The festival of Purim is supposed to be all about carefree fun and celebration.
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But for members of the community in Beit Shemesh engaged in the struggle to preserve their community fighting against religious extremism, it’s been tough to keep up the holiday spirit in recent years.
Year after year, the local newspapers run advertisements without girls for children’s Purim costumes that conform to the standards of the most extreme elements of the ultra-Orthodox community. The boys pose smiling, decked out in their holiday finery. And then there are the girl’s costumes – puffy princessy dresses, displayed without the girls.
It’s hard to decide what is worse: The ads that show the little girl’s faces pixelated out, or the ads that put live boys next to costumes without girls in them – as if the girls inside them are somehow invisible.
It is a business decision – the publications fear that if they show the faces, they will lose access to a portion of their community.
Last year, Nili Philipp, one of the local women leading the legal fight against modesty signs, protested to a local Beit Shemesh paper that ran a blurred-face ad before the holiday. She felt victorious when she convinced that publication to run the ad with the girls’ faces.
But then this year, rather unsurprisingly, it happened again. Several publications in Beit Shemesh ran Purim costume ads in the run-up to the holiday featuring blurred or invisible girls. The phenomenon didn’t exactly come as a shock to Philipp and her fellow residents – if anything, the atmosphere in the city has become more extreme.
Earlier this month, the news broke that an extremist ultra-Orthodox modesty monitoring group had begun demanding that advertisers in local newspapers in Beit Shemesh not publish ads showing photographs or silhouettes of girls, hair or women's shoes. They even went as far as to forbid images of beds, women's clothing; any mention of the words "pregnancy," "birth," "music" (even for men-only events) and "bed-and-breakfasts" and ads for marital counseling, driver's ed for women and activities such as judo and boxing.
Advertisements for Purim costumes in local Beit Shemesh publications Photo: Nili Philipp
This year, the group of residents, which includes both women and men, decided to do more than just complain – they decided to launch a small-scale awareness campaign aimed at both the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox communities.
The group took out advertisements in the local papers and launched a Facebook campaign in both English and Hebrew, all centering around an image of an ultra-Orthodox woman sitting with her young daughter looking through a magazine. The girl in the ad asks: “Mommy, why did they erase the little girl’s face?”
At the bottom of the photo is the question: “What message are we sending our boys and girls?” and the tagline of the campaign printed on a stop sign “Stop the madness.”
And what is happening in Beit Shemesh does increasingly look like madness. One member of the group, Miriam Zussman, snapped a photo of a local women’s health clinic, where the word “woman” had been spray-painted black on the sign.
The sign illustrates the very slippery slope the city is sliding down, says Zussman.
A women's health clinic in Beit Shemesh with the word "women" spray-painted out. Photo: Miriam Zussman
“Our plea is to 'bring back the sanity' – first there are no women's bodies, then no faces, then no hands, and then even the word ‘woman’ is erased.”
It is the moderate religious-Zionist community's responsibility to stop the slide, she says.
“The mainstream religious-Zionist community has been slowly and insidiously accepting Haredi norms on the erasure of women from the public sphere, including newspapers, phone books and newsletters. Right now, there are virtually no publications in Beit Shemesh that will run a picture of women, including the English ‘Shemeshphone’ phone book which is in every home.”
The campaign represents a shift in strategy following the bitter clashes over the past four years in Beit Shemesh regarding the character of the city.
It appears to be a kinder, gentler, less combative approach, and more of an effort to win over hearts and minds, coming from inside the religious community – an attempt to mobilize the non-extremist religious community to assert themselves as the norms drift rightward.
“These norms have evolved over such a long period of time,” said Zussman. “This is more of an education/sanity check, hence very noncombative. We are committed religious insiders pushing back gently to change the norms.”
It’s a noble attempt. Will it have a real effect? The answer will be clear next Purim, when costume time rolls around once more.