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Advance of the Zealots: The Growing Influence of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Veiled women, radical rabbis and gender segregation: Israel is facing a rise in the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their efforts to impose a strictly conservative worldview have led to growing tensions with the country's secular society. A resolution to the conflict is vital for Israel's future.

Outside is the Judean Wilderness, the Dead Sea shimmers in the distance. Naomi Machfud is sitting inside the self-built house, dreaming about making the world disappear. She wants to cover up her face with a veil, she says, her mouth, her nose and her eyes. A black veil, without even a vision slit, one that swallows every glance and submerges the world in darkness. The veil is the pinnacle of zniut, or modesty, the closest a person can get to God. But, she says with a sigh, "unfortunately I'm not that far yet."

But Machfud, a 30-year-old woman with six children, has already created an insulating layer of material between herself and the outside world. She is wearing a wool robe, an apron, a blouse, three floor-length corduroy skirts, a black skirt and trousers. She has a piece of black wool material wrapped loosely around her head. Underneath it is a tight, black veil, and underneath that is a pale pink veil. Not a single hair is visible. She is wearing a pair of earrings, but she takes them off when she leaves the house.

Machfud is a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man. They live in a settlement in the West Bank, but she dresses as if she lived in Afghanistan. In Israel, the veiled women are referred to as the "Taliban," while they refer to themselves as women of the shawl. Machfud claims that there are thousands of women like her, but it is more likely that they number in the hundreds. They are usually seen in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Me'ah She'arim neighborhood, black, shapeless figures, holding the hands of their daughters, who look like miniature versions of their mothers.

One could call these women crazy. Or one could see them as the product of a religious community that is becoming more and more extremist.

Gender Separation in Public

The ultra-religious are gaining power throughout the Middle East, including in Israel, where radical rabbis are expanding their influence. This is especially clear when it comes to women. Ironically, it is in Israel, a country that was already being run by a woman, Golda Meïr, in the 1970s, and where women fly fighter jets, that Jewish fundamentalists are trying to bring about gender separation in public -- in elections, on buses and in the street -- all in the name of a morality that is supposedly agreeable to God. Until now, this trend has been most noticeable in Jerusalem, in Beit Shemesh and in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, the country's ultra-orthodox strongholds. But increasingly it is becoming apparent in places where secular Israelis live.

Even a former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, is now warning that the ultra-orthodox are a bigger threat to the country than the Iranian nuclear program. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the conditions in Jerusalem remind her of Iran.

The odd coexistence of religion and democracy in the Jewish state was long unproblematic. But now the consequences are becoming clear, the signs of fatigue of an overstressed country, a country that is both a democracy and an occupying power, a high-tech nation in which a portion of the population still lives as if it were the 19th century, and a country that accepts immigrants from around the world, provided they are Jews, while at the same time mercilessly deporting refugees. As such, the settlers are, on the one hand, increasingly exhibiting a Messianic nationalism while, on the other hand, the ultra-orthodox pursue a fundamentalism hostile to the state.

Naomi Machfud says that she feels good in her headscarf and multiple skirts. So good, in fact, that she claims she doesn't even sweat during the summer, at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). She huddles on a worn sofa and tries to explain how it all began, with her and the veil. It is a story consisting of fragments and allusions, and it begins with a Jewish girl from New York who feels empty and spends her time in the streets, until she goes to Israel at 15 to attend an orthodox seminar. She becomes religious and, encouraged by the rabbis, starts wearing more and more clothing.

'Some Men Don't Like It'

Her rabbi was supposed to explain why exactly women are doing this, but he cancelled the meeting at the last minute. At the moment, it is not advisable to openly support the Taliban women, because a few of the ultra-orthodox have just imposed a new rule on them, which they announce in wall newspapers: "You may not cover yourself in abnormal and peculiar clothing, including veils, especially if your husband is against it."

Machfud smiles a Mona Lisa smile. "Some men don't like it," she says. "Suddenly we're more religious than they are." Therefore she is now trying to explain it all herself, and to support her argument she has placed a tattered book on the table. The title is "World of Purity," a bestseller in the ultra-orthodox community. She flips through images of women from past centuries, most of them Jewish, from Yemen, Morocco and Greece, but also of Amish women and Arab women. They all have one thing in common: the large, dark robes they wear, often including a face veil. This is how it was in the past, says Machfud, and it's how it should be again today.

Orthodox Jewish women wear long-sleeved blouses and skirts, and they cover their hair. But this doesn't go far enough for Machfud. She says that she sees too much fashionable clothing, garments that are too tight, too pretty and too indecent. The women, she says, attract looks that should be reserved for the husband. In her view, this leads to sin, and as long as there is sin, the Messiah cannot appear.

