The Losing Battle Against Religious Extremism in Beit Shemesh

A gender-segregated meeting sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox dominated city shows that what was once a battle to 'save Beit Shemesh' has become a struggle for minority rights.

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Secular and ultra-Orthodox protesters arguing in Beit Shemesh.
Secular and ultra-Orthodox protesters arguing in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Forcing men and women to sit separately at a city-sponsored meeting for parents in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh might have sparked angry protests just a few years ago. But the ongoing protest by activists committed to religious pluralism against Beit Shemesh's ultra-Orthodox mayor Moshe Abutbul increasingly appears to be a losing battle.

The announcement of the public meeting made clear that men and women would be separated during the discussion. At first it appeared that two separate meetings would be held but it was later clarified that while there would be a single meeting, the room in a community center would be divided into a men's and women's section completely blocked from each other’s view.

Gender separation in a public space at a state-sponsored event violates Israeli government directives, and, indeed some unhappy parents who are not ultra-Orthodox did complain.

Mickey Gitzin, the head of Free Israel, a grassroots national organization that fights for cultural and religious pluralism, said that he had received complaints about the meeting, but that the haredi domination was so extensive, he felt residents in Beit Shemesh needed to “choose their battles.”

Yaniv Fogel, chairman of the city’s Parents Association attended the meeting, in which the 70 men and women were separated by a row of bulletin boards. “Did I want the event to be separated? No. But from my perspective, the needs of the children have to come first. It was important for us that the municipality was willing to listen to the concerns and complaints of the parents of these children in order to help them. If it had to be gender separate in order to happen, so be it. It’s all about the kids, as far as I am concerned.”

One mother who attended the meeting — a modern Orthodox immigrant from the U.S. whose son has Down Syndrome — said the mechitza barrier separating the genders was “annoying” because “you couldn’t see who was talking.” But, like Fogel, the mother, who asked not to be identified, said that her son’s welfare trumped her discomfort.

“The main issue is our kids ... and the situation is that Beit Shemesh is becoming more and more haredi. Even though I don’t like it, I don’t have too much of a choice.”

The Beit Shemesh Municipality responded to criticism of the event by saying that the vast majority of special needs parents were ultra-Orthodox. If the meeting was not held under conditions of gender separation, the parents would not be able to attend and have their voices heard.

Miri Shalem — a feminist activist in Beit Shemesh and the former director of the community center where the meeting was held — argued that the separation was not to accommodate the parents, but forces that she says control the municipality and are behind the increasingly extremist behavior of city officials.

“City Hall is controlled by extremist rabbis — this is only one example. A few months ago, there was a jobs fair for ultra-Orthodox Jews that was co-sponsored by the city. When the extremist rabbis objected to the event and put pressure on them, they cancelled their sponsorship.”

The combined forces of the ultra-Orthodox birth rate and the fact that the Abutbul administration has nearly exclusively pushed forward building projects designed for the ultra-Orthodox population — encouraging a constant inflow and policies that are making secular and modern Orthodox feel they have no future in the city — has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who stay accept the ultra-Orthodox hegemony. After a close election in 2014 failed to unseat Abutbul, there are signs that his administration is becoming bolder when it comes to imposing the norms of the ultra-Orthodox community on the population at large.

The school transportation meeting was a clear case of “ultra-Orthodox practices being imposed on everyone who lives in the city,” said Shalem.
That hegemony goes far beyond gender-separated meetings, she contended. The secular and modern Orthodox public suffers from the lack of cultural life in the city, the lack of a municipal swimming pool and other services. It all sends an intended message that “you live in a haredi-controlled city and you either have to adapt to their [ultra-Orthodox] lifestyle or leave. There is no acceptance that a population exists that doesn’t want to do that and also refuses to leave,” said Shalem.

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