by party leader Naftali Bennett.

Smotrich’s tweets — an earlier one said his wife was “no racist” but objects to the post-birth celebrations by many Arab women — also prompted condemnation from other politicians. Abd al-Hakim Hajj Yahya of the Joint Arab List sent a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein calling Smotrich’s comments “racist incitement” and cause for immediate suspension from the Knesset.

Smotrich’s tweets came in response to an Israel Radio report revealing that some Israeli hospitals separate Arab and Jewish patients when requested.

According to the Times of Israel, Smotrich’s wife, Revital, later added to the controversy by telling Channel 10 that she had “kicked an Arab obstetrician out of the [delivery] room. I want Jewish hands to touch my baby, and I wasn’t comfortable lying in the same room with an Arab woman.

“I refuse to have an Arab midwife because for me giving birth is a Jewish and pure moment,” she said.

Bennett, Israel’s education minister, on Twitter quoted a passage from the Mishnah stating that “every human created in God’s image is favored,” adding that the text refers to “every human, Jewish or Arab.”

Bennett linked his tweet to a 2015 post in which he said, “In a hospital there is no significance to race, religion, skin color, sexual orientation or political views.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog of Zionist Union condemned Smotrich on Facebook, according to The Jerusalem Post, saying the lawmaker “does not care if people get a taste of racism. A baby born is pure, he does not know hatred. He should get a hug, warmth and love from the first moments in the world. Not racism.”

The Israel Radio report noted that since the wave of violence that began in October, both Jewish and Arab women have avoided hospitals in diverse areas out of fear of being in a mixed ward. All the hospitals mentioned in the report said they do not separate Jews and Arabs as a rule, though some said they would if a patient requested it.

The Health Ministry said in the report that “no separation on a discriminatory basis is allowed in hospitals. Health Ministry guidelines state that no separation by population is to be made — not by race, ethnicity, country of origin or any other factor.”

According to The Jerusalem Post, Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa were the only two hospitals who told Israel Radio that separation between patients in the maternity ward is not possible.

Why I went – and went back – to St. Augustine, Fla.

On June 18, 1964, during one of the most violent years of the civil rights struggle, I and 15 other Reform rabbis spent a night in a jail in St. Augustine, Fla. We had responded to an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to join him in a demonstration against segregation there, and most of us felt we were acting on the Torah’s imperative that we Jews “Remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt.” 

This week, exactly 50 years later, I and a good percentage of the others went back there, this time at the invitation of the Jewish community of St. Augustine. Unbeknownst to us, they had collected all the memorabilia they could from our initial visit — apparently, the largest mass incarceration of rabbis in American history.  

In 1964, St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary the following year; King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had decided to stage a campaign against discrimination there, hoping to help win support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

I was 27 and had been ordained a rabbi just two weeks before. Another of the 16, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, now also of Los Angeles, was a year older, but the rest of the group were middle-aged men (no women rabbis 50 years ago), some of whom were major leaders in the Reform movement. We were arrested for trying to integrate two restaurants and a motel swimming pool, and the police deposited us in the city’s un-air-conditioned, segregated jail, run by a sheriff who was the head of the local Ku Klux Klan. By the light of the sole light bulb dangling outside our clammy cell, our only nourishment jars of baby food thrown into our midst, we (mostly the senior members of the group) wrote an elegant statement explaining our motivations, titled “Why We Went.” 

“We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us,” we wrote in our three-page letter. By coming to this violent, Klan-run city, we hoped to show our admiration for King and wanted to share in the “opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means.” We wrote that we did not want to stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters, as so many had done just 25 years before while 6 million of our people were slaughtered in Europe, and that we had come “in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.”

But why, this week, did I go again?  In part, to help the Jews of St. Augustine in their effort not to forget their city’s bloody past, and because they want, bless them, to honor us for standing up for Jewish values at a time when too many white people were afraid to stand up for anything.  My colleagues and I want to thank them for their generosity. 

But I did not go back to the South this week simply to note how much St. Augustine has changed; I also intended to remind us all how much remains to be done. 

