Mea She’arim, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood of Jerusalem, saw far fewer female visitors this Sukkot than in previous years, and apparently fewer visitors overall, after a growing number of Hasidic groups gave in to extremists and celebrated the mid-Sukkot festival of Simhat Beit Hashoeva more modestly than in the past.
But both the extremism that was forced on Mea She’arim residents and the tolerance police have ostensibly shown toward it have now reached the High Court of Justice: A group of female activists and elected officials has petitioned the court against Jerusalem police chief Aharon Franco for not removing the barriers that were put up to keep women out during Sukkot.
The petition charged that Mea She’arim has become “extraterritorial” for the police, and that officers are not fulfilling their duty to enforce the law there.
The court is to hear the petition this morning, along with another petition, filed by the Jerusalem branch of the Meretz party and a group of women students who want to hold a march down Mea She’arim’s main street to protest gender separation in the quarter.
Every year during Sukkot, Mea She’arim’s main street is blocked to traffic in the evening as pedestrians flock to its synagogues and study houses to celebrate Simhat Beit Hashoeva, an ancient festival dating back to Temple times.
But this year, a barrier at the junction of Mea She’arim and Shivtei Yisrael streets, set up to prevent women from entering the area near the Toldot Aharon yeshiva, reminded people that not everyone was invited.
Compared to the previous three years, when dozens of security guards stood at numerous checkpoints to make sure that men and women remained separated for almost the whole length of the street, the current arrangement could be considered liberal. But this year, the issue heated up, because extremists tried to impose new and even more stringent rules of modesty that infuriated Haredim and non-Haredim alike.
One demand was to close the street hermetically to all women pedestrians. But following a meeting with police, a group calling itself “the committee for the purity of the camp” (also known as the “modesty patrols”) was forced to publish a statement promising that “all streets will be open to women, too.”
Synagogues and study houses, however, were open only to women who belonged to the community affiliated with each institution.
The petition was submitted by Jerusalem city councilwomen Rachael Azariya of the Yerushalmim faction and Laura Wharton (Meretz), along with other Jerusalem activists. It asked the court to order the police to enforce the law in Mea She’arim and prevent “the placement of fences separating men and women in public spaces, which gravely impairs human dignity, liberty, equality, property rights and freedom of movement.”
The petition cited incidents that show the neighborhood’s growing extremism, including physical attacks on public officials who visited it, such as Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), MK Yaakov Katz (National Union) and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), as well as attacks on water company employees and Egged buses.
“Most of those hurt by this violence are neighborhood residents, virtually all law-abiding people who want to live their lives peacefully,” the petition said.
The petition also noted that the neighborhood has long hosted events that attract large crowds, but “until very recently, no one dared close the streets, place private guards at the entrances and sort pedestrians according to gender: women to the narrow sidewalks, well hidden by heavy cloth fences, and men in the middle of the street.”
But Yoel Krois, a representative of the extremists, told Haaretz, “The police won’t remove the barriers. Today there are barriers everywhere. The Toldot Aharon Hasids have the right to set up barriers.”
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