Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society

Championing local ‘Wonder Women’

A picture of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, posted around Beit Shemesh to wish residents a Shabbat Shalom, Fall 2018. (Courtesy of Nili Philips)
A picture of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, posted around Beit Shemesh in recent years to wish residents a Shabbat Shalom. (Courtesy of Nili Philipp).

We all root for superheroes to achieve justice and save the world.  While we impatiently wait for the heavenly Gal Gadot to grace the big screen again in the Fall, we can comfort ourselves with stories of real-life wonder women here in Israel.  And like all superheroes, they each come with their own origin story and band of teammates.

A group of local wonder women in Beit Shemesh have an especially large reserve of special powers- courage, unflappable determination and patience- and they have been able to create new alliances to bring change to their city.

As you might recall, way back in 2011, an incident in Bet Shemesh sparked a national outcry. An eight year old, modern Orthodox girl on her way to school was spat on and called a ‘whore’ by Ultra-Orthodox men simply because, in their eyes, her school outfit was deemed immodest.

Yes. Unfortunately, you are reading this correctly.  And once this appalling story hit the national and international news, it turned out that these types of incidents were a daily occurrence for many of the schoolgirls in the neighborhood. Attacks against women for ‘immodesty’  were commonplace, occasionally becoming more violent, with stones hurled along with the verbal insults.

For years, women and girls had been bullied into sitting in the back of the public bus, even though gender segregation on buses is illegal. They had been targeted for daring to engage in such ‘immodest’ actions as biking or running.  Female faces on public advertisements had often been scratched out.  And ‘modesty signs’ prescribing the acceptable dress for women, as well as so called ‘women-free’ sidewalks, especially near yeshivas or synagogues, had popped up all over the city.

Sign in Beit Shemesh indicating that men walk to the right and women walk to the left of the sidewalk, December, 2015. (Courtesy of IRAC).

Long-time residents of Beit Shemesh had watched the transformation of their hometown into something almost unrecognizable. Within a span of 25 years, the Ultra-Orthodox population had tripled, growing to over half of the 100,00 residents. This new Haredi political clout affected everything from the recreational life of the city to the housing market, from educational frameworks to road closures on Shabbat. By 2013 with the re-election of a partisan Ultra-Orthodox mayor, there were serious calls by non-Haredi residents to split the city in two and officially secede from Beit Shemesh.

Into the breach stepped five wonder women – Nili Philipp, Dr. Eve Finkelstein, Miriam Zussman, Miri Shalem and Rachely Schloss- who decided that it was enough. They, in turn,  brought in the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), affiliated with the Reform movement, as part of their effort to force the municipality to remove the modesty signs, which they believed legitimated the ongoing violence and harassment of women. It was a bold move.

Several of the wonder women and their supporters outside the municipal court building- including Rachely Yair Schloss, Miriam Zussman, Nili Philipp and Dr. Eve Finkelstein, with IRAC Adv. Orly Erez-Likhovski, June 2014 (Courtesy of Nili Philipp).

The Reform movement, for many years, was a ‘no fly zone’ for Modern Orthodox women.  Anybody who teamed up with those who held ‘outsider’ values could count on being delegitimized, discounted, and scorned. But these wonder women refused to be deterred, hoping to build an alliance that would ultimately create a much less threatening environment for the women and girls in their own backyards.

And IRAC? Well, it’s the headquarters of many superheroes. Its origin story included taking on many gender issues, years before it was even on the radar of most mainstream media. For example, in 2007, IRAC sued the public bus companies for permitting gender segregated buses, winning a Supreme Court victory in 2011.  Well-acquainted with the challenge of translating court victories to practice, IRAC then organized ‘freedom rides’ to ensure that local women were supported and not bullied into sitting in the back of the bus. On another front, IRAC took Orthodox burial societies to court because they had enforced sex segregation and had not permitted women family members to eulogize their loved ones. And IRAC in a precedent setting class action suit, successfully sued one of the most popular Ultra Orthodox radio stations in 2012 because it had refused to have a woman’s voice on the air. As Adv. Orly Erez-Likhovski, one of the wonder women of IRAC who led these consecutive court battles explained, the legal cases signal a growing trend of moderate forces joining together to fight against growing religious extremism.

Municipal workers take down “modesty” signs in Beit Shemesh as police stand by to deter protests, December, 2017. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90).

In Beit Shemesh, though, the battle was still not won. Even with successive court orders declaring ‘modesty signs’ to be illegal,  the municipality showed little interest in removing the signs, much less in creating a safer environment for women. And when limited efforts were made by the city and the signs were taken down, they were soon replaced.  The local atmosphere stayed contentious. The five wonder women leading the protest were harassed and bullied. A flyer with their personal information, including phone numbers, addresses, and identity card numbers, was distributed  People were encouraged to verbally intimidate these “Reform women” on the phone and they were even threatened with a “pulsa dinora,” a Jewish death curse.

Enter another superhero. Dr. Aliza Bloch, who jumped into the fray, and in a shocking upset victory in October 2018, was elected the first female mayor of Beit Shemesh.  She was supported by secular, modern Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox residents who were seeking an alternative to the status quo of religious strife (and defying the dictates of their rabbis to do so).

Dr. Aliza Bloch with her supporters after results from municipal elections were announced, October 2018. (Credit: Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

And a day after the election, quite by happenstance, the Supreme Court ruled that the municipality must remove all modesty signs and install security cameras – yet another victory for the five wonder women who brought the original court case in 2013.

Now led by Dr. Bloch who is modern Orthodox, Beit Shemesh is seeking to comply with the law and find a long-term solution to the divisions within the community. Using the magic powers of negotiation and coalition building, Dr. Bloch speaks of building a community that is no longer the product of radicals who controlled the discourse.. and set the tone  but rather a community that will become a “ray of light.”

The wonder women – Nili Phillip, Dr. Eve Finkelstein, Miriam Zussman, Miri Shalem and Rachely Schloss-with Adv. Orly Erez-Likhovski and their supporters at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on December, 2017 (Courtesy of Nili Philipp).

Following their Supreme Court victory, our five wonder women have continued their activism, engaging in all types of community organizing and meeting with the mayor to monitor progress. Over this past year, together with other local activists, they even decorated the city with pictures of Gal Gadot who, of course, has reached superstar status here in Israel. This is part of their ongoing efforts to bring images of women back into the public sphere. In the poster, Gadot dressed as Wonder Woman, sends out Shabbat Shalom wishes, a subtle signal to all of her admirers to recognize their own powers, their own worth and strength. It is a very welcome message to so many residents of Beit Shemesh.

Someday, we may have a movie version of these real-life wonder women who are asserting their legal right to personal freedom in an atmosphere of growing religious extremism.  Together with other superheroes who support them, they are using their magical powers of courage and persistence, of community organizing, negotiation skills, legal redress, and political savvy.  They are fighting the good fight.

We should all put on our own superhero capes and join the team.

About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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