Segregation, we must remember, is not dead — it has only changed form. In her 2012 book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander reveals how young black men have been disproportionately targeted through the tentacles of the war on drugs, and are often convicted far more harshly than whites for similar offenses, to the extent that a shocking 80 percent of young black men have permanent prison or probation records. These men have been scarred by prisons that do not prepare them for useful lives outside; prisons built with funds that might otherwise go to building schools; prisons that seem, essentially, to train inmates only to return to jail. I wanted to remind myself of our own jail cell, in which we rabbis had a fair amount of room, while the African-Americans arrested with us, who outnumbered us 5-to-1, were jam-packed into the same-size cell. Seeing them there that night was shocking, and yet, today, I wonder: How much have our prisons changed in 50 years?

I went back to St. Augustine this week because I wanted to ask myself, again: What causes are worth being jailed for? Opposing the cruel incarceration of young blacks? Fighting lax gun laws, even as so many of our lawmakers are more concerned about losing the National Rifle Association’s support than about the mass shootings that occur with ever-greater frequency?  

In 1964, St. Augustine was a very unsafe place for blacks; in 2014, America is becoming more and more unsafe for everyone. Is there any connection between the power of the Klan in St. Augustine law enforcement 50 years ago and that of a national association that seems to hold that the right to keep a gun in one’s house outweighs the reasonable rights of other people to safety in their towns or schools? And consider this cruel irony: During the first 300 years of St. Augustine’s history, black slaves were brought here against their will; today, undocumented immigrants looking merely for a better life are hounded back over the border, deported for minor traffic infractions to homes some never knew.  

I am hoping that revisiting that city can call attention to some of these ragged edges of the country to which our own ancestors immigrated looking for a sanctuary from the violence they faced in other lands. 

So much has been accomplished and so much remains to be done. 

Israel’s attorney general won’t prosecute amusement park for racial segregation

Israel’s attorney general will not bring criminal charges against an Israeli amusement park for segregating Jewish and Arab school groups, despite the fact that segregation is illegal.

Yehuda Weinstein said in a decision issued Sunday that he decided not to prosecute Superland because the Rishon LeZion park issued a public apology and said it would immediately halt the practice.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly had asked Weinstein to decide whether Superland was discriminating against Arab students in the wake of the discovery of the separate days.

Superland said last month that some Israeli junior and senior high schools booking end-of-the-year student fun days requested that events for Jewish and Arab schools be held on different days, in part to prevent friction between the student bodies.

Requests came from both sectors, the central Israel park said, and it followed through by setting aside some separate days in June for the Jewish and Arab schools.

The segregation came to light after a seventh-grade teacher at an Arab school posted on his Facebook page that he had been unable to book a particular date using his own name, but that when he called and identified himself by a Jewish name he was able to secure the date.

Jackie and the Jews [Irish, Italians, Blacks, Poles]: Ethnicity in post-war America

Jackie was the first. Jackie could not just play the game for himself. He was playing the game for every one of his race who had been denied a chance, whose future was closed because of racism and segregation. Indeed, as I remember it, Jackie played the game for every minority kid whose opportunities were constrained because of discrimination.

I was but an toddler when Jackie broke in. My mother was often ill and my father, a decorated World War II veteran, was struggling to make up for lost time in the post-war years. He was 35 in 1945, the year the war ended, 35 and just beginning his career which was delayed by the depression and the Great War. In a frenzy to make something of his interrupted life, he worked all hours of the day and night. So we had an African-American cleaning lady, Minnie — an intelligent stately woman who in our era would have gone to school and become a professional, but in those days merely struggled to survive. Minnie loved me and she loved the Dodgers and the Dodger she most loved was Jackie. On his shoulders went the fate of all those denied an opportunity, and the destiny of all, those such as my father who were to struggle to make their way in the post World War II world. He loved Jackie as well and their love for Robinson was race blind — the great equalizer between men, women and children of diverse races and creeds.

