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The Feminists of Zion

An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism

On a warm June day in 2011, Nili Philipp was powering her bike down Herzog Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in Beit Shemesh, a sleepy bedroom community in the Judean hills. A pretty, vivacious mother of five and fitness buff, Philipp is what American Jews would call “modern Orthodox” and Israelis call “national religious.” She keeps a kosher home and wears a knee-length skirt and head scarf, as traditional Jewish law demands, but she is also a confident college-trained engineer, with a smartphone and high-tech sneakers. As she rode, she tried to push the anxiety she felt to the back of her mind.

The Canadian-born Philipp and her husband had moved to Beit Shemesh in 2000 for its affordability and its beautiful bike trails and hills, but also for its diversity. Back then, secular Jews, modern-Orthodox Jews, and the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, lived peacefully side by side. Philipp had loved to shop in the Haredi neighborhoods, where clothing and diapers were always cheaper. But over the past five years, as Beit Shemesh had changed, Philipp found these neighborhoods increasingly foreign and felt uneasy visiting them.

READ: More Battles in Israel's Beit Shemesh

After an influx of Haredi families had poured into the city in search of affordable housing, official-looking posters cautioning women to “dress modestly” had appeared around town. Signs were now posted near Haredi synagogues ordering women not to “linger” or make noise. When she went on runs, the five-foot-tall Philipp wore her long skirt and head scarf. But despite her modest dress, on several occasions, Haredi men had cursed her and spat on her, perceiving the mere sight of a woman running as offensive to their beliefs. When she went biking, Philipp had tried wearing a skirt, but when doing so proved neither practical nor safe she switched to knee-length shorts—the longest she could find—and a short-sleeved jersey.

Photograph by Tanya Habjouqa
A new face of feminism.

As she cycled in this outfit past a traffic circle bordering a Haredi neighborhood, she saw a modesty sign and the husk of a shopping center vandalized by Haredi men who feared the project would attract “indecent” non-Haredi customers like Philipp. Suddenly, something struck her on the head, hard. A Haredi man had thrown a rock the size of her fist at her. It bounced off her helmet and clattered to the ground. Shaken, she called for help. But other Haredi men, picking their way along the sidewalk in their black suits and brimmed hats, ignored her. The escalation—from spitting to real violence—left her terrified.

Three months later, Philipp had another upsetting brush with the Haredim. As her seven-year-old daughter, Meital, and her friends headed into their new girls’ school, they were confronted by an angry crowd of Haredi men screaming, “Shiksa” (gentile woman) and “Prutze” (slut). The Orot Banot school sat on a street between Philipp’s modern-Orthodox neighborhood and an area that had recently become home to some extremist Haredi sects. (Haredi sects differ in their degrees of religiosity; violence generally only emanates from extreme groups.) Many in the Haredi community believed the building “belonged” to them and claimed that the schoolgirls were provocative, because they wore t-shirts instead of blouses and bare legs beneath their long skirts.

Philipp was outraged that, even before the school had opened, the Beit Shemesh government—led by its Haredi mayor, Moshe Abutbul—had backed the ultra-Orthodox, warning parents that the city could not protect their children against any violence that might occur. This proved to be the case: Every day, the harassers showed up outside the school and traumatized the girls, hurling eggs, tomatoes, and bags of feces at them, but the police came only when summoned. Screaming Haredi men were merely redirected to adjacent streets. No arrests were made.

Finally, in December of 2011, one of Philipp’s friends, Hadassa Margolese, allowed her eight-year-old, Naama, to be featured on a nationally broadcast news program. Naama was filmed sobbing and clinging to her mother’s leg, too terrified to go to school. On the same program, a Haredi man proudly defended his right to protect himself from these young schoolgirls and their brazen sexual provocation, declaring, “I am a healthy man!” The segment electrified the nation, and although no prominent Haredi rabbis publicly condemned the protesters, they disappeared overnight.

