In Jerusalem, Drawing Back A Curtain On Ultra-Orthodox Misogyny

For years, Tzaphira Stern Assala kept the curtains of her Jerusalem dance studio closed to avoid offending the neighborhood’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Not anymore. Fed up with Ultra-Orthodox efforts to keep women out of public life, the studio is suddenly giv

Street poster of Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with Orthodox pedestrian
Street poster of Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with Orthodox pedestrian
Anja Rillcke

JERUSALEM -- Gorgeous women staring out from advertisements are a common sight in many big cities. Jerusalem isn't one of them. Ultra-Orthodox minorities rip posters up, intimidate ad agencies, even frown on the idea of females dancing. As the number of Ultra-Orthodox Jews rises, so too does the pressure Israeli women feel. Some courageous women, however, have decided to push back.

Tzaphira Stern Assal is one of them. Assal operates the Kolben Dance Company studios in Jerusalem's Nachlaot sector. For three years, she kept her studio's curtains closed during rehearsals so as not to upset the neighborhood's Ultra-Orthodox Jews. A few weeks ago, however, she decided she'd finally had enough. In a bold bid for more tolerance, she quite literally drew back the curtains on the dance troupe, meaning anybody walking by could look in and see the company's rehearsals.

Assal is one of many liberal Israelis who are saying enough is enough when it comes to the Haredim, or "God-fearing ones," whose numbers are growing, and appear bent on banning women from public life in Jerusalem. Considered to be Judaism's most conservative group, Haredim follow an extremely rigid religious code. Dancing or singing women offend their code of modesty. They believe separation of the sexes is mandatory.

Especially in Jerusalem, Haredim members are increasingly closing themselves off from modern society. "It's almost like a ghetto," is the way liberal rabbi Uri Ayalon puts it. "It's mainly the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who disapprove of the way of living in modern Israel," he says. "Out of fear of being marginalized by an increasingly western-oriented society, they're becoming more and more radicalized."

Haredim have made a particular point of going after street posters, including those belonging to the Kolben Dance Company. "Our posters were constantly torn and vandalized. Out of fear of more destruction, we finally settled on depicting only a ballet shoe," says Stern Assal.

But now that the curtains are left open on the space where the dancers rehearse, they are disturbed daily. Strangers hit against the windows and try and intimidate them, says Stern Assal. Although courageous, she says she is afraid: "It's just a question of time before they smash the windows in." Four or five volunteers show up every day to try and prevent that from happening.

"Stop the nonsense, this is 2011"

Across Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem, people are pushing back against Ultra-Conservative Jews. On the initiative of Rabbi Ayalon, six female activists started a campaign via Facebook called "Uncensored" in early November that has brought images of women back onto Jerusalem streets.

Idit Karni, one of the women who posed for the posters, says she is committed to raising awareness of the attempt to shut women out of public life. "Many people don't realize what's going on. It wasn't until Rabbi Ayalon explained it to me that I understood why there are fewer and fewer images of women in Jerusalem's streets."

A working mother, she had herself photographed with her two eldest daughters. "The point is not to be provocative. We're just saying: Stop the nonsense. This is 2011, and this is Israel's capital. In a pluralistic Jerusalem, it should be possible to feature women on posters, listen to them sing, or sit with them on the bus. If that's not what you want, nobody's forcing you. But it should be allowed."

Karni thinks that ad agencies reacted with a disproportionate submissiveness to the vandalism of posters. "We're letting a minority dictate what goes on in this city. And it has to end."

Dance studio director Tzaphira Stern Assal was also photographed for the campaign. To her, the absence of images of women in public spaces threatens democracy. "When posters featuring images of women are forbidden, just imagine what that means for female candidates during an election," she says.

Her fears are not unfounded. While Ultra-Orthodox Jews presently make up between 8-10% of the Israeli population, their numbers are expected to double in the next 20 years, according to Bank of Israel estimates. In Jerusalem, every third resident is Ultra-Orthodox. In view of high birth rates among the group – families have on average seven children – more worldly Jews are worried. Some families move away to Beit HaKerem, one of the last primarily secular areas in west Jerusalem, the Israeli paper Haaretz reports. Others flee the climate of intolerance by moving to liberal Tel Aviv.

For women like Tzaphira Stern Assal and Idit Karni, moving away is not an alternative. They are determined not to let the city be overrun by religious orthodoxy.

Read the original article in German

Photo – Adam Jones, Ph.D.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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