Fire, passion, daring, Jackie was anything but a simple athlete. He fought every day and every moment of every day. He was the forerunner of the civil rights movement of the sixties, and the struggles for equality that were to follow. He would do anything to win. And when finally he was freed from his vow of silence, he played baseball with intensity unmatched in the history of the game. He could beat you with his bat, with his glove, with his base-running, and even with his mouth. Duke Snider recalled a game in which Robinson tormented the pitcher until he was hit by the pitch. He then took a huge lead off first base and challenged the pitcher to pick him off. The throw to first was wild and Robinson took two bases. He then threatened to steal home, until the unnerved hurler threw a wild pitch. Robinson lumbered home, staring at the pitcher.

Robinson was determined to overcome the weight of centuries. My father and Minnie understood his struggle. Orthodox Jew and underprivileged black, they both saw in his daily battle a mirror of their own life and the hope for future generations. If he made it, they could; if not them, then their children.

Pee Wee Reese was the Dodger Captain. Kentucky bred and almost a decade older than his teammates, he had broken into the game before World War II and was a star before his career was postponed by wartime duties. Reese was stable and able, dependable, savvy and smart. One could sense his roots in his demeanor, his pronunciation of his words, his courtliness, southern grace, and courtesy. So when Reese answered for Robinson, America took note. When he braved the taunts of fans and the displeasure of his southern friends by embracing Robinson as a teammate, as part of his double play combination, Reese came to exemplify every southerner who was willing to make segregation a thing of the past. There were a few such ball players in 1947, too few then, still too few. Several Dodgers protested Robinson's arrival. One year later Rickey traded them. He was determined to integrate Baseball and willing to pay the price.

Roy Campanella, certainly not the least of his mates, was all heart. In his every move one experienced the joy of the game, the love of baseball. Stocky and compact, Campy would be surprisingly swift on the base path and a stonewall protecting the plate. He was talkative. Campy would kibbutz with the batters and the umpires. He was as masterful at banter as at handling pitchers, speaking to them not just with his mouth, but by pounding his fists, gesturing in every direction.

The man loved what he did, and did it so well. Three times he was the National League's Most Valuable Player, the most valuable of a most impressive team, and when Campy played well, the Dodgers would win.

Campanella was formed by his experience in the Negro Leagues. Prior to being signed by the Dodgers, Campy played baseball year round. He reported to the Negro Leagues each spring and summer and went down to Venezuela to play ball in the winter. His alternatives were few. With a bat in his hand, he would club his way to a future. In the Negro Leagues, double headers were routine. Oftentimes teams played in two different cities during the same day. They brought their own lamps and polls to play nighttime baseball in then unlit stadiums. Travel was by bus where players often slept at night, denied entry into hotels in the segregated South and the inhospitable North. Motels were then unknown. Campy began his baseball career at 14, or so he said, for Negro League players often lied about their age in order to convince the white baseball barons to take a chance on their talents. By the time he began his 10 year major league career, Campanella had played professional baseball for twelve long years, summer and winter. Until Robinson was signed, Campanella could not dream of a big league career. He forever remained grateful that he was given his chance — just before it was too late.

Robinson and Campanella represented two faces of race and ethnicity in Brooklyn of the 1950s, then the most ethnically diverse and integrated city in America. For those of us Jewish boys — and I suspect the Irish and Italians as well — Jackie and Campy were familiar figures, they were not fond of each other and represented the polar opposites as to how to behave as a minority in the larger culture. Their struggles and the tensions between them were part of our family lore.

When our fathers told bold stories about standing up to antisemitism and demanding their rights, when their exploded in anger or triumphed by chutzpa, they became for us mini Jackie Robinsons — strong, and heroic. All over New York, Jews were breaking down barriers by being angry demanding and insistent — by playing the game more fiercely, with greater daring and conviction than the “white boys.”

When our fathers told us not to make waves, to be grateful for how far we had come, to remember with gratitude the opportunities we had been afforded, we thought of Roy Campanella. He knew what would have been his fate had he been given less talent, had opportunity not come his way just in time. Ever thankful, he could not be angry.