But Haredi men continued to harass women in Beit Shemesh. Less than a year later, in June 2012, Vered Daniel, an acquaintance of Philipp’s, went shopping in a Haredi neighborhood. In a special effort to respect ultra-Orthodox sensitivities, she wore a long skirt and blouse. Although modest by modern-Orthodox standards, Daniel’s outfit marked her as someone who was clearly not Haredi. When she left her car with her infant daughter in her arms, Haredi men screamed at her for dressing immodestly and spat on her. Alarmed, Daniel ran back to her car, locking herself and her baby inside as the mob battered the vehicle with sticks and stones, shattering a window.

For Philipp, the attack on Daniel was “beyond the beyond.” “Attacking a mother with a young child in her arms—” recalls Philipp, her eyes filling with tears. “She was completely helpless.” The incident drove her to do something she would previously never have contemplated. Like most Orthodox women, there was little about the word “feminism” that spoke to Philipp. She did not consider herself political. But as tensions grew in Beit Shemesh, she had started to follow the debates in online women’s groups, “deep debates,” she says, “about pluralistic society, tolerance.” It was, she says, “my first real exchange with secular and non-Orthodox Israelis.”

The day after Daniel’s attack, Philipp filed a police complaint over the city’s failure to remove the modesty signs. But then, rightly sensing that this would result in little change, she reached out to a woman from a world completely different than her own. In doing so, she became a pivotal figure in a clash between the ultra-Orthodox and a widening coalition of women to determine the core values of Israeli society.

Even before Israel’s founding in 1948, modern Zionists envisioned a state that was a beacon of gender equality. Zionism, which fused national aspirations with socialist ideology, encouraged the full integration of women into society, while Israel’s small population also made women in the workforce a necessity. In pioneer training camps, in “labor battalions,” and in the kibbutzim, women were expected to work and fight alongside men, and working mothers were provided with services to help them do so, such as free child care. An economic boom after the 1967 war drove yet more women into the labor market. It seemed a fitting symbol of Israel’s progressive attitudes toward gender when Golda Meir was appointed prime minister in 1969.

Some of this gender equality was illusory, as women discovered during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. When men were called up for military service, the entire country came to a standstill—revealing that women had been systematically excluded from certain jobs, such as bus driving. But for the most part, Israeli women have had relatively free access to birth control, abortion, and child care, and have been largely unencumbered by the ideal of the full-time homemaker and the attendant Mommy Wars.

AP/Oded Balilti
Naama Margolese sits with her mother Hadassa in December, 2011.

But as modern Israel was developing along this mostly progressive track, its secular leaders, including its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, were unwilling to impose their values on the remnants of “traditional” ultra-Orthodox European Jewry. At the time of the nation’s founding, the ultra-Orthodox had been decimated by the Holocaust; it has been estimated that they comprised as little as 1 percent of Israel’s population. Even the most hardened secular Zionists had a sentimental attachment to a community they saw as the last representatives of “authentic” Judaism. And so laws were quickly enacted to give special status to Haredim, such as military exemptions for Yeshiva students. (There were only 400 at the time.) Ultra-Orthodox Jews were also given tremendous autonomy over their own neighborhoods. Most significantly, an Israeli chief rabbinate and religious court system, comprised largely of ultra-Orthodox men, were allowed to regulate the entire country’s religious and life-cycle events, from marriage to conversion to burial.

This led to a strange democratic experiment in which radical secularism co-existed side by side with extreme Orthodoxy. Posters of women in bikinis dot the beaches of Tel Aviv, while bus shelters with images of even modestly dressed women are either torn off or spray-painted in Jerusalem. In the town of Petah Tikvah, shoppers can buy cereal boxes with frolicking children of both genders; in B’nai B’rak, the next town over, Haredi publications forbid pictures of any women or girls. Women are seated readily at Israel’s Supreme Court, but at the backs of certain bus lines. For decades, Israelis tolerated their nation’s dual identity as both a secular and a religious state, in part because Haredi influence was largely confined to their own private spaces.

