Why Did Orthodox Haredim Harass a Young Jewish Girl

What Women Really Think
Dec. 30 2011 10:45 AM

Why Did Ultra-Orthodox Jews Bully an Israeli Second Grader?

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Secular Israelis (right) argue with ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters in Beit Shemesh

AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, thousands of Israelis in the city of Beit Shemesh, just west of Jerusalem, gathered to protest the harassment of Naama Margolese, a cherub-faced second grader filmed weeping as she described walking to school while a few ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish men spat and screamed at her. The Haredi hecklers took issue with eight-year-old Naama’s exposed arms. More generally, they resented having to watch a procession of what they called “Nazis” and “whores” traipsing down their streets to get to a single-sex school nearby. 

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Tensions have been proliferating for some time between moderate and Orthodox Israeli Jews, especially as groups like the Haredim—which constitute about 10 percent of the population—launch new campaigns to marginalize women through segregated buses, the eviction of female models from billboards, and “modesty patrols” (think Neighborhood Watch but occasionally illegal: the squads’ purity-enforcing methods range from hiring photographers to catch yeshiva students at rock concerts to pepper-spraying teenage girls who appear in public with boys to pelting red-bloused women with stones).

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It’s hard to imagine that ultra-Orthodox men are so easily corruptible or Haredi values so precarious that the sight of a female face on an advertisement would make much of a difference to the faith. Yet according to BBC, a group of 300 rock-hurling Haredim greeted the police force that descended on Beit Shemesh Sunday, two days after footage of a sobbing Naama spilled onto the local news. The authorities ostensibly stepped in to tear down signs demanding separate sidewalks for men and women; in fact they were largely there as a reflection of popular outrage. And though both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have urged the rational majority to fight discrimination, voices inside and outside of Israel are prophesying culture war.

How realistic is this prophecy? Beit Shemesh’s Haredi leadership claims—and there’s little reason to doubt them—that the men who tormented Naama don’t have the community’s support. In fact, one ultra-Orthodox wife referred to the child-taunting brigade as a cabal of “crazy people.” At the same time, though, public policy scholar and former adviser to the State Department Aaron Miller believes that the entrenched and inevitable conflicts between Israel’s various sectors—between secular and moderate Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Arab Israeli followers of Islam or Christianity—could be intensifying.

But that’s a big “could.” Miller holds that communities run on their own rhythms. Endemic conflicts, he says, like those rooted in demography, often play out in ways that are impervious to global influence. Because it took shape amid huge external threats, Israel has had a slow start in addressing the frictions that naturally arise when unobservant and moderate Jews, fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims all live in close proximity. Hence this line from a December 29th editorial published on Haaretz.com:

Israel is now in the middle of a culture war, maybe even a war over religion, as part of its long way to shaping its society and creating its identity…. At the end we’ll find out if we have a secular or religious society here; democratic, theocratic or fascist; Western or other.

I just hope that when the smoke clears, all those “whorish” 8-year-olds can get to school without causing a national riot.