First generation Jews, Italians, and Irish and other ethnics understood Campy. The talented sons of pushcart peddlers and small merchants, of factory workers and machinists, were attending Harvard or Yale and even grateful to be at City College. And in those days Jews who went to the Ivy Leagues soon assimilated and if they did not, they were reluctant to go public with the identity they held sacred in private. In my New York Yeshiva, we were taught that a yarmulke was an indoor garment. Hats were to be worn in the street. In the fifties, Philip Roth was writing of Eli the Fanatic, the fearsome Jew who practiced his piety in public and embarrassed his assimilating neighbors.

So while my father and Minnie rooted for Jackie; more often than not, they played the racial and ethnic game like Campy. Jackie was respected, Campy was loved.

Beit Shemesh segregation signs removed

A sign calling for women to avoid using sidewalks in order to avoid contact with men was removed from a neighborhood in Beit Shemesh.

The sign was removed Wednesday night after a complaint from a female city resident, Nili Phillip, who told the Ynet news site that she has been the victim of an attack for not dressing modestly in the past, when a rock was thrown at her head by a haredi Orthodox man.

City inspectors removed the sign in an effort to avoid confrontation. The signs had been removed the previous summer but were replaced, according to reports.

Beit Shemesh, a Jerusalem suburb, has been the site of violence against women by extremist haredi Orthodox men over the past several months.

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.

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.”

Netanyahu, Peres deplore gender segregation

Israel’s prime minister and president came out against efforts by some haredi Orthodox Jews to segregate women in public.

Civil liberties groups have complained about gender segregation in buses and public places frequented by haredim, and the shunning by some religious soldiers of female entertainment troupes in the conscript military.

Speaking Monday at a conference on human trafficking, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The place of women in public spaces must be ensured and equal.

“The segregation of women clashes not just with the democratic principles that we know and cherish. It also clashes with Jewish tradition,” he said.

At the same event, President Shimon Peres said that men should be free to avoid the company of women to whom they are not related, “But no man has the right to force a woman to sit in a place that he decides on.”

Israel takes gender fight to buses, billboards

The women turned heads as they got on Jerusalem’s No. 56 bus on a November weekday.

Startled ultra-Orthodox Jewish men looked away as the group mounted a challenge to growing gender segregation in the holy city by boarding the public vehicle from the front door and sitting in its first rows.

As the male passengers averted their gaze, adhering to a traditional edict to avoid sexual temptation, a religious woman at the back of the bus shouted at the protesters: “Deal with the drugs, the crime and prostitution in your own communities first.”

Buses and billboards, where some advertisers avoid posting images of women to prevent vandalism, have become the latest battlefields in the fight for the soul of Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The boarding of bus 56, one of several segregated routes crossing ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the city, is just the latest attempt by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), to end separate seating.

“The new fad is to distance oneself from women as a way to measure piety. The idea that sex is dirty is not part of Judaism. We have to plug this leak before it spills over,” said Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director.

But a religious woman on the bus, who gave her name only as Bracha, said there was no humiliation in sitting in the rear.

“It is a response to secular extremism. Look how their women parade along the beach in a degrading way,” she said.

Black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Charedim, make up only about 10 percent of Israel’s population of 7.7 million, but their high birthrates and concentration in Jerusalem, where official figures show 26 percent of adult Jews consider themselves Charedim, have stoked fears among the country’s secular majority of religious interference in their lifestyle.

The concerns have also spread beyond the city. A group of Israeli generals wrote to the Defense Ministry on Nov. 14 saying the military must not give in to Orthodox demands to prevent the mixing of men and women in the ranks.

Nissim Hasson, vice president of sales at Zohar Hutzot advertising company, said ads showing women in Jerusalem are routinely vandalized.

When it comes to women on posters and billboards, he said, the holy city demands a different set of rules.

“Jerusalem is a symbol, a capital, built on mutual respect, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. If you want to be tolerant in this city, you cannot advertise women,” Hasson said.

Advertising its winter collection, an Israeli fashion company cropped out a female model’s head and cleavage from posters it put up in Jerusalem. In other Israeli cities, the full image ran.