In recent years, however, demographic changes have made this paradox less tenable. Ultra-Orthodox birth rates have always been exceptionally high, and the once-tiny minority now comprises more than 10 percent of the population. As their numbers have increased, so has their sway over political and civil life. Ultra-Orthodox parties have been the fulcrum of every single government coalition from 2006 until early 2013. Major parties competed with each other to make deals with the Haredim, often ceding authority over a number of domestic and economic issues to Haredi leaders in exchange for support on various foreign policy and security goals.

These agreements, forged between ultra-Orthodox and secular political leaders—almost all of them male—have led to an increase in modesty signs on public boulevards and gender-segregated sidewalks in Haredi neighborhoods. Bowing to pressure from politically influential Haredi rabbis, secular male authorities have also acceded to bans on women’s faces on billboards in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, gender-separated office hours in government- funded medical clinics, and de facto gender segregation on publicly subsidized buses. Women have been discouraged, and at times even prohibited, from participating in some official ceremonies. In short, restrictions that once affected only Haredi women are spilling into public spaces, affecting all women, and calling into question the justness of a model that allows gender equality to be a negotiable issue.

The conflict has only become more intense as the growing Haredi population has expanded in “mixed” Israeli cities, like Beit Shemesh. In less than a decade, the Haredim, once a nominal presence in the city, came to dominate the political landscape, electing their mayor, Abutbul, in 2008. Haredi housing projects and schools were built alongside existing neighborhoods, and residents had no choice but to pass through them as they went about their daily business. Haredi families, meanwhile, felt they were being forced to confront influences they found profane, such as provocative clothing, music, and media.

Haredim have sought to drive “corrupt” elements out of their neighborhoods by making them inhospitable places for those who are not ultra-Orthodox. The victims of this strategy are usually women, whose bodies have become the battleground in what is essentially a religious turf war. And as Philipp and Vered Daniel learned, the harassment can easily become violent. Miriam Friedman Zussman, a modern-Orthodox friend of Philipp’s, says: “I never considered myself a feminist. I didn’t think I had to be. Then suddenly, you start to say, ‘You want me to wear what? You want me to say what? You want my daughter to wear what?’... It’s the boiled frog theory."

And so, for the first time, women like Nili Philipp have started to cross the secular-religious divide. 

On a recent afternoon, Orly Erez-Likhovski sat in the kitchen of her well-appointed townhouse in Mevasseret Zion. Tall, with tousled, short brown hair, Erez-Likhovski was dressed in a sleeveless v-neck blouse and slacks, an outfit that would hardly turn heads in Mevasseret, an upscale enclave tucked into the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Although it’s only a 30-minute drive from Beit Shemesh, Mevasseret is a world away. The neat rows of homes are populated by secular families who choose to distance themselves from the ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious friction of places like Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh.

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
Israeli women concerned with equality fear the writing is on the wall, in the form of modesty signs like the one in Beit Shemesh.

Erez-Likhovski works from home on designated days to balance the demands of being one of Israel’s busiest women’s rights lawyers with the demands of her own family. (She has three children.) Erez-Likhovski was raised in a secular intellectual family; her father was a professor of agriculture and her mother a banker. She served in army intelligence, studied law at Tel Aviv and Columbia universities, and then clerked at Israel’s Supreme Court. While looking for a preschool for her son, a friend recommended one at a Reform synagogue, a denomination that melds Jewish tradition with a Western liberal emphasis on egalitarianism, innovation, and diversity. While it is the largest Jewish movement in the United States, in Israel only a tiny fraction of the population identify as Reform Jews. But Erez-Likhovski soon found herself attracted to the Reform movement—particularly its emphasis on social justice. Her rabbi suggested she join the movement professionally, as well as personally, and in 2004, she became an attorney at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.

Erez-Likhovski began working on the issue of gender segregation in 2006 when IRAC received a growing number of complaints over the new, segregated mehadrin, or kosher bus lines—the result of a cooperation between ultra-Orthodox leaders and publicly subsidized bus companies. After ultra-Orthodox passengers bullied women sitting in the front seats of these buses, sometimes violently, Erez-Likhovski began to file complaints with the Ministry of Transportation. Eventually, on behalf of IRAC, she petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007 to clarify the situation.

