I was lost in Geulah. That may not sound too bad, but for me, it was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had in a long time. I was on my way out on a Saturday evening, and being that post Shabbat public transport in Jerusalem is tricky, I hopped on the first bus I could find that would get me downtown. Not thinking much about it, I found myself smack in the middle of one of the most haredi or ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
As I struggled to find my way out, men and boys scurried to the other side of the street. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, attempting to beat the August heat. Plastered on the wall across the street, my eye caught a sign that read:
“אל תעבור בשכונה שלנו בלבוש לא צנוע”- Do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest dress.
I panicked. I had found my bearings, and just needed to walk a few more blocks to reach King George Street. It would take me only about 10 minutes or so.
I knew the weight of that sign, it wasn’t just a friendly reminder. Signs like that come with a severe message and possibly violent consequences. I made my way down Kikar Shabbat, up Yishayahu Street, and finally to King George, provoking only the occasional stare or leap to the other side of the road along my way.
That fear had not been of the unknown. It is not a secret that ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are notorious for their bleach throwing at immodest passerby. It is a well known fact that on Shabbat you cannot drive through certain areas without having stones flung at your car windows, “Shabbos!” being yelled as you pass. It is an established custom that women sit at the back of the bus on particular bus lines- and all of this, with no legal ramifications. How can it be that in a modern, so called “secular” state, a woman can be harassed, even harmed, for not following the community standards of the ultra-Orthodox?
I work as the Media Associate for Women of the Wall (WOW), who are known for their fight to find equality for women at the Kotel. That is not the extent of WOW’s work. What these women are doing goes far beyond just that. Their defiance of the haredi regulations at the Kotel is on a larger scale, the resistance of the outrageous lack of separation of religion and state in Israel. It continuously baffles me how radical religiosity regulates so much of Israeli life.
Legal marriage in Israel must be officiated by an Orthodox rabbi. The same thing goes for divorce, which must be done with the function of a rabbinical court. The majority of restaurants and public transportation do not operate on Shabbat. All food in government buildings such as hospitals and army bases must be Kosher, and can be difficult to access on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday.
It cannot be that a country made up of primarily 5 religions, with ultra-Orthodox Jews making up only 20% of the Jewish population, is still struggling with this issue. WOW is playing a huge part in demanding change for women within religious Judaism, and for people living in Israel as a whole. I support WOW’s work and I only hope for an improved future. One in which no one will feel fear or exclusion based on their dress or their gender.
It’s time for Israel to make an aliyah and rise to the occasion.