A Tree Grows in Beit Shemesh

March 12, 2012Anat Hoffman

After a surprising snowfall in Jerusalem last Shabbat, this week we got a preview of spring. The sun was shining and the wildflowers were in bloom. There are few things more beautiful than a field full of wild tulips, primrose, and cormorants. For many years it was an Israeli custom to pick these flowers and place them all over the house. Having them made us feel like we were young kibbutzniks again. As a result Israeli wildflowers began to disappear. We were simply picking too many.

However, a dramatic change took place. Israelis were reconditioned not to pick these flowers because of the damage it was doing... and it actually worked. We don't do it anymore. I was walking in a lovely park last Shabbat and I saw a young boy noticing a flower. As he bent down to pick it up, his father quickly stopped him. He said, "Don't touch it, it is for everyone to enjoy." When the boy persisted, the father actually threatened to take him home. What was common when I was this boy's age is now gone; anyone who says Israelis can't change are blind to the wildflowers right under their nose.

For many weeks, we have been speaking about Beit Shemesh and the violence that was committed against young Naamah Margolis for dressing like a normal little girl around zealot Haredi men. We were afraid that, like the wild flowers that were on the verge of disappearing, so too would non-Haredi Jews vanish from this town that has a long history of having a mixed religious and secular population. Secular or modern Orthodox Israelis usually choose to leave areas that are becoming too Haredi instead of trying to change things; but thanks to the brave women and girls living in Beit Shemesh, the opposite is happening.

The violence we saw in Beit Shemesh has created an opportunity for collaboration. IRAC is working with these women, who are all Orthodox, to help them combat the religious extremism that is taking over their city. These women are standing firm and forming coalitions to run for the town council. They want to make their voices heard. IRAC staff is advising and guiding these brave women in Beit Shemesh by negotiating with the police and giving them the opportunity to come to the Knesset and speak their minds.

In order to save Israel's wildflowers, we had to change the way we look at them and view them as a treasure for all to enjoy. The ability for young girls to walk to school without fear and to grow and blossom into strong women also requires us to broaden the way we look at security in the Jewish State.

Politics in Israel is a full-contact sport and requires a thick skin. We believe it is in our national interests to make sure that little girls like Naamah Margolis are safe on their way to school. These Orthodox mothers in Bet Shemesh are fighting Haredi coercion and violence.

Wildflowers need sunshine and water, and novice politicians need guidance and encouragement. IRAC will help guide them, but they need your encouragement. Please send them words of support. It will mean a lot for these women to know that men and women from all over the world believe in their right to live as they choose in the mixed town of Beit Shemesh.

To read our report "Women Talk about Segregation in Israel," click here.

Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center. This post first appeared in The Pluralist, the newsletter of the Israel Religious Action Center.

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