Israel, Religion

The organizers behind the Beit Shemesh dance protest

This is a guest post by Lillian Cohen-Moore, a freelance writer, editor and stage manager who calls the West Coast home. She often tours and travels to cover assignments; she lives out of a suitcase and on twitter.

Earlier this month in Beit Shemesh, Israel, a group of women did something unthinkable to their critics: they danced.
The population in Beit Shemesh ranges from ultra-Orthodox Jews to socially active long-time residents, as well as recent waves of English speaking immigrants. As Beit Shemesh and Israel at large undergo social change, much of it religious and class based, the clashes between segments of the population happen more often, with an often vociferous intensity from the ultra-Orthodox. As members of many Orthodox families begin university and military service, the extremists in the community lash out, believing their peers should stay as removed from larger society as possible. In this current social climate, women across Israel have been subject to escalating harassment by these members of the ultra-Orthodox. Media outside of Israel began to sit up and take closer notice of the harassment of women in Israel after Naama Margolese, an eight year old resident of Beit Shemesh, was spat upon and had rocks thrown at her by ultra-Orthodox men. Parents escorting their daughters to the same school are subject to similar harassment, being told by grown men that their daughters are ‘whorish’ because their school uniforms are not modest enough.
Women like Brenda Ganot, who works at Partnership 2Gether of the Jewish Agency for Beit Shemesh, and Miri Shalem, director of the Ramat Beit Shemesh community center, wanted to respond to the harassment going on in their community. The negative coverage of the city, which has included media attention on the ultra-Orthodox push for segregated bussing, got to both women. Ganot describes Beit Shemesh possessing a large moderate community with a deep engagement in charity and community events, a community that has been eclipsed in the eye of many media outlets while they cover the actions of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Three years ago, Brenda Ganot and Miri Shalem were two of the founding members of the Beit Shemesh Women’s Council, members of which were involved with the recent flash mob. Shalem explained “We cannot always agree on everything. So the flash mob was done just with 5 members of the women’s council.” Ganot felt the flash mob was less of a protest and more about “…showing a fun side of women in our city. We wanted to show that we have lots of different types of women here and that we are free to dance in the streets.”
The flash mob was organized by Ganot and Shalem using a Facebook group. It was four weeks ago, just a few days before the news about Naama Margolese would break; Shalem was reading the news coverage on the climate for women in Beit Shemesh. “I knew I had to make a protest of women. I felt that I had to express my say and other women’s, against the religious extremism and to say that we have other life in Beit Shemesh.” Shalem considered an artistic display, but then recalled the many flash mob videos she’d seen on YouTube. Too late that night to contact, she began calling the following morning, recruiting friends to be part of the flash mob. In two weeks of organizing, they were ready.
They hired producer Renana Levine, who brought in a film crew. Locating a dance teacher to volunteer to choreograph the dance, they then found a photographer to take pictures and someone to handle sound and music. They emailed everyone they knew. They additionally prepared for the event by knocking on resident’s doors in the apartment building overlooking the square where the flash mob would take place in order to get a camera on the third floor. They were able to talk to a woman whose apartment was in the ideal place to film from, who agreed to let the group film from her apartment. They had over 600 women sign up to their Facebook group as they organized, collecting money across the city to cover costs.
The choice of “Don’t Stop Me Now” was deliberate. Discussions of what music to use included a need for a great beat, easily recognizable, and expressed some of the feelings of the women participating. Some of the women participating thought a Hebrew song expressing unity would be ideal, but the final choice was, as Ganot explained, made with a specific need in mind. “We wanted a song with English that would be widely understood by people overseas.” With over 80,000 hits on the video at the time of the interview, Shalem was floored by the international response. “I’m so shocked from the public interest in our flash mob all over the world, and the reactions we get, it taught me so much about the power of the net, and the power of media.”Ganot addressed the current organization of those demonstrating and future possibilities for action. The Facebook group for women involved in organizing and participating is currently closed, with much of their writing in Hebrew; other Facebook groups surrounding the social climate towards women in Israel exist as well. Ganot hopes for the ability to include women from the ultra-Orthodox community in the future, in actions they would be comfortable with. “We are currently looking to fund initiatives that encourage dialogue between the ultra-Orthodox and other communities in Beit Shemesh. We are getting some interesting submissions and I look forward to seeing what develops.”
Though the press coverage continues to focus on Beit Shemesh in a largely negative light, Shalem remains hopeful that future actions by women will help show the other side of Beit Shemesh. “The city was very enthusiastic about the flash mob, people felt pride, they suddenly could lift their heads up, not feeling despair as before. We get amazing reactions. When people see me they smile from a far.”
Since interviewing Ganot and Shalem, violence against women from the ultra-Orthodox has been increasing in fervor. On January 24th, Natali Mashiah was attacked by a group of ultra-Orthodox men as they stole her keys, smashed out the windows of her car with rocks, threw bleach at her, and continued to hail stones as her as she attempted to take shelter behind one of the car doors, dialing police for help twice before aid came. The crowd that had gathered to watch did not intervene during the attack. Mashiah told Israeli news outlets that she had feared for her life during the attack, thinking that she would die. As the harassment of women has not only increased over time but now erupted into sharper peaks of violence, future exchanges between the ultra-Orthodox and women in Beit Shemesh may continue to carry a risk of potentially deadly violence.

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