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The Heretic: Modesty Patrols and Vigilante Violence

Not too long ago, a woman sat in the ‘wrong’ section of a public bus. A group of men asked her to move to the back. She refused. The men became more insistent. She still refused. Infuriated, the men punched, kicked and beat her. The bus driver did not interfere or call police. Did this happen in America’s Deep South? In Taliban-controlled Kabul? In some Third World backwater? No. It happened in Israel, and it is not an isolated incident. The men who beat that woman are ultra-Orthodox. The woman herself is Orthodox. Her ‘crime’? She refused to sit in the section of the bus designated for women. Ultra-Orthodoxy demands strict separation of the sexes. Men and women sit apart at weddings, family dinners, public gatherings, and in synagogue. Unmarried ultra-Orthodox men do not converse with women they are not closely related to. They have never held a woman’s hand or stolen a kiss, let alone "hooked up." Married ultra-Orthodox men follow the same restrictions. Even contact with their wives is closely regulated. This hyper-segregation has now spilled over into Israel’s system of public transport. The ultra-Orthodox are demanding – and getting – separate seating on public buses. And, even though compliance with this segregation is supposed to be voluntary, increasingly the ultra-Orthodox choose to act as if it were mandatory, and as if they have the legal right to use coercion and brute force to achieve it. This rigid separation of the sexes is combined with a plethora of modesty laws that prohibit women from wearing certain color dresses, from wearing denim skirts, and from wearing any clothing deemed immodest. This is over and above the modesty called for by basic Jewish law. Until recently, enforcement of these extra modesty laws was largely left to non-violent peer pressure – today it is handled with aggression. Women have been beaten and doused with acid, paint, and bleach. Clothing stores have been torched.

The latest case of ultra-Orthodox vigilante violence was just reported by the Jerusalem Post. A group of young ultra-Orthodox men, a so-called “modesty patrol,” invaded the home of a young Jerusalem woman and, when she failed to agree to move out of the neighborhood the men sought to safeguard, beat her. One of them, a hasid, has been arrested. This “modesty patrol” suspected the woman of having contact with married men. I have heard about other home invasions, beatings and attacks – including a woman beaten with a nail-studded 2 x 4. Her crime? Nobody really knows. Ultra-Orthodox lawlessness is not new. Ultra-Orthodoxy has a clear disregard for laws it considers secular and non-Torah-based, and ultra-Orthodox Jews have long sought ways to skirt or completely evade inconvenient laws and government regulations.

Violence also has a long ultra-Orthodox pedigree, especially considering ultra-Orthodoxy itself is only about 200 years old. My favorite example is what happened after the head of the religious court in Brody – one of Eastern Europe’s most famous shtetls, now located in Ukraine – ruled leniently, allowing machine-ground wheat to be used for Passover matzos. (In the mid-19th century, this was revolutionary.) Enraged by the ruling, hasidim harassed and threatened the rabbi, trying to force him to retract. When that failed, under the cover of darkness they hurled bricks through the windows of the rabbi’s home, narrowly missing the bed of his sleeping infant son. The rabbi refused to give in to the mob, and his lenient ruling stood. But most often, violence works. Rabbis are not willing to confront it, and so they tailor their public rulings to placate thugs. They remain silent as women are beaten and harassed, sometimes condemning in private what they fear to confront publicly. When the target is homosexuals, however, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have been in the forefront of inciting violence. Israel’s chief rabbis called homosexuals “the lowest of people” during the violence-filled run-up to Jerusalem’s 2006 Gay Pride parade, and leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis signed a notice calling gays an “evil mob seeking to defile the holy city of Jerusalem.” Yeshiva heads sent their students to the streets to riot. They burned the contents of the large city-owned plastic trash dumpsters – and they burned the dumpsters themselves. The fumes and smoke sent scores of ultra-Orthodox elderly and children to hospitals with breathing and cardiac trouble. Even so, the riots and the dumpster-burning continued night after night. Weak and defenseless victims of the acrid smoke became collateral damage in a holy war fought by unruly mobs to defend the “purity” of Jerusalem. It was as if these victims were viewed by the mobs as sacrifices offered to appease the angry, vengeful, ultra-Orthodox God – the God of “modesty patrols” and segregated buses; a God of ultra-Orthodox invention, not of history. Many of us project our own religious upbringing on ultra-Orthodoxy, as if ultra-Orthodoxy was somehow American Judaism dressed up in period costume, Fiddler on the Roof with cell phones and iPods. It’s not. Ultra-Orthodoxy is a fundamentalist, rejectionist movement. It lacks transparency, democratic institutions, and checks and balances. It is closer theologically to the Taliban than is it to Reform Judaism. And one day soon, it may be riding on a bus with you.

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