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More Battles in Israel's Beit Shemesh: An Update on the 'Feminists of Zion'

Beit Shemesh never sleeps. After we filed the final revisions to “The Feminists of Zion,” our New Republic cover story about the women of the Israeli city, there have been several significant developments in their battle to live and move freely and in their fight against encroaching religious extremism.

The most significant event involved yet another Modern Orthodox woman who was asked to “voluntarily” move to the back of a gender-segregated bus in Beit Shemesh, the subsequent arrest of those who had asked her to move, and the riots—or at least violence and vandalism—that followed. Initial accounts of the story suggested that the women had been harassed when she sat in the front, and had refused to move. Buses were damaged and their windows smashed by angry Haredi men protesting the fact that the bus driver had called the police, as he had been instructed to do whenever a woman was being forced to move, resulting in the arrest of those who had “coerced” her.

READ: An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalists

Subsequent reporting by Allison indicated that the incident was slightly more nuanced. The woman who was asked to move, Rachel Rosenfeld, is from London, England. She spoke to Allison the next day, and indicated that she had been asked to change seats by a Haredi couple, and she had agreed to do so, after initial hesitation (she was traveling with lots of bags and children). The incident highlighted the highly problematic nature of a 2011 Israeli Supreme Court ruling outlawing "forced" segregation, but permitting “voluntary” segregation: Where, exactly, does one draw the line, and is it best left to individual bus drivers to be arbiters of these situations?

After the bus segregation incident, there appeared to be signs that the silent majority of moderate Haredim in the town were finally breaking their silence. A piece by Sam Sokol in the Jerusalem Post suggested that the moderate wing of the Beit Shemesh Haredi community saw the rioting as a kind of tipping point, begging their more Orthodox neighbors to disavow violence once and for all. According to Sokol, in the wake of last week’s violence, “posters stating ‘Enough Bullying’ were plastered on street corners of the haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh by activists of the Tov Party, which, going into municipal elections, claims to represent what are being called ‘new haredim.’”

Evidently the posters decried the silence of Haredi leadership after incidents of anti-women violence in the town. The new posters announced that the extremists had “controlled the public thoroughfares and we were quiet. They insulted and embarrassed people in buses and we were quiet.... They brought a bad name to our town and desecrated God’s name, and we were quiet.... The time has come to stop the bullying and show responsibility for our city [and] to show responsibility for our community.”

However, added Sokol: “The signs were, for the most part, immediately torn down.”

Nili Phillip, the central figure in our TNR story, and her co-plaintiffs are all busily campaigning for their chosen candidate in the upcoming municipal elections in November, which is being billed as a crucial last stand. The city elections have garnered national political attention for many of the reasons highlighted in the piece. If the secular and modern Orthodox forces unite around one candidate and get their population to the polls, they stand a chance at ousting the city’s Haredi mayor, whose actions have led to much of the current strife.

Allison also reported recently that Hadassa Margolese, the woman whose daughter, Na’ama, was featured in the video about the Orot school embedded in our story, moved out of the city of Beit Shemesh last Tuesday, as the result of controversy over things she had said and done around the issue of women’s treatment in the community. Importantly, Margolese said she felt pressure not just by the Haredi people of Beit Shemesh, but also by members of her own Modern Orthodox community, to stop speaking out publicly against the religious establishment.

Nationally, plans to draft more Haredim into the army are continuing apace, with the largest number of Haredi recruits joining up in history. But while this phenomenon is applauded as progress in modernizing the community and bringing it into the mainstream, it also sparks incidents such as one in which a woman soldier visiting an all-male Haredi IDF battalion was not permitted into the dining room. 

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Hadassa Margolese's first name.