If you live in Brooklyn and ride a bicycle, no issue has pushed more buttons and started more arguments over the past two years than the conflict between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the rest of us regarding bike lanes through Williamsburg. Hasidic leaders have been complaining that bicyclists represent “a safety and religious hazard,” the religious part of it coming from their claim that (female) bicyclists are “hotties” who “ride in shorts and skirts.” (I’m not sure how “hot” I am, but as far as the shorts and skirts are concerned, I’m guilty as charged.)
In 2009, Mayor Bloomberg sandblasted the bike lanes off Bedford Avenue, apparently in order to appease the Hasidic community at election time, only for local bicyclists to repaint them soon afterwards. Last year the conflict started turning violent, and a sort of Hasidim vs. hipster Cold War has prevailed on our streets ever since.
But this is as nothing compared to the situation in Jerusalem. There the Haredim aren’t worried about just hipsters but rather about half of humanity: as usual, it’s the female half. Haredi tradition demands a strict separation of the sexes, particularly between unmarried men and women. Interestingly enough, it isthe women who are supposed to keep their distance.
A "men only" market in Mea Shearim, 1990s
Over the last couple of years, so-called kosher buses have tried to keep women in the back seats (I wrote about the issue in my blog back in March, 2010). While the seating regulations have proven nearly impossible to enforce, local Haredi men have gone further, stripping advertising posters that feature comely, lightly dressed women from the walls of the city. Buses and streetcars display no images of women at all.
In parts of Jerusalem, women are not to be seen or heard. Haredim would like all women to be banished from the airwaves. And it isn’t just the Haredim these days. Some religious soldiers refuse to listen to women’s choirs at celebrations. At a Simchat Torah celebration in October, male soldiers insisted on setting up room dividers to avoid catching a glimpse of their female comrades dancing nearby. If it was up to many of them, women would be excluded from the IDF altogether.
The desire to see women “barefoot and pregnant” at home and invisible everywhere else is not just a preference for many, it is an obsession. On Monday morning, violence broke out in the ultra-Orthodox Nahala Vemenuha neighborhood of Jerusalem when police showed up to remove an illegal sign on Hazon Ish Street that called on men and women to use different sidewalks. A group of Haredi men converged around the policemen, dancing and chanting “Nazis!” at them.
Na'ama Margolese is an 8-year-old American
immigrant who has become the poster child
for feminists after being spat at by Haredim
extremists on her way to school every morning.
Now on the Internet, the invocation of “Godwin’s Law,” whereby sooner or later the words “Hitler” or “Nazi” will inevitably appear in every online forum thread, supposedly means the end of a debate. But in Israel these days it’s how debates get started. Later yesterday a crew from the TV station Channel 10 came under attack by Haredim as it tried to film a report about education in Jerusalem. Shortly afterward, another TV crew was hit by eggs when it tried filming the sign. The police faced off with around 300 screaming ultra-Orthodox men who threw rocks at them and set dumpsters ablaze. This evening, the city is bracing for a demonstration by up to 10,000 feminist activists from all over Israel in the Haredi town of Beit Shemesh outside Jerusalem. Things could get very interesting, very fast.
So is Israel going “sharia”? Wait, you might be thinking. Aren’t actions like these merely the work of backward religious fanatics, a mere tenth of the population, who will eventually grow out of it as they interact with the modern world? And aren’t the vast majority of Israelis still as progressive as ever? That may be wishful thinking. Feminist activists like Anat Hoffman (who actually carried a Torah role to the Western Wall in the summer of 2010 in order to pray there with other women, thus violating religious tradition) and Rachel Azaria, herself an Orthodox Jew, point out that, due to the high birthrate in the ultra-Orthodox community, one out of every four children starting school in Israel these days comes from a Haredi family. This means that in ten years or so Nahala Vemenuha could be everywhere.
Women of the Lev Tahor sect are increasingly "going Taliban"
My own take on this story is that if Israel really wants to go “Taliban,” maybe they should just go all out and be done with it. Recently an Israeli friend of mine sent me a story from the Vos Iz Neias website (that’s Yiddish for “what’s new?”) about a Bratslav Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman in the Ukraine, the gravesite of the great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman. 18,000 Hasidim travelled to the gravesite over Rosh Hashanah last year.
Most of the pilgrims flew on regularly scheduled flights from Ben Gurion Airport, which, from the Bratslav Hasadic point of view, was asking for trouble. They were under strict instructions to paste pieces of cardboard over those little TV screens attached to the seats in front of them so as not to be corrupted by any in-flight movies. But what about all the other “forbidden sights” a pious Hasid could encounter inside the airport itself?
Well, how many options are really open to them, other than evacuating and whitewashing the entire airport? A simple veil does the trick. As a leaflet supplied to the pilgrims advises, “In any cloth shop, ask for a thin lycra cloth 70 cm wide (blue, brown or black ) costing about 20 NIS. It needs to be about 1.5 meters long ... which is necessary so it will sit well and not flow in the wind.”
Now that’s a brilliant solution, worthy of Jonathan Swift himself. So here’s my modest proposal to end the religious standoff in Jerusalem – and in Williamsburg too, for that matter - now that everybody just minding their own business like responsible adults is somehow no longer an option: Burkas for men, self-determination for women. That way everyone will be happy, right?