The self-censorship prompted Uri Ayalon, a rabbi who is not a member of the ultra-Orthodox community, to start a Facebook campaign called “Uncensored” in which six women had their photos taken for 150 posters that were put up on Jerusalem billboards.

“We object to the sexist use of women in ads. But it is also important to me that my two daughters grow up in a place where they are not occluded because they are women,” Ayalon said.

Tzaphira Stern-Assal, a secular mother of two who volunteered for the photo shoot, said she once put an ad for a dance class in the window of a dance school she runs, only to see it defaced the next day, along with posters of a dance group, with graffiti that read “Blasphemy.”

Whenever the school’s curtains are left more than one-third open, Stern-Assal said, Charedi men soon show up and start banging on the windows.

“It happens all the time,” she said. “Do they want it to be everyone’s city or just the Charedis’? We want to live in dignity, not to be ashamed and hide behind curtains.”

A sidewalk barrier to segregate the sexes went up in October in the Mea Shearim religious neighborhood of Jerusalem during the celebration of a Jewish holiday, mirroring the separation of men and women in Orthodox synagogues.

Secular activists who came to inspect the partition said they were chased away by residents, some of whom threw stones.

Rachel Azaria, a Jerusalem councilwoman, appealed to the Supreme Court against the barrier, which ordered it dismantled.

She was subsequently fired by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, in what political commentators called a nod to the ultra-Orthodox community’s powerful punch in municipal elections.

“Segregation has been happening for a while. What’s new is that the pluralistic public has woken up and is fighting. We won’t stand it any longer,” Azaria told an interviewer.

She said a social change movement that swept through Israel in the summer, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand economic reform, has emboldened those battling segregation.

“The public dares now to say its piece. The penny has dropped,” she said.

Reliant on religious parties to help form governing coalitions, Israeli leaders have largely steered clear of cutting welfare subsidies to large ultra-Orthodox families, in which many of the men engage in religious studies full time.

Critics have pointed to the burden they put on the Israeli economy, but moves to cut the payments would spell political trouble for any of the country’s major parties.

Addressing the religious-secular divide, the Supreme Court ruled this year that women traveling on public buses cannot be ordered to sit in the back.

Signs in Jerusalem buses now say people have a right to sit wherever they wish and that harassing passengers could be a criminal offense.

Critics say that in practice, dozens of bus lines are still gender segregated and that women who want to sit at the front are often subjected to verbal and sometimes physical assaults.

One Charedi woman, who asked not to be identified, said she tried to buy a public transport pass in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, only to be turned away and told the ticket stand was for men only.

Her husband said they received threatening phone calls when word got out that they had lodged a complaint about the incident.

“Separation is important, but in places where it makes sense, like the beach. Now there are calls for it on the light rail. There are segregated grocery shops and sidewalks. There’s no basis for it in Jewish law, and it’s getting more extreme,” he said.

Yakov Halperin, head of ultra-Orthodox Yehadut Ha Torah faction in Jerusalem’s municipality, said people should stay out of the Charedi community’s business.

“If that’s what they want, in their neighborhoods, they have the right to ask for it,” he said.

“In Sodom and Gomorrah, which were annihilated because of the corrupt generation, there were those who kept the Torah’s laws and put up fences in order to protect themselves,” he said.

Growing gender segregation among Israeli haredim seen as repressing women

On the No. 3 bus line in Jerusalem, women passengers pay their fare and walk directly to the back to find a seat.

Men, most of them haredi Orthodox with long sidecurls that brush the shoulders of their black wool suits, sit in the front section. Behind them, following a space of about two feet separated by the rear doors of the bus, sit the women and girls.

The Arab driver tersely explains protocol as he begins his route through a string of largely religious neighborhoods toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“This is a ‘mehadrin’ bus,” he says, using the term for strictly kosher. “Women sit in the back.”

Even though an Israeli Supreme Court ruling has banned enforced separate seating, this is one of 63 private or public gender-segregated bus lines in Israel, according to Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious freedom and equality.

“I wish all lines were like this,” said one haredi woman aboard the bus who appeared to be in her 60s. “This is about modesty and ideally how things should work in the Land of Israel. Chaos follows when men and women sit near one another.”

