News / Middle East

Israeli Society Facing Religious Extremism, Backlash

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Scott Bobb

For some time now, Israeli women have been protesting against what they see as efforts by some ultra-Orthodox Jews to exclude them from public spaces.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews counter it is they who are suffering discrimination.

A wintry evening in central Jerusalem. Activists are preparing a protest against segregated buses that run through the city's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.

The women sit in the front instead of the back as they are supposed to here. Some followers of ultra-Orthodox Judaism believe men and women should be separated in public, although it is illegal under Israeli law.  Women who challenge segregation have been insulted and spat upon.

Anat Hoffman is an activist in the religious reform movement. She says ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to live insulated lives in closed communities, but this is changing.

"There are some fringe extremist groups that are threatened by, first and foremost, Orthodox women changing in modern times, being educated, being savvy in the world. And they want to keep them in their place," said Hoffman.

In certain neighborhoods, advertisements showing women have been vandalized.  Women are encouraged to walk on the other side of the street from men, and recently, an 11-year-old schoolgirl complained on television of being harassed.  Critics say some rabbis condone these activities.

Rabbi and parliament member Israel Eichler disagrees.  He says discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox, not religion, is the root cause.

"Even the extremist rabbis don't give a license to violence because violence is antithesis [to] Judaism, [to] the Torah, from [to] Gods' will," said Eichler.

Tamar El Or, an anthropologist at Hebrew University, says the ultra-Orthodox community is growing and becoming more diverse.  Many who spent their lives studying religion or raising families are being forced to look for jobs.  At the same time, Israel's non-religious society is growing more secular.

"These are two developments, two social powers that are going against each other," said El Or.  "They are bound to clash over and over again. Now this is typical to Israel, but every society has trends and tensions, and this is the role of the state to control it.

El Or says the laws against segregation and discrimination must be enforced. But Israeli society must also make space for the demands of ultra-Orthodox people. And she says those tensions will continue until reluctant political and religious leaders address the issue.

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