Driven by a theology that refuses to grant women equal rights, ultraorthodox Jews have begun to flex their misogynist muscles. But, says Catrina Stewart, a fightback has begun
As dusk falls in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem's most pious neighbourhood, black-clad and hatted Jewish men hurry home along the narrow streets lined by medieval-style houses where lights burn dimly in darkened windows.
Less than half a mile away, young Israelis mix in bustling bars in central Jerusalem, anathema to this religious ultraorthodox community that has tried its hardest to hide itself away from the temptations of secular life, and ensure a rigorous separation between men and women.
Ironically, though, it is the ultraorthodox community's efforts to impose its religious values on ordinary Israelis, particularly women, that many fear is undermining Israel's democracy, and which now poses the greatest threat to this community's survival.
When Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old woman from Ashdod, boarded a Jerusalem-bound bus late last year, she caused a stir by refusing to heed the demands of a religious male passenger to move to the back of the bus. Many of the ultraorthodox - known as Haredim - believe that modesty forbids women to sit at the front of the bus with the men, and it is common to see segregated buses with women seated to the rear, often crowded in while seats remain free at the front.
Ms Rosenblit became a minor celebrity in Israel, but her stance was not without consequences, earning her death threats for daring to challenge the religious community.
"The Haredim has always received special treatment in this country and people thought it was okay," she says. "But something has changed... in the sense that they feel they are going to control this country. That's disturbing."
The issue of creeping religious coercion over all aspects of Israelis' lives has taken on huge importance in recent years as the ultraorthodox spread beyond their traditional communities in Jerusalem and outer Tel Aviv in search of cheap housing. But the situation recently reached a head in Beit Shemesh, a town near Jerusalem, when an ultraorthodox man spat at and verbally abused an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, for what he considered was immodest attire.
Not for the first time, Israel's Haredim find themselves under attack. Making up about 10 per cent of the population, this impoverished and fast-growing community has long been viewed as an economic drain on society, but now some fear that their influence is extending far beyond their ghetto-like communities.
In a potent display of their sense of persecution, an extreme Haredi sect living in Mea Shearim recently plastered yellow stars on their children in protest, a symbol of Jewish persecution from the Holocaust that resonates deeply with Israelis, and inspired widespread disgust.
Young men in Mea Shearim insist that those who inspire such hatred are an extremist minority who do not represent the Haredim as a whole. "I think modesty on the buses is okay," says one, who works in a religious bookstore, "but to force that is not the way to behave."
But his view on tolerance is not one readily accepted in this insular neighbourhood. Moments before, a Haredi man with sidelocks spat on the ground next to this reporter, who was modestly dressed, and muttered "pritze", a Yiddish word meaning prostitute.
Meanwhile, the women within these communities are afraid to speak out, says Hannah Kehat, founder of Kolech, an ultraorthodox women's group. "It's social control. If they [the women] go against somebody, the [extremists] exclude them, tell people they are not religious enough, attack them, say bad things about their families," says Ms Kehat, who grew up in Mea Shearim. "It's terror," she adds.
While segregation on buses has come to epitomise discrimination against women, it is only a small part of the story. …