She added, “Baruch Hashem, maybe this is what will hasten the coming of the messiah.”

The bus lines are one of the more visible examples of the growing segregation of men and women in the haredi Orthodox world, part of the larger, long-running battle in haredi society to keep outside influences at bay.

In Jerusalem, women have been excluded from billboard advertising so as not to offend haredi sensibilities, and a major haredi neighborhood enforced gender-segregated sidewalks over the Sukkot holiday.

Last Friday, hundreds of demonstrators, including Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, protested the exclusion of women from public areas.

“It’s simply become harder to control haredi society now that it has become so big,” said Shahar Ilan, who heads research and public outreach at Hiddush. Increased focus on gender segregation is part of the effort of control, he said.

There long has been strict separation of the sexes in this highly conservative society, from synagogues to wedding halls and schools. But in recent years, gender segregation has grown to encompass more and more public venues. In some Israeli haredi neighborhoods, segregation has extended to sidewalks, grocery store checkout lines, dentist office hours and in some cases even family Shabbat meals.

Some preschools are gender segregated, and one town has separate playground hours for boys and girls. And at a segregated HMO in Jerusalem with separate entrances and waiting rooms for men and women, a posted list of rules advises that girls be examined only by female doctors and boys by male doctors.

Haredi leaders say gender separation is essential for maintaining traditional notions of modesty, and to prevent men from lewd thoughts or actions and protect women from unwanted glances.

The rising number of separated venues has coincided with increasingly “modest” dress—that is, more covering up for women. In some areas, haredi women have taken to wearing a poncho-type garment intended to make the female form as shapeless as possible. In the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh, a few women have donned full-body burkas that cover even their faces.

To be sure, there is great variation within the vast camp of religious Jews known in Israel as haredim—a term that means “those who tremble” before God.

For example, on the most austere and stringent side, among the Gur Chasidim, married couples do not walk together in public and young men are discouraged from conversing with their brothers’ wives. Among the more liberal sects, married couples sit together on buses, and many privately express their discomfort with the widening gender gap.

Kimmy Caplan, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University who researches haredi society, said the trend toward gender separation is partly a response to the growing number of haredi women entering the workforce.

“They are meeting all kinds of people, and some haredi leaders see this as dangerous,” Caplan said. “It has the potential, as far as some leadership sees it, to be a danger because it can bring home questions, doubts, exposure to alternative ways of life.”

He explains that “There are certain leaders who think there is a need to create a balance by having more segregation in the neighborhood to compensate for a drop of segregation by women going out to work every day.”

It wasn’t always like this, scholars note. In Europe before the war, haredi women didn’t always cover their hair, and in photos of Agudot Yisrael youth groups from that period, teenage girls and boys can be seen together, Caplan said.

Naomi Ragen, an American-born Israeli novelist who is Modern Orthodox and writes about the Orthodox world, has been an outspoken opponent of gender-segregated buses ever since she was threatened verbally on a bus in 2004 when she refused to move to the back with the rest of the women.

Ragen later was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Reform movement, against the Israeli Transportation Ministry and bus companies that operate segregated bus lines. The lawsuit, heard by the Supreme Court, resulted in a ruling that such buses are illegal but that voluntary segregation could not be banned.

Since the ruling, signs must be posted on mehadrin buses stating that it is illegal to force anyone to move from their seat.

“The changes in Orthodoxy since the time I accepted it as my way of life have been unbelievable,” said Ragen, who became Modern Orthodox some 50 years ago. “It’s day and night from what I see today. My theory is the rise of Muslim fundamentalism as a patriarchy-influenced Orthodox patriarchy.”

Ragen says she sees the trend as part of a broader process of extreme behavior employed by haredim, such as rioting at a municipal parking lot in Jerusalem that was opened on Shabbat. She says the clashes have more to do with internal power struggles and an attempt to sideline women than piety.

“Few people are involved in this radicalization; most of the people in Mea Shearim, for example, are removed from it,” she said, speaking of a large haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. “It is just unfortunate that a great majority of people in the ultra-Orthodox world that are good and straight people are being bullied and battled by a vocal minority that has nothing do with Judaism, holiness or the Torah.”

