Riots over gender segregation. And silence over Palestinian segregation

ActivismFeaturesIsrael/Palestine
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beit shemesh
Protesters against gender discrimination (Photo: Michael Fattal/Haaretz)

Yesterday, December 27, Israeli civil society and politicians responded to the recent violence against an eight-year old girl, Na’ama Margolese, and the 300 rioting Haredi who attacked Israeli police and camera crews from Channel 2 and Channel 10 news.  Thousands demonstrated in the streets, including secular and some religious.  However, amid the dissent against the sexist, fundamentalist, and racist men, there is a contradiction to the call for equality: Palestinians.

The December 26 riot began after Israeli police attempted to remove a sign calling for women to walk on the opposite side via the message, “walk quickly, without drawing a crowd and without talking to each other.” Haaretz reported that the sign has been up for six years , according to local residents. When the police moved to take down the sign, 300 ultra-Orthodox men hurled rocks at the police.

Pro-gender-segregation-ultra-Orthodox-men zoomed into the spotlight after harassing an eight-year old girl Na’ama Margolese– a case that Annie Robbins reported here last night. Shai Gal, a reporter with Channel 2, filmed an interview with Na’ama, her mother, and Haredi (ultra-orthodox) residents of Beit Shemesh who advocate harassing women. One man told Channel 2 that he is a “healthy person,” and therefore justified in physical acts of abuse against children. “I’ll tell you why. To spit on a girl who isn’t behaving according to the law of the Torah is justified.” And he went on:

‘There are Rabbis and they give us the power [to know] how to appear when walking in the street, and how a woman should behave when walking in the street, and that’s the way it should be.’

The haredi have had tacit approval from the state for years to commit violence against women, call children whores, and spit on them. Now many of them are rioting and throwing rocks at police. At the same time, women have agitated against the gender discrimination by sitting in the front of segregated buses, incurring physical abuse.  In 2006  Haaretz reported that a group of Haredi men assaulted Miriam Shear, 50, on a segregated Egged bus.  Shear said:

“I’m not moving and he said, ‘I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.’ Then he spat in my face and at that point, I was in high adrenaline mode and called him a son-of-a-bitch, which I am not proud of. Then I spat back. At that point, he pushed me down and people on the bus were screaming that I was crazy. Four men surrounded me and slapped my face, punched me in the chest, pulled at my clothes, beat me, kicked me. My snood [hair covering] came off. I was fighting back and kicked one of the men in his privates. I will never forget the look on his face.”

Haaretz says that a man then kicked Shear in the face.  She filed suit against the bus line, and in June of 2011, the court made a ruling:  gender discrimination is legal, so long as it is voluntary on the women’s parts.

The discrimination against women parallels racial discrimination. The gender-segregated buses are operated by the public cooperative transportation company Egged, which also operates buses servicing settlers in the West Bank, effectively discriminating against Palestinians.  In November six Palestinian activists challenged Egged’s racial discrimination, and the Popular Struggle Committee said of these “freedom rides”:

Several Israeli companies, among them Egged and Veolia, operate dozens of lines that run through the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, many of them subsidized by the state. They run between different Israeli settlements, connecting them to each other and cities inside Israel. Some lines connecting Jerusalem to other cities inside Israel, such as Eilat and Beit She’an, are also routed to pass through the West Bank.

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Beit Natif  during a Nakba attack, 1949. (Photo: Palestine Remembered)

For Palestinians, the military denies them physical access to the roads where they might attempt to board buses, creating a de facto state-enforced segregation. And as for Beit Shemesh, which was called Beit Natif before the Palestinian Nakba, when the entire village was razed to the ground, it functions as part of the Apartheid structure of the West Bank. Beit Shemesh is one of the Israeli towns inside of Israel’s 1948 borders that are connected to Israeli settlements in the West Bank through a system of “Israeli-only” roads which are serviced by Egged buses. 

Jeff Halper writes in the “Matrix of Control” that Beit Shemesh is instrumental in annexing East Jerusalem, and Palestinian lands as far as Bethlehem using road networks:

The Emergence of a “Metropolitan [Israeli] Jerusalem.”

The ring roads and major highways being built through and around Jerusalem are intended to create a regional infrastructure of control, turning Jerusalem from a city into a metropolitan region. “Metropolitan” Jerusalem covers a huge area. Its boundaries, incorporating a full 10% of the West Bank (440 square kilometers), stretch from Beit Shemesh in the west up through Kiryat Sefer until and including Ramallah, then southeast through Ma’aleh Adumim almost to the Jordan River, then turning southwest to encompass Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Efrat and the Etzion Bloc, then west again through Beitar Illit and Tsur Hadassah to Beit Shemesh. It also provides a crucial link to the Kiryat Arba and the settlements in and around Hebron. In many ways “Metropolitan” Jerusalem is the Occupation. Within its limits are found 75% of the West Bank settlers and the major centers of Israeli construction.

The latest disturbances in Beit Shemesh have been denounced by Knesset members, journalists, moderate Haredim, and secular Israelis. Female Knesset members have called for talks on gender discrimination. None of these detractors is bringing up the parallel Palestinian experience. For instance, Limor Livnat, a Labor party Knesset member and minister of Culture and Sports, threw an olive branch to Tzipi Livini (Kadima), asking her to leave politics out of the case. By “politics,” she means Palestinians.

Other remarks by Livnat are paradigmatic of the mélange of statements made by moderates, liberals and leftists.

“I’m not sure I mind it if they decide to segregate bus lines in Modiin Illit or Beitar Illit,” Livnat told Ynet , continuing, “It’s their way of life. If it doesn’t bother any woman, I’m not sure it bothers me.”

Even the recognition that calling a seven-year old a whore, or supporting patriarchal walks through town is wrong, does not get at the root of the issue. Gender discrimination did not suddenly appear in Beit Shemesh, and it did not suddenly appear in Israeli society. Over the past ten years, Beit Shemesh has moved from a Likud strong neighborhood to a Shas voting bloc. This bloc is pro-settlement, pro-militarism and yes, pro-sexism.

The Haredi men in Beit Shemesh, who each morning wake and thank God they were not born a woman (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not created me a woman”), are the practitioners of gender discrimination. But Livnat, Lipni and the organized dissenters are the actors in this drama who have allowed both state-owned and private companies to institutionalize these practices so long as it is Palestinians who remain oppressed. 

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