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'Modesty Squad' Faces Legal Scrutiny in Israel

Monday, December 1, 2008

State prosecutors in Israel are arguing the case of a woman who they say was attacked in June by an ultra-Orthodox 'modesty patrol.' The verdict, along with a related case, is expected to help define the legal parameters of religious vigilantes.

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State prosecutors in Israel are arguing the case of a woman who they say was attacked in June by an ultra-Orthodox 'modesty patrol.' The verdict, along with a related case, is expected to help define the legal parameters of religious vigilantes.
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Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)--When Michal, 28, opened her apartment door one Saturday night in June, she was expecting to find a client for her hair design business.

Instead the Israeli divorcee who left the Orthodox fold some three years earlier found several ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. They threw her on the floor, gagged her, kicked her all over her body and questioned about her relations with men, according to official accounts.

After they beat her for at least 10 minutes, they warned her "this was just the beginning" and told her that if she continued to live there, she would be killed.

Michal's case, which is still in court, has been in the news but so far not her full name. She agreed to talk to Women's eNews on condition that her last name be withheld to protect her safety and privacy.

State prosecutors filed charges in August against a 28-year-old man accused of being paid $2,000 by a vigilante organization or "modesty squad" active in the religious Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula for helping perpetrate the attack.

Prosecutors say the goal of the group, dubbed the "Haredi modesty patrol," is to enforce community norms and conventions regarding modest attire and comportment in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, neighborhoods.

"Among other things, the organization acts to fulfill its goals by using threats, violence and other offenses," the charge sheet said.

The judge, according to a local media report, said she believed that this particular defendant was not motivated by ideology and appeared to be a hired hand.

Jerusalem police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld has described Michal's case as an isolated incident that--contrary to the indictment--did not involve an organized patrol.


Hoping for Deterrent

Naomi Ragen, an Orthodox writer who joined another legal case that is related to modesty squads hopes legal battles such as Michal's will deter others involved in such patrols. "If they have to be afraid now of being arrested and jailed, I think that's a good thing," she said. "I think that curbs their activities significantly. They're not big heroes anymore."

Ragen, along with four other Israeli women, joined forces with the Reform Movement's Center for Jewish Pluralism to file suit in January 2007 against Israel's public bus lines and the Israeli Ministry of Transportation. She says she was harassed on a special bus line that runs through Haredi neighborhoods and expected men to sit in the front, women in the back, in accordance with the sex-segregated customs of the Haredi community.

As recommended by the court, the ministry appointed a committee to review the segregation policy and is expected to produce a recommended course of action for the court's review in the coming months.

Over the years, Ragen has heard about girls being threatened for going out with certain young men or being expelled from school for talking to a brother or a cousin on the street.

Ragen, who has written about modesty patrols in her novel "Sotah," in her play "Women's Minyan" and on her Web site, says quasi-official police forces should be disbanded and citizens should be encouraged to go to the police.

"We're talking about very limited communities," Ragen said, noting that the vigilante modesty squads often only amount to three or four people. "Some are official; some are unofficial. They don't have much impact on Israeli society in general."

Nonetheless Ragen says the patrols are incompatible with both a democratic society and Judaism. "Jews are not encouraged in the Bible to become vigilantes," she says.


'God Has Enough Punishment'

Michal strongly agrees. "If I was doing something that was not OK, God has enough ways to punish me," she fumed recently in an interview at a Jerusalem coffee shop. "They don't have to take the law into their own hands. Who made himself God's policeman? Who has God given the right to come and beat someone in his name?"

After keeping a relatively low profile for decades, modesty patrols have attracted growing international attention since 2006, when a U.S.-Israeli woman was beaten by several men for refusing to move to the back of a bus on a line that was not designated as segregated.

In June, a storage building of an electronics store in the Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim was set ablaze following weeks of angry protests and warnings issued to store employees for selling MP4 players and DVD players with small screens, which are considered forbidden because they allow users to discreetly view adult movies or other inappropriate content.

The store no longer sells the products.

Also in June, a 14-year-old girl in the Jewish settlement of Betar Illit was injured by an acid attack, which some attributed to a modesty patrol, according to Israeli media reports, perhaps for the girl's choice of dress.


Praise for Community Role

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community--about 600,000 in an overall Israeli population of nearly 7.3 million--argue that the modesty patrols are generally not violent and play an important community role.

"The honor of a woman is in her modesty" an 18-year-old assistant in a woman's clothing store told Women's eNews. "You have to fight for this and that is why there are modesty patrols."

She and another employee said a modesty patrol came to the shop where she works and very politely asked them to remove the four fully dressed, female mannequins from the store window since they were not considered modest. After the shop obliged it received a framed thank-you certificate that the store proudly hangs near the entrance.

Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a spokesperson for the Eda Haredit, a prominent ultra-Orthodox communal organization, described the formal and informal types of modesty patrols.

Informal patrols, he said, can involve residents who act on their own accord when they see something inappropriate. "If someone in his neighborhood . . . ruins her children, dresses immodestly, or if she brings boyfriends home . . . he will do whatever he does to try to get rid of her."

Formal Haredi organizations carry out the orders of rabbis to restrict improprieties, such as pornography.

Jerusalem-based Vaad L'Maan Teura HaMechane--Committee for the Purification of the Camp--is one of the most established enforcers of Haredi norms in Jerusalem. The group fields phone calls and questions concerning what is appropriate from community members.

"They act against these elements, whether it's through coercion, or through talking, through all kinds of other means," Pappenheim said.

Pappenheim said the committee follows very legitimate and acceptable methods but is also willing to let street justice step in if its efforts are unsuccessful.

He says the committee does not approve of violence, yet it also doesn't necessarily condemn it.

"They are not sorry that this individual brought this upon himself, that he ignited his environs against him and caused himself to be beaten," Pappenheim said. "They say, 'You thought you were smart enough on your own and didn't want to understand us, so you got what was coming to you.'"

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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