One woman who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she be identified only as Hannah became a plaintiff in the lawsuit against segregated bus lines after she was verbally harassed and threatened for not moving to the back of a bus. She says she still worries that the men who threatened her will make good on their pledge to “track her down and deal with her.”

“I am a 60-year-old woman and was told I was sitting up front because I wanted to flirt with men,” Hannah said. “I was told that I was the reason the messiah was not coming and I was doing something vile by not moving.”

She says other haredi men and women have approached her to express sympathy, but fear that if they speak out against the extremism they and their families will face negative consequences.

The Israeli Religious Action Center says gender segregation is being used to suppress women.

“The term ‘gender segregation’ does not refer to a system that divides public space into two equal halves, maintaining equal access for both sexes,” said a report on haredi gender segregation by the organization. “Almost invariably it entails the displacement of women and their removal from the public realm.”

But for women like Rivkah (not her real name), a 20-year-old from the Vishnitz haredi sect who was riding the No. 3 bus to the Western Wall to pray ahead of her upcoming wedding, separate seating was a comfort, not an affront.

“It’s not extreme,” she said. “The temptations men feel are great, and it’s hard for them not to look at women. Sitting separately helps them not to look.”

In her community, interactions between the genders are highly regulated. She will be marrying a man she met once for an hour after their respective families extensively researched their backgrounds and suitability.

“And I won’t see him again until the wedding,” she said before disappearing into the crowded women’s section of the Western Wall.

Ethiopian students protest segregated school

Some 300 Ethiopian students and parents protested against their segregation in a Petach Tikvah elementary school, as nearly 2 million Israeli children began the school year.

The protesters marched Thursday from the Nir Etzion School to City Hall carrying signs reading “Stop the ghetto” and “stop the segregation.” The students refused to enter their classrooms at the school, which is made up of nearly all Israeli children of Ethiopian descent, according to Ynet.

The parents believed that the city had agreed to integrate the children into other city schools, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition Kadima Party, attended the protest, calling it “the struggle for all of us in Israel,” the Post reported.

Gender segregation still OK on Israeli buses, with caveats

Gender segregation on Israeli public buses may continue as long as passengers agree, the country’s Supreme Court ruled.

The practice will still be allowed on dozens of bus lines serving the haredi Orthodox community, known as Mehadrin lines, as long as passengers are not coerced and no violence erupts, according to the ruling issued Thursday.

The finding adopted recommendations made last year by a Transportation Ministry committee which found that the Mehadrin lines should be allowed as long as the segregation was voluntary and women were not forced to sit in the back of the bus, Haaretz reported. The state had accepted the finding.

The legal opinion was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2007 by a group of women and the Israel Religious Action Center, an organization of Israel’s Reform, or Progressive, movement.

“A public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women,” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote in his ruling. “They must sit wherever they like.

“As I now read over these lines emphasizing this, I am astounded that there was even a need to write them in the year 2010,” he added. “Have the days of Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who collapsed the racist segregation on an Alabama bus in 1955, returned?”

The judges ordered the Egged bus company to institute the new rules during a 30-day trial period, during which time the Transportation Ministry must hold undercover and open inspections to ensure that the rules are being followed. The company also must establish complaint centers for women passengers, according to the ruling.

Women’s groups and the Israel Religious Action Center told reporters that they were pleased with the decision, which they said shows that the court endorses the idea that segregation is illegal.

Enemy in Our Midst

“But if you do not completely drive out the inhabitants, those who remain will be pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in your own land” (Numbers 33:55).

God awarded the land of Israel to His chosen people, but He didn’t just give it to us on a silver platter. He expected us to work for it by draining the swamps, working the soil, planting our crops and, yes, driving out the indigenous nations whose crimes against God and humanity no longer allowed them to remain in the Holy Land.

