Ousted Jerusalem Councilwoman: Israel Surrendering to Extremists

Rachel Azaria was dismissed from the city council to her High Court petition against the segregation of men and women in Mea She'arim during Sukkot.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

With a quivering voice and tense face, Rachel Azaria, freshly ousted from the Jerusalem city council, gave a speech the other day summarizing her campaign against gender segregation in the capital. She had received notification of her firing two days earlier in a laconic e-mail from the office of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Her exit has no economic consequences because council members don't receive salaries, but Azaria lost her position as the person responsible for preschool education and community councils.

The official reason for the dismissal was Azaria's High Court petition during Sukkot against the separation of men and women in Mea She'arim, the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. Yet the hostility against her from the Haredi community is surely a factor.

Rachel AzariaCredit: Emil Salman

The Hadri Haredim website described her firing as a "day to celebrate." "I didn't think [the Court petition] would have personal consequences," she told Haaretz. "I definitely felt that we [she and Barkat] were partners. This is disappointing."

The disappointment after her dismissal was offset somewhat by shows of solidarity: More than 7,000 people have signed a petition protesting the dismissal, and her phone has been ringing off the hook. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has spoken with her, maybe because Azaria's ouster looks like a capitulation to Haredi dictates.

In her speech at a city council meeting, Azaria spoke about segregation on "buses, streets, health clinics and supermarkets .... This doesn't stay within the Haredi community; it seeps into our side very quickly, and it's threatening to women."

Religious fanaticism

More than just a local issue, Azaria's dismissal is likely to be perceived as part of a trend of religious fanaticism on Jerusalem billboards and in the Israel Defense Forces - reflected by bans on women soldiers dancing and celebrating with male soldiers.

Azaria, 33, a mother of three daughters, is married to Elyashiv Frankel, a doctoral student specializing in the Talmud. She has a pleasant demeanor; she's careful not to attack Jerusalem's mayor too stridently.

She says Barkat "acquiesced to the ultra-Orthodox in the name of dialogue. He is in favor of compromise, but he simply doesn't understand the ultra-Orthodox method. There's no way of forging compromise agreements with extremists; these people are making increasingly radical demands."

Azaria opposes the secular concept of live and let live. As she sees it, "what happens here is that the majority needs to surrender its values to extremist groups." She says there is no contradiction between her religious outlook and her campaign.

"On the contrary, religious people in this city are much more frightened by religious extremism than by secular residents," she says. "Religious extremism quickly influences us - it encroaches on educational programs in the national religious school system. It's as if religious Zionists are trying to keep in step with the Haredim. Take for instance women singing - I can remember when I sang on stage in song competitions run by [religious Zionist youth movement] Bnei Akiva. Today everything has become extreme."

How did a young woman from Bnei Akiva end up at the center of a campaign opposing Haredi extremism? Tamar Gozansky, a former MK from the left-wing Hadash party, told Azaria she should go into politics. In 2008, when the Jerusalem election campaign started, Azaria talked with several people about establishing a party list.

"We turned to a number of people, asking them to head the list, but they all refused," she says. "I remember the moment when I understood that there was nobody else and that I had to take the lead."

Egged refused to put Azaria's picture on its buses, unlike its policy on other electoral candidates. Azaria says her party "worked out terms for bus posters with Egged, and then suddenly the company representative told us 'just make sure there are no women.' I said, 'but I am modestly dressed, and the photograph only shows my face.' He said 'that doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter whether this is a 3-year-old or an 80-year-old - just no women. We have an agreement with the Haredim.' I was in shock."

In court, Egged and PR firm Canaan testified that ultra-Orthodox people deface posters of women. "The judge said, 'what do you mean deface? You should go to the police if this happens,'" Azaria recalls. "The court restored normalcy and I learned how to operate."

Her generation

Azaria believes that support for her campaign against gender segregation in Jerusalem has jibed with this summer's protest movement. "I think that my generation is beginning to grasp what's happening to us in this country," she says. "This is a stage in which people are saying, 'So we've established a state that was meant to give sanctuary to Jews, but it was also supposed to be an exemplary state. What's happened to this model state?'"

According to Azaria, "Our story isn't sectarian. We must demand that Israel preserve itself as a democracy. With that, we want to live in full cooperation with the Haredim. But first we have to define the fundamental values that apply to them as well."

Azaria vows that she will persist in her work and that there is reason to be optimistic. "With everything that's happening in the army right now, this topic of separation doesn't belong to Jerusalem alone," she says.

For its part, the Jerusalem municipality says Barkat absolutely opposes gender segregation in public spaces and will help the police prevent it. Regarding Azaria's dismissal, the municipality says that "just as a minister cannot petition the courts against the government, lest he or she be dismissed, a member of the city coalition is barred from lodging a court complaint against the city. The price of doing that is very clear."

According to the municipality, "The Haredim did not apply pressure [regarding this dismissal], and most Haredim oppose separation between the sexes in public spaces. As a member of the city council, Azaria had a number of ways to influence and address this important subject, as all council members do. But she choose not to take advantage of these avenues."



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