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Tolerating differences, defending democracy
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Tolerating differences, defending democracy

The controversy surrounding the segregation of women in public spaces has been dominating Israeli headlines for a month. It seems to be the most burning topic on everyone’s mind, even garnering the attention of Hillary Clinton.

Although the phenomenon is far from new, it is only very recently that it has come to the forefront of public awareness, in large part due to the growing groundswell of pro-democracy organizations and activists. While Israel is considered the only true democracy in the Middle East, within the country, Israelis are waging a battle for the democratic character of the Jewish state as it pertains to everyday civil rights.

To fully appreciate the headlines about the demonstrations in Beit Shemesh, it is important to take a step back and examine the broader picture.

Over the past decade, a slow but steady “modesty revolution” has infiltrated the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, sector of Israeli society. Stringent separation by gender has spread beyond haredi communities to the shared public domain. It may be witnessed on certain public bus lines and, in some cases, on sidewalks in Jerusalem, B’nei Brak, and Beit Shemesh.

While Israel is lauded for the relatively high percentage of women in the political sphere, some local municipalities now face pressure to mandate separate seating at official events. Many business owners have also stopped depicting women in their advertising for fear of vandalism or economic boycott.

While the voices demanding these increasingly radical directives are loud, they represent a mere fraction of the haredi society. Unfortunately, the majority has been largely silent and even complacent in these matters. Their silence has allowed the ultra fervent minority to emerge as representative of the haredi position at large.

While one of the key attributes of Israeli society is its tolerance and cultural sensitivity, it may also be its weak spot. As the haredim exert political pressure, many businesses and even governmental departments engage in a self-censorship of sorts. Whether due to hyper-tolerance or the fear of boycott, phenomena not normally acceptable in a Western democratic society are now being seen, such as the disappearance of women from print advertising.

The “live and let live” attitude that enabled police to allow segregated public streets and sidewalks during particular festivals has given rise to an expectation that such stringencies would become the norm. Authorities initially turned a blind eye to the separate seating on public buses serving haredi neighborhoods because they considered it “voluntary”; in practice it has become intimidating at best, dangerous at worst, for a woman to try to sit in the “men’s section” at the front of the bus. Women and girls are especially afraid to speak up, fearing the status quo will become even more radical.

Now, after a few high-profile cases in which women spoke up and drew media attention, citizens across the country are being awakened to the reality that a democratic line has been crossed. Many realize that the practice of broad tolerance can sometimes result in the over-shadowing of the democratic principles upon which the state was founded. Similar trends are coming to light in several major European cities, where Muslim minorities are challenging the more liberal values of their communities.

Beit Shemesh, too, is a story of a slow yet deepening divide between neighbors.

The town is home to several major populations. There is the original community, many of North African descent, who settled that part of the country in the early years of the state; a diverse Modern Orthodox community, including immigrants from North America and the UK; a haredi population, primarily in the new Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhoods; and the expanding hasidic community, which borders the Modern Orthodox/North American neighborhoods. The hasidic neighborhood is the center of recent news reports.

This demographic is, for the most part, transplanted from Jerusalem, where many such families lived in relative seclusion for generations. These people represent a conglomerate of hasidic groups, some considered anti-Zionist, zealous, and reclusive. As their numbers continue to swell, they move into new neighborhoods and bring their long-standing beliefs and policies with them. They often try to impose their way of life, or at least their stringencies, upon those around them.

There is nothing wrong with living one’s life with whatever rules one chooses; that is democracy. It becomes a problem when one group of people tries to impose its world view and customs on another. The failure of the mainstream haredi leadership to condemn this escalating coercion and the growing hostility between neighbors is troublesome. It contributes to the Wild West atmosphere that is permeating some communities.

That atmosphere became international news when an eight-year-old girl from an Orthodox family in Beit Shemesh was filmed being spat at and harassed by followers of the extremist community.

Israelis — secular, Modern Orthodox, and even many haredim — are keeping her story alive in order to provoke the Israeli government to act with a firm hand in quashing the religious coercion and intimidation wreaked by these fringe, yet vocal, elements.

Now, more than ever, an unyielding commitment to unity and Jewish peoplehood is essential. This is not a battle against haredim, as many media outlets would have you believe. It is a battle to sustain the very democratic character of the Jewish state.

Americans share this value. Your knowledge of the facts and support on this issue is paramount to sustaining Israel as a truly democratic state, welcome to all who consider it their home.

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