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Jewish 'ultras' defend morals with menace

Thanks to Bob Averill for the link.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/21/israelandthepalestinians.middleeast1


Jewish 'ultras' defend morals with menace


The Haredi sect has launched an aggressive campaign against the secular lifestyles of women in Jerusalem

Four months ago in the middle of the night, six men dressed in wide-brimmed black hats, black coats, white shirts and black trousers burst into the Jerusalem apartment of a young Jewish woman and taught her a lesson.

Mikhail, who is reluctant to give her full name, had scandalised members of her ultra-orthodox Jewish community by leaving her husband and embracing a secular lifestyle. The men, all members of the theologically conservative Haredi branch of Judaism, tackled her to the ground, slammed her head against the floor and tied a rag around her mouth. One assailant sat on her head as the others kicked her while demanding to know the names of the men she was seeing.

They also threatened to kill her if she did not leave the neighbourhood, which contains many secular as well as religious residents. 'A woman is only OK if she has a family, kids and a husband,' said Mikhail with a sigh.

Welcome to the new, increasingly orthodox, Jerusalem. The attack on Mikhail, although exceptionally brutal, was only the latest in a string of assaults over the past two years against Jewish women accused of immoral behaviour in the city.

In relative terms, Orthodox Jews dominate Jerusalem to a greater extent than in any other city in Israel. More than 30 per cent of its Jewish residents are Haredi while only 22 per cent are secular. Of the remaining 47 per cent, 14 per cent say they are religious and 33 per cent say they are traditional Jews.

According to Menachem Friedman, a sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, the orthodox are imposing their rules more forcefully than before and the lives of the city's women are becoming more circumscribed, and sometimes more dangerous, as a result. Friedman grew up in an ultra-orthodox family and has been studying the Haredi for 49 years. He said the extreme atmosphere is tangible.

Self-appointed moral guardians, dubbed the 'modesty police' by Israel's modern secular media, roam Jerusalem's ultra-religious neighbourhoods enforcing the voluminous and ever growing list of rabbinical laws such as the recent decree banning the sale of MP4 players. About 100 Haredi women have taken to wearing scarves and veils to cover themselves much like Muslim women.

Yoel Kreus is known locally in the Mea Shearim area of the city as the 'manager of operations'. He describes himself as a 'shmira', a Hebrew word that translates as 'watcher of Israel'. 'I make sure the rabbis' decisions happen ... I help you to be a moral person,' he said.

Much of Kreus's time is spent checking out reports of illicit use of new technologies by members of the Haredi community. 'If we discover someone has a computer at home we throw the children out of school,' he said. Enforcing dictates on women's behaviour is another vital part of his brief.

He runs a library housing copies of the enormous notices pasted on the walls of Mea Shearim and other religious neighbourhoods berating women for wearing wigs instead of scarves and advertising appropriate dress on buses.

Signs warning women not to enter if they are wearing trousers, short sleeves or a skirt above the knees, hang in the neighbourhood. One is affixed outside Kreus's two-room house where he lives with his wife and 11 children. 'Every week there's a complaint about the way women dress,' said Kreus.

Extraordinarily, he admitted to slashing the tyres of women who have driven into the neighbourhood who, he said, were indecently dressed. 'There was a mess with the police,' he said. 'Now I'm trying new creative methods, not using violence. Now I make a small hole in their tyres and the air deflates slowly. I'm not destroying their car.'

Inside the Haredi neighbourhoods separation between the sexes is becoming increasingly strict. Husbands and wives socialise separately and during Jewish holidays men and women walk on opposite sides of the street.

Kreus said that in a few weeks, when religious Jews will dance to celebrate the receiving of the Torah, men and women would rejoice separately, breaking a 50- year tradition of the sexes mingling in this neighbourhood during this event.

He maintained that separation was necessary beyond the boundaries of the neighbourhood. 'Having secular people on the buses is a problem. They go like animals, without clothes. Non-religious girls don't dress properly. They encourage me to sin,' he said.

With the demographics skewed in their favour, government authorities are acquiescing to the growing demands of the ultra-orthodox. The transport ministry, which regulates and funds bus transport through private companies, has allowed operators to provide 'kosher' or 'pure' routes, where women are required to sit at the back and cannot board unless appropriately dressed.

More than a dozen women have filed complaints after being verbally or physically attacked on the buses. 'Sometimes it's an official group but often it's one or two men who start to complain and the other men follow,' said the Israel Religious Action Centre's legal director, Einat Hurvitz. 'The drivers allow them to intimidate the women.' Haredi women also participated in the bullying.

'I was wearing jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt and as I was getting on the bus someone told me I couldn't get on the bus like that,' said Iris Yoffe who was travelling from Jerusalem to her parents' home in the northern city of Haifa. 'I ignored him and paid the driver.' But then, said Yoffe, two women blocked her way and told her to get off. 'When I refused they started yelling at me.'

According to Friedman, the growing intolerance is only likely to worsen. 'They've built an imaginary idealistic world where everyone is pious.' Increasingly, Jewish women in Jerusalem are required to conform to that vision.

TAGGED: MORALITY, RELIGION


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