Who owns Meah Shearim?


By Miriam Shaviv
September 27, 2010
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A row is brewing in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Meah Shearim over the right of women to walk in the street. (I feel like I'm writing about Afghanistan and can hardly believe this isn't satire.)

It began several weeks ago when the extreme Edah Charedit deliberated whether to close the streets to women on Simchat Beit Hashoevah, during Succot. The thought was that the celebration would attract crowds from outside the neighbourhood, and promote the mixing of the sexes, which might lead to immodesty.

In the end, they "merely" (according to Yediot Achronot, a secular newspaper!) decided to close the streets to women from outside the neighbourhood. But by then, word had leaked of their original plans, and now a group of secular feminists is demanding the right to march through the strictly Orthodox neighbourhood "in protest against the increasing radicalization and damage to haredi women's status within the community". The police are not thrilled.

The problem, though, is that they are framing the problem all wrong. Both sides are presenting this as a problem of women's rights - how dare women be kept off their own streets? And of course, that is a major issue - the idea that in this day and age, streets can be closed to women is preposterous.

But I see it as something larger - a question of the rule of law. Because this is a neighbourhood where the residents are exclusively Charedi, the Charedi leadership is behaving as if it "owns" the streets, and has the right to decide who walks where. This is entirely untrue. Unless a road is privately owned, the street, no matter who lives there, is public property - and is ultimately the responsibility of the state. Private citizens cannot stop others walking there, no matter how strongly they feel about the area. It is simply not up to the Edah Charedit to close the streets to anyone - or to decide which side of the street each gender can walk on, another recent trend.

Allowing the Charedim to effectively set their own laws in their "own" neighbourhood is a dangerous precedent. The police, and the state, should be fighting to retain their control over these Israeli streets, and not allow little islands to develop with an entire different set of rules.

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