Female protesters in Beit Shemesh
Female protesters in Beit ShemeshIsrael news photo: Knesset finance committee

One of the “hot topics” in Israeli media in the past few weeks has been gender segregation in public venues. It has even almost eclipsed the "settler rioter" issue.

The topic gained momentum after a secular woman refused to change her seat on a mehadrin [in this case, mehadrin refers to a bus with separate seating for men and women, ed.] bus route. A journalist, she decided to  make an public issue of the fact that men sat in the front and women in the rear of the mehadrin buses, although this was a bus between hareidi areas and was the stated preference of the passengers. In addition, Egged bus services had reached an agreement with hareidi elements on this separation so as to avoid a competitive bus route. The media, however, treated this as another Rosa Parks story.

The media also saw this staged event as another example of religious coercion, adding it to the feminist brouhaha over the religious IDF combat soldiers who asked to be excused from a performance that had women singing, although the soldiers did not try to make anyone else do the same and this was a clear issue of an individual's freedom of religion that affects no one else.

The issue was exacerbated by an escalation in the ongoing controversy in Beit Shemesh, a fast growing city twenty minutes from Jerusalem, where a group of extremist hareidim have been fighting a religious Zionist girls' school which they say is in their neighborhood [due to expansion, ed.- it is really on the border and a product of population changes in the city] and where the girls are not dressed to their liking. They have been insulting, cursing and yelling at the students and the police have not put a stop to their activities, nor have rabbis condemned it vociferously enough, according to the media.

All of the above have been placed into a single category where religious Jews are accused of "banning women from the public domain" by the media, although there are basic differences between the events.

Over the weekend, however, the extremist hareidi issue in Beit Shemesh took a violent turn, when a Channel 2 report showed one extremist hareidi in Beit Shemesh, spitting on a seven-year-old religious girl as she walked to school. Channel 2 equipment was stolen and vandalized by the hareidi protesters when the reporters entered the area.

Arutz Sheva visited Beit Shemesh and met with one resident in order to get a sense of what is really going on there.

Etana Hecht, a Beit Shemesh resident, explained that the school in question is a national-religious school for girls named Orot. The school, a long time fixture in Beit Shemesh, moved to a new building at the beginning of the school year. Its location next to a neighborhood inhabited by a small, extreme group of hareidim is the cause of the latest conflicts, Hecht explained.

She said that a few days before the school year started, the extreme hareidim came to protest in front of the school, smashing the windows and staging a sit-in “to protest that the girls from this national-religious community should be getting this building next to their own community.”

Hecht said that while some national-religious rabbis have tried to conduct dialogue with the extremists, they have said that they felt like they were “talking to a brick wall.”

“We know that they’re extremists, we know their radical, we know that the majority of hareidim around Beit Shemesh would never go out and actually do the actions that these men have been doing to our community,” she said, adding, “But there is no use in talking to them. There’s no rational thought process in their behavior.”

Hecht said that the most scary thing is not the extremist acts but rather the fact that her children, as well as children of others in her community, are forced to grow up with unfounded hatred because of the extremists.

“As much as we tell our children every single day that there are good hareidim and bad hareidim, just like there are good secular people and bad secular people, the bottom line is that when they come home from school every single day and they are seeing men with beards and peyas spit and throw rocks, tomatoes and eggs and worse all over our sidewalks – when they see a bearded man with peyas [sidelocks, ed.] they’re going to be scared,” she said. “That’s the core that rips at my heart every night.”

Hecht emphasized that Beit Shemesh, being a mixed city of hareidi as well as national-religious and secular Jews, was a model for good relations between various groups.

“Before this specific group came in, we had no problems living next to hareidim for decades,” she said. “This group came in from Mea Shearim, they multiplied fast and built this huge community smack in the middle of Beit Shemesh. They moved into a city that’s been mixed for many many years and, unfortunately, we’re seeing that there’s a large group of them that cannot live mixed.”