“Man spits at eight-year-old girl.” Add “in Israel” to that and you have another international media circus.
No doubt, the phenomenon—ultra-Orthodox Jewish men harassing girls on their way to school for supposedly “immodest” dress—is appalling enough. And well over 99 percent of Israelis realize it. Even a typical AP report noted that
The televised images of Naama sobbing as she walked to school shocked many Israelis, elicited statements of outrage from the country’s leadership, sparked a Facebook page with nearly 10,000 followers dedicated to “protecting little Naama” and a demonstration was held Tuesday evening in her honor.
The article also says, though, that the “8-year-old schoolgirl…found herself on the front line of Israel’s latest religious war”—without suggesting what that latter phrase might mean. For the record, Israel’s wars with its neighbors are driven in large part by Islamic religious tenets on the neighbors’ part, and, on Israel’s part, by a will to physical survival. If you doubt it, check some of the statements about Israel by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or this latest report about a Palestinian Authority youth magazine that first glorified Hitler and now offers maps in which Israel is already obliterated.
This week Israel was alerted to a danger—an internal one—and is already solidifying spontaneously and passionately against it. It is not a danger on the order of some of the external ones. But it is real. True, the ultra-Orthodox community is diverse, and those harassing girls in the town of Beit Shemesh are members of a tiny, deranged sect.
But there are more widespread problems. It is not acceptable that anyone anytime be pressured to sit at the back of a bus—and such incidents are on the upswing, or at least they were until this week. While small but increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox men are enlisting in the army and joining the workforce, other parts of this population are growing more radical. Given the high ultra-Orthodox birthrate, Israelis rightly fear their towns someday becoming battlegrounds like Beit Shemesh.
As noted, the anti-extremism demonstration in Beit Shemesh was held Tuesday evening. On Wednesday Doron Matalon, a female soldier, boarded a bus in Jerusalem used mostly by ultra-Orthodox. An ultra-Orthodox man, Shlomo Fuchs, told her to sit in the back. She refused; he started cursing her. Matalon stood her ground and asked two ticket inspectors to call the police. They stopped the bus, prevented Fuchs from getting off, and called the police who arrived within minutes and arrested him. He now faces felony charges of sexual harassment.
On Thursday Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein called a meeting of top brass to discuss combating the intolerable phenomena. On the agenda were “whether local municipalities can be required to remove signs [demanding “modesty”] that violate women’s rights” and “ways to improve criminal law enforcement against ultra-Orthodox extremists who are physically and verbally abusive toward women.” Earlier in the week Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had asked Weinstein to tackle the issue.
Also on Thursday female Member of Knesset Tzipi Hotovely, along with two male MKs, rode a segregated, mostly ultra-Orthodox bus from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem. All three sat in front of the vehicle. Hotovely is herself Orthodox and one of the more “right-wing” (assertive about the importance of land) members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. She is also one of the strongest voices against the ultra-Orthodox abuses.
In other words, Israel is uniting against the threat—something it is much practiced in doing. Indeed, some point out that far worse things—polygamy, honor killings, and female genital mutilation are some—go on in the surrounding countries without evoking nearly as much media interest as some harassment in Israel.
Which is true enough; as is the fact that another, seemingly relevant story this week—five women graduating as pilots in the Israeli air force—seems to have been missed by the media entirely. It might have made Israel look too good.