During this period, the relationship between IRAC and Orthodox women’s organizations began to develop. In 2008, IRAC contacted Rachel Azaria, a modern-Orthodox woman who was running for Jerusalem City Council. Azaria had been barred from posting campaign ads with her picture on city buses, because images of women were forbidden on any public buses routed through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. After winning Azaria’s case, IRAC began to cooperate with Orthodox women on a host of issues. Working with Kolech—Israel’s first Orthodox feminist group—they challenged a policy that required female mourners to stand separately in government cemeteries and that sometimes barred women from eulogizing. They fought ultra-Orthodox radio stations with government licenses that sought to exclude women broadcasters on “modesty” grounds. Kolech signed on as a friend of the court to the IRAC petition in the bus segregation case.

In early 2011, the Supreme Court went further than IRAC's request—declaring all forced segregation on buses illegal. At the same time, they permitted “voluntary” separation of the sexes. For Erez-Likhovski, it was a mixed victory. So, starting in 2011, IRAC changed its strategy and began filing civil suits in small-claims court on behalf of six individual women who had been harassed by ultra-Orthodox men on segregated buses. They sued the bus companies and drivers for failing to uphold Israel’s anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on race or gender. The plaintiffs were awarded amounts between 2,500 shekels (about $700) and 13,000 shekels (about $3,600). Three of the women were Orthodox.

Nili Philipp had briefly met, and liked, Erez-Likhovski when she had testified before a Knesset committee on religious women’s issues. And when she decided to fight back against the Haredim, it was Erez-Likhovski she called. She knew she was doing something new. Most Israelis would “never think that religious women would align themselves with those radical feminist women from the Reform movement,” says Philipp. “They would just assume we’d be good girls and listen to our rabbis.”

Philipp was wary some anti-religious secular groups and figures might try to capitalize on her activism. But the burgeoning coalition between IRAC and Kolech gave her confidence. She also consulted with Chana Kehat, the founder of Kolech, who offered the likely cooperation of one of Kolech’s Orthodox lawyers on the case.

Erez-Likhovski, who had been following the events in Beit Shemesh with great interest, saw Philipp’s case as a potential game-changer. Nobody had ever aggressively gone after the unofficially sanctioned modesty signs, and a lawsuit would force the municipality to take notice by hitting it in the pocketbook. And so, in February 2013, she helped Philipp and three other victims of ultra-Orthodox violence file an unprecedented civil lawsuit against the Beit Shemesh municipality and Mayor Abutbul, claiming the city was negligent in failing to remove the modesty signs. This failure, they alleged, had legitimized the continuing violence. They demanded more than $20,000 in compensatory damages. 

The timing of Philipp’s case may well determine its outcome. The events in Beit Shemesh in 2011, personified by a terrified Naama Margolese, had been a wake-up call for Israel. It had forced the secular Israeli majority—particularly women—to ask whether they could live in a country where young schoolgirls were spat upon by adult males while the authorities stood by.

In the intervening years, women activists—and their male allies—have received a boost in visibility and public support. In Jerusalem, Rachel Azaria—the modern-Orthodox city councilwoman represented by IRAC in 2008—succeeded in preventing a Haredi neighborhood from imposing illegal sex-segregated sidewalks during a religious festival. There was a public outcry after two prominent female scientists were not allowed onstage to accept their own academic prizes in a Ministry of Health event. When religious soldiers walked out on official Israeli Defense Forces ceremonies because women were singing, a Facebook campaign inspired hundreds of women to hold sing-along protests in public squares, influencing army brass to clarify that such walkouts would not be tolerated. Another social-media-driven grassroots campaign had Jerusalemites hanging posters of women on their balconies to protest the absence of female images on public billboards.

“During the bus segregation case, we tried to [interest] the public and the media,” says Erez-Likhovski. “The feeling was: This was for the Haredim. Just let them do whatever they want. And while we had foreign press all over [the story], nobody cared in Israel, and it drove me crazy.”

