Enough Already with the Modesty Police

I doubt the readers of this blog need to hear this message from me; it is too obvious. I also doubt that the supporters of “modesty policing” in Israel will be affected in the least by my writing in opposition to their practice. This lack of effective communication between the two sides of the modesty issue may be the core of the problem… but I am jumping too far ahead.

The problem of modesty police, or the tznius squad as it is not-so-affectionately known by many, is nearly as old as Israel itself. For decades the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel have attempted to police their streets and enforce “modest dress” not only on residents but even on tourists, shoppers and people just wandering the streets. Over the past decade or so, matters have begun to escalate. There have been a number of attempts by the more fundamentalist elements of the Ḥaredi world to test the waters to see if stricter measures would be tolerated or successful.

One example: In 2010, there was an attempt to have the modesty police enforce a separation of sexes on the streets of Me’ah She’arim. This attempt was challenged by a group of residents and supportive outsiders and, thankfully, declared to be illegal.

Another example: Over the past few years there has been an attempt to take over certain bus routes—the so-called mehadrin” bus-lines—by forcing women to sit in the back Rosa Parks style; perhaps in Israel it should be called Miriam Shear style. Just reading the acclaimed novelist, Naomi Ragen’s account of her own experience is enough to make anyone who values freedom of movement in public shudder. The idea of segregated public bus-lines was challenged in the Supreme Court and declared to be illegal; nevertheless, enforcement has been spotty, causing the year-long crusade of the Freedom Riders, women who ride these buses to make sure there is no harassment. Even so, some women (like Tanya Rosenblit among others) still experienced harassment on these lines.

Most recently, modesty policing has taken a new turn. The standard images of modesty police are either burly Ḥasidic men chasing young local teens away from prospective girlfriends and boyfriends or male and female residents of Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods accosting “immodestly clad” women (often frightened tourists) who walk their streets or live among them. Either way, the claim has been that the modesty police are trying to keep their own Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods pure. But the ante has just been upped.

Maḥaneh Yehudah is a popular outdoor market place where Jerusalem residents from all neighborhoods (religious and non-religious, Jewish and non-Jewish) shop for fruits, vegetables and meat. Although Maḥaneh Yehudah is near some Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the shuq (Hebrew for market) is neutral territory. Nevertheless, the harassment of “immodest” women has commenced.

The opening move for this new stage of harassment was a quiet one. There were no loud protests and no frightening male tznius police assaulting women in the public space. Instead, this salvo was volleyed by frum women. A woman in a tank-top would be scolded, a woman in shorts told to “dress modestly next time.” There was no threat of violence and no tension-filled male-female interactions. Still, the incident is troubling.

First, this is just the opening shot. Just like what happened with the mehadrin buses or in Beit Shemesh, matters begin slowly and imperceptibly, a comment here, an angry look there. The unpleasantness and confrontational style gets to people, and a number of women will begin to think that the confrontation is not worth it and will dress accordingly. That leaves the stragglers who fight back, in turn paving the way for the fundamentalist group to use stronger and more forceful measures. The incident reported yesterday is just the beginning.

Second, even without escalation, this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Maḥaneh Yehudah is public space and must be treated as such. The Ultra-Orthodox may have developed their own unique sense of appropriate attire, but as members of a modern democratic state, they need to learn how to navigate interactions with other groups who have different sensibilities.

The extreme nature of the outrage expressed by Ḥaredi and Ḥasidic men and women against the “immodestly” clad suggests that factors other than the zealous desire to spread the wealth of their cultural values may be at play. I will suggest one.

As I wrote about in my Morethodoxy blog, it is true that even members of western societies generally demand the right to a desexualized public space, at least to some degree. Virtually all secular societies have rules about public decency, whether it be about basic clothing requirements or the level of explicitness permitted in advertising. However, I believe that there is an unfortunate crossing of signals in the contemporary battle over public tzniut in Israel.

For a modern woman, wearing a tank-top is about style and comfort; it is not a sign of attempted seduction. However, were a Ḥaredi or Ḥasidic woman to dress this way, it would be an expression of public sexuality, a form of lewdness. I believe that the Ultra-Orthodox community has become so insular that they have lost any real understanding of how the rest of the Israeli world functions and cannot properly read the signals of the other.

Hence, when the Ultra-Orthodox look at women in Maḥaneh Yehudah, they do not see regular women dressing comfortably and buying food for their families, but a gaggle of painted Jezebels engaging in a bizarre and inexplicable public sexual display. When such “immodest” women enter their own neighborhoods, it seems to the neighborhood’s inhabitants either like an attempt to draw the local men to sin or just to mock them and their wives. Of course, any modern person understands that this is not what is going on, but, in a very real sense, the Ultra-Orthodox are not modern people. (In one blogger’s words, they are a world untouched by civilization.)

It is important for modern society to understand the difficult predicament the Ultra-Orthodox face. They experience the reality of modernity as a constant and interminable assault on their way of life. That said, the modesty policing must stop and it is up to modern secular Israel to stop it.

By turning a blind eye to their policing of their own neighborhoods, to their taking over their own buses, and threatening their own shopkeepers, Israeli society has effectively endorsed such policing of behavior. Israel has given the Ultra-Orthodox community the sense that they have a right to control some areas of public space. Lest we forget, the streets of Me’ah Shearim and the buses in Bnei Brak are public space. If women decide to dress modestly when walking the streets of Ge’ulah, they are doing the residents a kindness by being respectful of their sensibilities… but they do not have to. Furthermore, respect must be a two way street.

My own view is that modesty policing must be banned. This needs to start in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where such policing can turn violent and where some residents are frightened into “proper” religious behavior in which they do not wish to engage. In certain cases, like with the attempted takeover of the buses, there has been push back, but overall the push back against modesty policing has been half-hearted and inconsistent.

Until recently, Israel has been more accommodationist than not with the demands of the Ultra-Orthodox in this regard. This accommodationism may be due to the belief that if Israel were to leave the Ultra-Orthodox alone, the Ultra-Orthodox would in turn leave the rest of society alone. Whether this is an ethical or wise policy given the premise of quid pro quo is now irrelevant; the premise was mistaken. The tznius police have begun to march out of their neighborhoods and into the larger world of Israeli society and this trend needs to be nipped in the bud.

One final point needs to be made clear to the supporters of this policing: it isn’t that the tznius police have reached outside their jurisdiction; rather they have no jurisdiction, not in Maḥaneh Yehudah, not in Me’ah She’arim, and not anywhere else. The reality of a modern secular state is that it respects different religious traditions (Jewish and non-Jewish) and gives them room to thrive but not power to coerce. Israel cannot countenance any attempt at coercion.

Zev Farber

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.