God was very careful to warn the Jews to be extremely thorough in the process of removing the enemy from the land. Anything short of complete segregation was unacceptable. By allowing a remnant of the evil culture to remain in our midst, we would not be fully removing the cancer; it would grow back and infect us with a vengeance. These nations would become “pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”

God then warns the Israelites what will happen if we don’t complete the task (Numbers 33:56): “The very thing that I intended to do to them I shall instead do to you.”

A debate once ensued between two schools of rabbis. Would the Israelites be worthy of punishment if, despite their best efforts, they were simply unable to drive out the indigenous idolatrous peoples from the land of Israel? Or, put another way: Are the tragic consequences of allowing the enemy to remain in our midst Divine retribution from God or simply the cause and effect of allowing bad people to live together with us?

If this was a Divine punishment, then we would expect God to understand if, despite our best efforts to heed Him, we simply weren’t strong enough to finish the job. On the other hand, if the Torah is describing a natural cause and effect, it shouldn’t make a difference whether we’ve tried our best or not. The foreign nations and their gods would harm us irrespectively.

One rabbi therefore understood God’s admonition that He would do to us what He intended to do to our enemies as a punishment for our sloth and noncompliance, and that this was a continuation of the previous verse of the nations being thorns in our sides. The other rabbi argued that, no, the first verse is a natural cause and effect and has nothing to do with how hard we work. Only the second verse addresses what will happen if we slack off on our task.

It certainly behooves our military and political leaders in Israel to study our parsha and its simple and obvious message. In a utopian, messianic world, Rodney King’s plea of everyone getting along is wonderfully appropriate. Unfortunately, our enemies have yet to beat their swords into plowshares, and as much as we would like to dismantle our own military, we have to deal with the cards that we’re dealt.

Similarly, even though Robert Frost was speaking critically of the man who said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the criticism was due to the neighbor’s lack of desire for openness and friendship.

Sadly, when the neighbor is hostile and bent on my destruction, good fences, barricades and walls do make for as good of a neighbor as possible under the circumstances. (Of course, this fence-building does not preclude efforts at converting our bad neighbors into good neighbors and trying to get them to like us. But until they do love us, the fence must remain.)

Whether or not one gets catharsis from pointing a finger at the current Israeli leadership, the result is the same. The Torah teaches that it really doesn’t make a difference whether it’s our fault or not – for our own survival, we must segregate ourselves from those who wish us harm. Without strong borders for the people of Israel, we will continue to suffer from the “pins” and “thorns” our enemies continue to lob at us, be it in Sderot, Kiryat Shemoneh or in any other city in Israel.

As we go through this three-week period called the Bein HaMetzarim, a period of introspection over our own contribution to the breakup of the nation of Israel and our exile from the land, it’s worthwhile to contemplate two things: One, what can I do on a religious/spiritual level to help my people, especially my brethren living in Israel today? Two, what can I do on a natural/physical level to make our people more secure from terrorist attacks and future wars?

Judaism has always called upon us to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Let us take charge and make ourselves a better, stronger nation.

Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Support Pledged on Marking Historic Ruling

May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate educational facilities as inherently unequal.

Less well-known is Orange County’s role in establishing that historic precedent. In 1947, a group of parents led by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez of Westminster fought to end California’s segregation of its Latino school children. Their suit came to the attention of the state’s governor at the time, Earl Warren, who went on to hear the Brown case as chief justice of the nation’s highest court.

"This is an opportunity for us to join with the fastest-growing community in Orange County," said Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. "We are natural allies over civil liberties," said Dworkin, who recently met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). He pledged the Jewish community’s support for a pending congressional resolution to give national recognition to the Mendez family’s role in history.

Dworkin had company. He enlisted support from Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Chelle Friedman, staff to the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, to champion Jewish issues in a collaborative approach. "This way we can have a more coordinated effort," Dworkin said. "It strengthens everyone to go in together."

Cultivating Latino-Jewish relations is a priority for Dworkin. Last month, he helped convene a two-day regional summit between Latino and Jewish leaders in Arizona and San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. He has also asked the O.C. Human Relations Commission to help start an ongoing Latino-Jewish dialogue this spring among leaders, similar to the diverse "living room" discussions started after Sept. 11.