All that has changed. This past spring, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s office released a groundbreaking report on discrimination and exclusion of women in the public sphere. In a statement sent to a list of government ministers, Weinstein ordered an immediate halt to the exclusion of women and banned discrimination at any government-sponsored or -funded activity. (He made a concession on the separation of the sexes for certain religious events.) The statement addressed a long list of controversial venues, including cemeteries, buses, health clinics, and radio stations. Weinstein then urged the Knesset to enshrine these statutes into law. As of yet, the Knesset has taken no action—other issues have taken priority—but proponents of the report remain hopeful it eventually will.

Simultaneous victories have taken place on other fronts and with other odd-couple coalitions. Seeking to immerse themselves in ritual baths, or mikvehs, a group of feminists from diverse backgrounds and beliefs filed a legal challenge against a rabbinate policy that gave only married women access to the baths. Ultimately, the rabbinate refused to officially change its policy but said that henceforth women could immerse themselves without being questioned about marital status or religious affiliation.

But perhaps the highest-profile example of the renewed fighting feminist spirit in Israel has been the stunning success this year of Women of the Wall (WOW), currently led by Anat Hoffman, who also serves as the head of IRAC. The group has been conducting women’s prayer services on the first day of the Jewish month at the Western Wall for 25 years, arousing the fury of the ultra-Orthodox authorities tasked with overseeing the holy site. WOW draws worshippers from all strands of religious practice; some members dress in traditionally male ritual garments—such as a yarmulke, tallis, and phylacteries—and also sing aloud. These practices run counter to ultra-Orthodox tradition, and more than one woman has been arrested because the law supported the Haredi view that the Western Wall is in effect an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, and the failure of worshippers to respect “local custom” at the site was a criminal act.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Dressed in traditional male prayer garb, an activist at the Western Wall fights for her rights with ultra-Orthodox men.

For years, Israelis dismissed WOW as shameless American attention-seekers. (Many of the founders and leaders of the group were immigrants from the United States, and the group receives financial support from overseas sympathizers.) But this spring, WOW scored substantial political and legal victories. The Jerusalem district court ruled in the women’s favor. And Israel’s attorney general decided in May not to appeal that ruling. As a result, for the first time, at WOW’s monthly prayer meeting in May, police actively protected the women worshipping at the wall and instead arrested Haredi protesters who threatened them. One of the real surprises of WOW’s new legitimacy is the support it has amassed from not just the previously indifferent secular public—three female Knesset members joined the group in prayer over the spring—but from an increasing number of modern-Orthodox women.

The new public consciousness of women’s treatment had a profound impact on last January’s parliamentary elections. Two newcomers, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, deftly forged a modern-Orthodox/secular alliance, pledging to end the special status of Haredi men, including sweeping them into the national draft. Lapid was careful to promote women and women’s issues as an election issue and top priority for his new party, Yesh Atid.

In the 2013 election, for the first time, three women led major parties, and, thanks in no small part to Yesh Atid, the number of women in the legislature rose to a record high of 27—comprising 23 percent of the legislature. Yesh Atid women include new Knesset members Aliza Lavie, a modern-Orthodox feminist activist and university professor, and Ruth Calderon, a secular Jewish academic who founded a non-Orthodox yeshiva. A video of Calderon leading a groundbreaking Talmud study session in the Knesset went viral, showing a female secular scholar discussing Talmud as ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset nodded respectfully.

And while the ultra-Orthodox parties stayed female-free, for the first time, a woman in that community dared to object. Esti Shoshan, a Haredi journalist, created a Facebook page called, “If we can’t run, we won’t vote,” openly challenging the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties excluded women from their party lists and declaring that Haredi women should not vote for their sectoral parties as a result.

This raises the question of whether the rising tide of feminist activism, which has spread from secular to modern-Orthodox women, will ultimately engage Haredi women as well. In at least one important way, women in the ultra-Orthodox community have more exposure to the modern world than men. While only 45 percent of Haredi men work (males in the community traditionally devote themselves to yeshiva study), 60 percent of women participate in Israel’s workforce, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. That number is likely to rise as Yesh Atid slashes the social safety net, including cutting government-subsidized yeshiva stipends and per-child financial subsidies to large families. Such benefits have enabled Haredi families to survive, often at subsistence level (60 percent of Israeli Haredim live below the poverty line) but without the need to enter the modern workforce.

