This week several blogs reported that the US Government was warning Americans to dress modestly when they visit ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, lest they be assaulted. In light of all of the turmoil in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh this winter, many people thought this was a new warning.
“The Wayback Machine” is an archive that stores the history of the internet. It lets you turn back the clock and see any webpage the way it looked a year or two ago or even ten. Using the way back machine I was able to find a snapshot of the US State Department travel information page for Israel from June 7, 2005*.
Here’s how the page looked when it was archived on Jaunary 1, 2006 :
Jerusalem, travelers should … dress appropriately when visiting the Old City and ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Most roads into ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are blocked off on Friday nights and Saturdays. Assaults on secular visitors, either for being in cars or for being “immodestly dressed,” have occurred in these neighborhoods.
And here is how that paragraph looks today:
In Jerusalem, travelers should … dress appropriately when visiting the Old City and ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Most roads into ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are blocked off on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Jewish holidays. Assaults on secular visitors, either for being in cars or for being “immodestly dressed,” have occurred in these neighborhoods.
They are exactly the same. Just for fun we also looked at some snapshots for the years between 2006 and now. The advisory for modest dress was still there. As the warnings all the way back to 2006 clearly show, haredi hassling of women has been going on a long time. In fact, it has been going on much longer than even the WayBack machine shows.
Thirty years ago, when the internet was a plaything of academics and defense personnel, a cousin of mine walked through Mea Shearim in a short sleeve shirt. Men threw stones at her. When she told me the story a decade after it happened, there was still pain and anger in her words.
On Shavuot 1997, in the days before the Kotel had been declared a Beit Knesset, I was with a group of men and women in the plaza behind the kotel, praying off to the side near the entrance gates from the parking lot. We were half way through the Torah reading when suddenly a mob of black coated men surrounded up, screaming, yelling, throwing stones and bags of milk. The police had to escort us out.
In 2004, novelist Naomi Ragan was harassed on a Mehadrin bus because she was in the wrong seat.
Monday morning, in the throes of a new exercise regimen, I found myself walking down Strauss Street and, as luck would have it, the number 40 bus stopped right in front of me. It’s the bus with the shortest route to my home in Ramot, a neighborhood divided between secular, modern Orthodox, and haredi inhabitants. The bus was empty when I got on. Completely empty. So I paid my fare, got my receipt, and chose a single seat near the front.
I was happily immersed in an article about Yaddo in Vanity Fair when I was interrupted by an angry haredi man who announced that I needed to move to the back of the bus. I looked up at him, astonished, feeling a flash of what Blacks must have felt in Alabama in 1950….
Very calmly, and politely I think, I told him that this was a public bus and I would sit where I liked. He didn’t have to sit next to me, and he didn’t have to look at me. He shuffled off quietly, taking one of the many, many available seats. And that, I thought, was that.
It wasn’t. A few stops later, another haredi man – this time with the build of a Sumo wrestler – aggressively planted his two feet squarely in front of my seat and, in a loud and abusive tone and in no uncertain terms, demanded that I move to the back of the bus…. I am absolutely confident that only the prohibitions against touching a woman (that actually are in the Shulchan Aruch) saved me from being bodily hauled from my seat….
The entire ride, I continued to be the target of intermittent abuse until he finally got off…. ALL THIS TIME, the bus driver said nothing, even though it was clear to him what was happening.
Violence in Haredi neighborhoods not the real news this winter. The real news is that we are now talking about it. Street harassment and bullying can’t end unless people talk about it. However, if we can talk about it, then we can also work together to find a solution.
The question is, will we? This problem has been going on a long time. It will not go away, unless we start doing something more or different from what we did before all the media fury erupted. We should never confuse media attention with real change.
Nor should we be lulled into believing the problem has disappeared just because it isn’t on the 6 o’clock news. The media attention has died down, but our efforts to make a difference must not.
* Note: At fist glance the archived page appears to be current as of 2012. This date is due to the archived page including a small amount of embedded javacode that generates today’s date whenever that might be. The actual date of the warning and the warning itself are hard coded in the html and not generated. One can see this date by scanning about half way down the page just above the beginning of the text of the warning. The hard coded date is June 7, 2015.