Behind the Israeli gender segregation story

Many of you have sent in articles about a dramatic religious dispute going on in Israel. And there have been many stories to look at. And if you read them all, you may begin to understand the situation. Here's the beginning of the New York Times story datelined Beit Shemesh:

The latest battleground in Israel’s struggle over religious extremism covers little more than a square mile of this Jewish city situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it has the unexpected public face of a blond, bespectacled second-grade girl.

She is Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of American immigrants who are observant modern Orthodox Jews. An Israeli weekend television program told the story of how Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school here after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.

The country was outraged. Naama’s picture has appeared on the front pages of all the major Israeli newspapers. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Sunday that “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all,” there have been days of confrontation at focal points of friction here.

Ultra-Orthodox men and boys from the most stringent sects have hurled rocks and eggs at the police and journalists, shouting “Nazis” at the security forces and assailing female reporters with epithets like “shikse,” a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman or girl, and “whore.” Jews of varying degrees of orthodoxy and secularity headed to Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening to join local residents in a protest numbering in the thousands against religious violence and fanaticism.

For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women.

Stateside reader complaints include the complete failure to talk to any of the ultra-Orthodox men "from the most stringent sects," as well as an overuse of the term "ultra-Orthodox" to describe factions in dispute with each other. This New York Times story, which was better than anything else I read, was dinged for referring to bus segregation as a "kosher" edict. Israelis complained that a tiny fraction of a relatively small group was being presented as so large. In truth, I didn't see any report that explained how powerful extremists in the community are, much less how many of them exist.

There's a way to overcomplicate this story and it's almost impossible to tell it accurately in just a few hundred words but I actually think that the New York Times did an admirable job of getting into the history and complexity of Israel's relationship with its haredi.

This is a story about modesty rules and gender segregation but it's even more about local politics. I spent some time looking at videos of these men taunting girls for not being modest. What's interesting is how in some of the videos, grown women who are not dressed modestly (according to ultra-Orthodox standards) are left alone while tiny little girls who have their legs and arms covered are yelled at for immodesty. Why is that?

Well, Beit Shemesh has a conflict between its modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox populations. A new school was built to serve modern Orthodox girls and some in the ultra-Orthodox population view this as an unfair encroachment on their turf. (CBS mentioned this angle prominently.) Some of these people eschew working within the legal or political framework set up to resolve such disputes, relying instead on aggressive public statements and peer pressure.

Alone among the major dailies, the New York Times actually touched on this background in their report. Another interesting angle they covered was that while many in greater Israel have problems with the Orthodox gender separation, it's not actually what's driving the dispute within Beit Shemesh. In fact, the group that hired a media consultant and obtained coverage for the plight of Naama Margolese is itself ultra-Orthodox.

All of these details make for a much more fleshed out story.

One reader noted the bias in the stories about this mob of men is going after little girls. Indeed, there is certainly a bias on display. For instance, here's a line from the New York Times:

Religious extremism is hardly new to Israel, but the Sicarii and their bullying ilk push with a bold vigor that has yet to be fully explained. Certainly, Israel’s coalition politics have allowed the ultra-Orthodox parties to wield disproportionate power beyond the roughly 10 percent of the population they currently represent.

I suppose that could have been explained a bit more -- in order to build any coalition, you have to work with the ultra-Orthodox parties. What they get out of that coalition is continued protections and benefits specific to them. Such as an easier time avoiding service in the IDF and not having to work well into adulthood while religious studies are subsidized. This may have been one of the most common complaints I heard when I was in Israel in March.

Anyway, much of the lack of balance could have been fixed with quotes from members of the group yelling at the little girls. It is certainly difficult to write impartially after watching some of these videos but if we can do it for other extremists, we can aspire to balance here, too, I guess. I don't, however, have a problem with the strong language used to describe the bullying from some men in Beit Shemesh. How else to call it?

One story I found particularly weak was the Washington Post story. It mentions nothing about the local dispute and while it finds room to quote a Reform rabbi, no ultra-Orthodox men are quoted explaining their behavior. I'd love to hear their defense, particularly since so many stories quote Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox claiming that these extreme figures don't have religion on their side.

For good background on the local political angle, this piece in Israel Hayom might be helpful.

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