A woman in Beit Shemesh holds up a sign reading "We need to End the Exclusion of Women," in a December, 2011 protest.

Although ultra-Orthodox rabbis prohibit the use of technologies such as fully enabled cell phones, working Haredi women are being exposed to the Internet, and women familiar with the community believe that this will forever change the way Haredi women see themselves. Secular and modern-Orthodox women involved in the Israeli women’s movement also claim that some ultra-Orthodox women have privately expressed support for their cause. Still, openly criticizing their leaders and demanding change remains a big taboo. All but one of the Haredi women contacted for this piece refused to speak on the record. The only one who would was skeptical that drastic change was afoot. Surie Ackerman, editor and translator for several newspapers in Israel, including an eight-year stint at a Haredi newspaper, calls her family “Haredi, but not classic Haredi.” “I don’t foresee Haredi women ever organizing themselves in a way that would protest what a rabbi handed down,” Ackerman says.

Asked whether the prospect of ultra-Orthodox women joining Israel’s workforce in droves won’t change that dynamic, Ackerman is doubtful: “Small groups of like-minded women might make things different for themselves,” she says, citing a group of Haredi women entrepreneurs who created an annual business forum four years ago. “But it doesn’t break any framework. They aren’t staying in the kitchen anymore, but it’s not a revolution.”

If Surie Ackerman is right and Haredi women turn theirbacks on the emerging women’s movement, the fate of Israel’s women may ultimately come down to demographics. Already, many fear that efforts like Nili Philipp’s to stop ultra-Orthodox encroachment are doomed, simply because Haredim, nearly all of whom have more than five children and some of whom procreate in the double digits, are reproducing rapidly. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics projects that, at current growth rates, Israel could well be 40 percent Haredi by 2059. The activists worry, justifiably, that as the Haredi population continues to expand, so will its political influence. As Miriam Zussman, one of the plaintiffs in the case, puts it: “Thirty percent of the first-graders in this country are Haredi. They will have to go somewhere, live somewhere. ... I say, do the math. They’re coming to you.”

This is why the Beit Shemesh plaintiffs see themselves as standing up for all Israeli women during a shrinking window to protect their rights. They are currently in court-recommended mediation with the municipality, which is pushing them to negotiate a mutually acceptable wording of the modesty signs with ultra-Orthodox leaders—"something general like, ‘Be thoughtful of the locals,’" says Philipp. “We’re not going to fall for that doublespeak. We want those signs gone.”

IRAC is encouraging this hard line for fear that there won’t be another chance to stem the tide of extremism. Erez-Likhovski explains that the organization’s position on segregated buses shifted from tolerating some segregated lines, as they did in 2007, to opposing them outright. We “now understand that it’s very dangerous. It’s a slippery slope. First you say [segregation] in Haredi neighborhoods is fine, then in mixed neighborhoods it’s fine, and then in Tel Aviv it’s OK,” she says. It’s up to “the state to draw that line and say it’s illegal.”

But Philipp’s fight for Beit Shemesh isn’t only playing out in courts and conference rooms. It takes place every time she pulls on her sneakers and heads outside. After she was pelted with a rock, Philipp would only bike through the city if her husband escorted her. She also changed her regular running route or would only run in groups. But after Vered Daniel was attacked, Philipp regained her courage. One day, she decided to run to the neighborhood where she had been attacked. She went alone, jogging slowly, until she reached the exact spot where the rock hit her. “And then I ran like a maniac, as fast as I could, like a bat out of hell,” she says. “I was really scared and sometimes I still am. But part of my battle is living my life my way in my city. I’m going to ride my bike and run on my own public streets, and they are not going to stop me.”

Allison Kaplan Sommer is a writer and editor at Haaretz. She has lived and worked as a journalist in Israel for 20 years. Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate and has spent the past year in Jerusalem. She won a 2013 National Magazine Award for her columns on the Affordable Care Act.

READ: More Battles in Israel's Beit Shemesh