And Those Who En­able Them

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll

In the 10 years I’ve lived in Beit Shemesh, I have seen things I thought I’d never see. I’ve seen signs telling women what to wear and signs or­der­ing them to walk down a spe­cific stair­case. I’ve seen young girls spit on and called shik­sas. I’ve been spat on, for try­ing to pro­tect these girls.

This is a story about run­away ex­trem­ism. About the ap­a­thy of the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and the si­lence of lo­cal re­li­gious lead­er­ship. It is a story in which the hero­ines are a few coura­geous women ded­i­cated to stop­ping these acts, and whose ef­forts have brought to­gether a mot­ley crew with whom I toured the city’s land­scape of modesty signs with a Chris­tian Arab Is­raeli mem­ber of the Knes­set along with a group of Jewish women and men. That tour was one of the strangest and most in­spir­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of my life.

Ten­sions in Beit Shemesh, a sub­urb west of Jerusalem, be­gan over a decade ago, when groups from the most in­su­lar ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jewish sects set­tled in a newer sec­tion of the city, Ra­mat Beit Shemesh Bet. This neigh­bor­hood abuts an es­tab­lished Re­li­gious Zion­ist neigh­bor­hood where women, both na­tive Is­raeli and im­mi­grants like me, have made a home for our re­li­gious Zion­ist fam­i­lies.

Signs declar­ing “MOD­EST DRESS ONLY!” be­gan pop­ping up around town. Teenagers were ha­rassed by ul­tra Ortho­dox men for hang­ing out in group. On a few oc­ca­sions, men threw rocks.

Most fa­mously, the lo­cal re­li­gious Zion­ist girls’ school and its stu­dents were sub­jected to reg­u­lar yelling, spit­ting and van­dal­ism by grown men in an ef­fort to con­vince the school to va­cate the premises.

A group of women, all of whom had en­dured phys­i­cal or ver­bal as­sault, de­cided to try to end this ha­rass­ment. They at­tempted to work with the city, and were all but ig­nored.

And so, the women turned to the law, fil­ing a civil suit against the signs.

Through­out all this, the women and their sup­port­ers faced skep­ti­cism and crit­i­cism. Lo­cal politi­cians and res­i­dents

‘Cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity is only ever used to jus­tify op­pres­sion of women.’


RIS­ING TEN­SIONS: A del­e­ga­tion sur­veys the scene in Ra­mat Beit Shemesh Bet.

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