The Ultra-Orthodox on the Warpath : February 2012
described the people he met in Beit Shemesh’s com-mercial center as members of the Sephardi massesthat brought Menachem Begin’s Likud to power.But beginning in the late 1990s, the demography of the town began to change dramatically, when youngcouples belonging to some of the most religiously ex-treme groups faced a severe housing shortage in theovercrowded and expensive Jerusalem neighborhoodsof Mea She’arim, Beit Israel, and Ge’ula.These followers of the Satmar, Toldot Aharon,Breslav, Dushinsky, and Shomrei Hachomot sects—allof which believe the state of Israel is a blasphemy initself because there should be no such state until thecoming of the Messiah—have been among the most ra- bidly anti-Zionist forces in the world even before there was a state. But their unprecedented natural growth was supported by the economic expansion, gener-ous welfare beneﬁts, and military forces of the Zioniststate they despise. And in the late 1990s, guided andﬁnanced by rabbis and community leaders, they orga-nized themselves into groups and moved en masse totheir own housing projects in Beit Shemesh.The move to Beit Shemesh entailed frequent busrides on public transportation to and from Jerusalemto work or to study Torah, to visit family and spiritualleaders. Haredim who had been accustomed to impos-ing on themselves an extremely cloistered way of life tofend off ever pervasive secular inﬂuences were forcedfor the ﬁrst time to come into direct contact with a di- verse mix of Israelis. At the doctor’s ofﬁce, in the postofﬁce, or in the municipality, these haredim had tocontend with the town’s veteran residents and mem- bers of a new modern Orthodox community—to whichthe Margolese family belongs—as well with as a moremoderate haredi community, composed to a great ex-tent of immigrants from the United States. All they wanted was to be left alone, but thesezealots were confronted by alternative lifestyles thatthreatened their own worldview. In response, they setabout putting in place in Beit Shemesh the sorts of social and cultural barriers they had become used toin their Jerusalem enclaves. Ignoring city ordinanc-es, they posted signs denying “immodestly dressed” women entrance to their neighborhoods. When policecame to tear down the signs, pale-complected, skinny young yeshiva men, exhibiting ferocity incongruent with their sedentary appearance, clashed with burly police ofﬁcers. Bus lines that did not enforce sex seg-regation were stoned; separate sidewalks for men and women were established in the immediate vicinity of a Beit Shemesh synagogue; local grocery stores enforcedseparate hours for men and women. And a no-holds-barred battle was launchedagainst the opening of the Orot Girls elementary school,the one to which Naama Margolese was walking whenshe was spat upon. The extremists, seemingly informed by a warped prurience, claimed that the girls, betweenthe ages of 6 and 13, caused men who could see themplaying during recess “to stumble.” The girls are obligat-ed by school rules to wear skirts well below their kneesand sleeves that completely cover their elbows. Still, the battle was not only about sexual temptation. It was alsoabout the allocation of limited municipal resources.The zealots had demanded that a school of their own be built on the same spot, and they had lost.Beit Shemesh’s story is unique in its degree of vio-lence, but a similar dynamic is at work in other townsacross Israel. The growth of the haredi population hasforced younger haredim to establish communities in cit-ies far from their traditional centers. In Ashdod and Re-hovot, for instance, haredi neighborhoods have sprungup amid non-haredi majorities. In other cases, such as inModi’in Ilit, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, andElad, about 15 miles east of Tel Aviv, self-sustained com-munities have been formed.Beit Shemesh-style battles are being waged inthese places as well. The demandfor gender-segregated buses hasreceived the most attention sincemore and more Israelis are be-ing exposed to them as haredimspread out geographically andare forced to use intra-city lines.The case of Doron Matalon was a particularly startling ex-ample. Matalon, a young female soldier in uniform, was verbally attacked by Shlomo Fuchs, 45, a father of 12 withno paying job who devotes his time to the study of Torah,according to local media reports. When she refused hisrequest to move to the back of the bus, arguing that asa soldier who helped protect him from Israel’s many en-emies she deserved his respect, Fuchs and other haredimen on the Jerusalem bus allegedly hurled insults at her,calling her a prostitute. Matalon ﬁled sexual harassmentcharges, and Fuchs was placed under house arrest.The media’s coverage of such incidents has beenextensive and intense; witnessing a fast-growing and
The demand for sex-segregated buses has received greater attention sincemore and more Israelis are being exposed to haredim.