“It’s a mistake to see Haredi society as monolithic,” said Gershom Gorenberg, the author of The Unmaking of Israel. “What we’re seeing is the actions of the most hardline elements. Within the community, legitimacy comes from how strict you are. So it’s hard for more moderate elements to openly oppose the extremists.”
There had always been gender segregation within the ultra--orthodox community, he said.
“But what we’re seeing is an insistence on a more stringent interpretation and a stronger expression of that publicly,” he added.
That stronger expression “has damaged the image of Jerusalem,” Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur said. “The city council is working very hard to correct that.”
However, she said, many of the issues were cultural, not legal.
“On the buses, if men choose to sit at the front and women at the back, what can you do? You can’t force them to mix. Or there is nothing in law to stop a woman going to a man’s till in a supermarket, but if she’s from the community she probably won’t want to. She accepts a whole cultural code which dictates how she lives. This is a cultural clash,” Tsur said.
According to Tsur, the situation is improving. Last week, the national transplant center launched a billboard campaign in Jerusalem featuring women after being criticized for using only images of men in its previous advertisements.
Religious and secular Jews opposed to the extremist Haredim are becoming more vocal, according to Shira Ben Sasson Furstenberg, of the New Israel Fund, which has helped finance campaigns and projects.
“The issue here is about choice and the need to enable and respect choice,” Furstenberg said.
Things were getting a little better, she said, but there was a long way to go.
“We’re starting to see the flowers that come before the fruits,” she said.