"Would you wear a diamond in the market? No, you would hide it at home," adds Revital Shapira, 46, a woman with eight children who is sitting next to Machfud, her body covered in black, floor-length skirts, shawls and headscarves.

Shapira also found religion later than most. She studied literature and only became a Taliban woman after she had given birth to an autistic boy and a girl with heart disease.

'Little House' Crossed with Saudi Arabia

As different as they are -- Machfud soft and pretty, Shapira ideological and contrary -- both women want to live in a world in which women do housework, have children and leave their homes as little as possible. They envision a world without computers and washing machines, with organic food and homemade clothing, a mixture of "Little House on the Prairie" and Saudi Arabia.

"The woman should disappear from public. She should not go out, and she should not speak with strangers on the street," says Shapira. "Unfortunately, the majority of Israelis don't understand this, which is why we are building a parallel system." The two women do not talk to men, and they leave the room when a man comes in. And they are determined to see their daughters follow in their footsteps. "We are building the will in our children to want these things as well," says Machfud.

"For decades, the male leaders of the ultra-orthodox have talked about nothing but modesty," says Hebrew University sociologist Tamar El Or. "No matter what, women are always being lectured on morality, and even the most devout must listen, morning, noon and night, to how they, with their femininity, bring sin to men."

The length of skirts became the gold standard, and each additional layer of material was seen as bringing women a step closer to God. "Some women have started going to excessive lengths. It's like anorexia." According to El Or, this obsession with virtue is also a rebellion against husbands and rabbis, with women now choosing to define their bodies and their faith themselves.

Bruria Keren was a particularly extreme case. In the end she was wearing 27 layers of material. Known in Israel as "Mama Taliban," Keren is one of the leaders of the women of the shawl. Born in a kibbutz and abused by her father, she eventually became religious -- a typical story. As she became more and more obsessed with morality, she beat her children, forced them to pray and cut their hair in punishment, which is why she is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

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1. Uk
naustin 01/13/2012
I do not know how widely Spiegel is read in Germany, but if any of your readers see this and are interested they may like to know that none of this is reported in the UK as far as I ever see.
2. Thanks Spiegel !
poliman 01/17/2012
I agree. I am glad Spiegel is openly reporting this... Here in the US, media censors any news that depicts Israel negatively. Thank you Spiegel.
3.
Giladi 01/26/2012
Greetings from Israel. While it is indeed ungly what is happening here with the ultra-(ultra-ultra-)orthodox, please be reminded that the people Spiegel and other international media are reporting on, make up a 0.66% of the ultra-orthodox community, which represents 10% of the population of Israel. 0.66% out of 10% of Israel's population, are - arguably hateful - extremists. So please do not ever get it into your head to view them as a correct representation of Israel and its orthodox community. They are a tiny minority and with the right government, they can remain a minority. Personally, I am hoping Ysrael Beiteinu will put a stop on them, the uppity Palestinians and other scourges to our beautiful society. Israelis are a mostly moderately religious to secular people. The ultra-orthodox mostly retreat to their own small communities, and whenever they do mingle, they are normally friendly. And the majority of us Israelis... hate them. They don't work, they don't serve in the army, they only eat tax payer money. Yeah, we are right to hate them, but we are hating a minority so tiny it's hardly worth the paper Spiegel is printing this on. They do not represent Israel. Saying that these zealots and fundamentalists are the people of Israel, is like saying that Belgians are all paedophiles and Germans are all neo-Nazis. I find it surprising, by the way, that while the media are interested in 0.66% out of 10% of Israel's population, they don't seem to care that way more than that percentage of Palestinians throw rocks in attempts to kill Jewish babies, slits Jewish childrens' throats, fires rockets at Jewish civilians, and calls for Jihad and martyrdom on "Palestinian" television. I find it very funny how a tiny and annoying, but hardly violent, minority of extremist Jews is more interesting to the international media, than a way larger number of radical Islamists. Now THAT is something that gets censored all over the place.
4.
Giladi 01/27/2012
I just realized I expressed myself very unflatteringly. "The ultra-orthodox mostly retreat to their own small communities, and whenever they do mingle, they are normally friendly. And the majority of us Israelis... hate them. They don't work, they don't serve in the army, they only eat tax payer money. Yeah, we are right to hate them, but we are hating a minority so tiny it's hardly worth the paper Spiegel is printing this on." No, no, no. That sounds really, really bad. I apologize. What I meant was: The majority of the ultra-orthodox minority are friendly. We hate about 60% of that minority who does not work or serve and some of which may be friendly but also utterly useless to society. We don't hate them for the individuals they are, but as a movement, an ideology, that they represent. So no, we don't hate the ultra-orthodox in general, we just don't like those who don't work, who don't serve in the army and who try to oppress women, homosexuals and secular people. Please add this clarification to my previous post.
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