The uproar over an ultra-Orthodox campaign to exclude women from public spaces has not been limited to secular activists alone.
Hundreds of Israelis who define themselves as religiously observant have opened campaigns of their own – on Facebook and on the streets – to denounce the practice, lest it become synonymous with Jewish law.
Thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh a few weeks ago, to protest in anger over the exclusion of women, and an incident in which an man spat at a local 8-year-old girl dressed "immodestly".
Ten days later, a group of some 250 women - of all ages, sectors and across the religious spectrum - quietly entered the Beit Shemesh city square.
While the first strands of Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' began filtering through the square, the women formed into lines and began dancing in solidarity, waving their hands in the air as they spun and twirled. Passersby looked on with mouths open, stopping to take pictures, to smile, and to join in.
The flash mob was the brainchild of Miri Shalem, director of the Ramat Beit Shemesh community center. Together with a group of friends, Shalem put the call out on Facebook two weeks before the protest, gaining the momentum to fill the square with dancing women.
"It is rare to live in such a diverse city which is also extremely socially active and unified in many ways," said Shalem, a 42-year-old mother of four. "Today the women and girls demonstrated our unity in public and I hope we will continue to do this in the future in order to improve our city.”
Renana Levine, who produced the protest, said that Shalem approached her with the idea to draw together members of the community to muster some "positive energy".
“Miri called me up and said, I want to do something positive from Beit Shemesh. I think we need some positive energy,” Levine said. “After that, it spread like wildfire.”
“We wanted to say something but not very rude," Shalem told Haaretz. "I thought of “Don’t Stop Me Now” because of the temper of the song and also because of the meaning. It doesn’t have a negative idea, and it’s not a passing idea.”
In the first three days after the YouTube video of the dance was posted, it already garnered 120,000 views. The responses to the protest have been overwhelmingly positive, Shalem said.
“Some women told me it brought tears to their eyes," she said. "And I told them, I hope it’s tears of pride. We wanted to show that we have a full life here, and we have problems, but you can’t take the problems and make it the whole life here.”
Shalem, who runs a dialogue group of 30 women from different communities in Beit Shemesh – including ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian, and Russian – said she hopes that government institute laws against such violence and segregation, but believes that “the small work, the living together” is an action that must be undertaken by the members of the community.
“These are changes that take time,” said Shalem. “But maybe, with our strong community, we can influence change in society. If we split into towns, we will never find ways to have passes between us. We will only have borders and high walls between us…. [that's] the challenge, and this is the way Israeli society can be changed.”
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