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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Life Under Terror

House of the rising sun

When I moved to Beit Shemesh 13 years ago with my family, we joined a warm, embracing community that was part of a culturally diverse city. Unfortunately, this diversity reared an uglier side several years ago when religious extremists began threatening, harassing and attacking women in public. For years, our reaction had been to overlook abusive spitting, name calling and assault directed at us by ultra-Orthodox men, in the hope that this behavior would simply go away.

However, the violence and harassment worsened to the point that they could no longer be ignored. Two months later, I was hit in the head by a rock thrown by an ultra-Orthodox man, religious extremists tried to lay siege to my daughter's school and began a campaign of harassing and threatening our young girls.

Over the next several months, two women were attacked by mobs of ultra-Orthodox men armed with rocks, sticks and bleach. These violations were exacerbated by an inept and complicit municipality that has yet to confront the extremists and rein them in, leading me and several other women to sue the city over their failure to remove several large, illegal and discriminatory signs mandating women's dress in public, in some cases even purporting to dictate on which sidewalks we may walk.

At the same time, however, something else happened in our city: Individuals from all sectors began working together in an effort to defuse the tensions. Various dialogue groups formed, forcing us to define our individual roles as part of a diverse and at times contentious society that must strive for peaceful coexistence.

One such coalition is Kumi ("Arise"), a women's grass-roots movement representing different sectors in the city whose goal is to bring women's expression to the fore. When were approached to participate in Jane's Walk this year, we enthusiastically agreed to join over 100 cities worldwide and organize a city walk in honor of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was an American-Canadian urban activist who challenged prevailing attitudes of city planning in favor of social needs. Since her death in 2006, walks have been held in cities around the world during the first weekend in May for promoting interest in local urban issues. At Kumi, we felt this would be an effective medium for expressing our concerns regarding the development of our city.

This year's Beit Shemesh Jane's Walk, to be held on Friday, May 3, will feature the city's cultural story, past, present, and future, with the view that the correlation between women's civil rights violations and neglect of our cultural institutions isn't coincidental. Beit Shemesh's cultural richness and history is reflected by these institutions, some of which thrive and give us hope, while others characterize our pain and loss. Our Jane's Walk will present both sides of our cultural story: the beauty together with setbacks.

Most of the city's residents aren't even aware that Beit Shemesh once had a cinema, or that we have a reputable Andalusian orchestra, or that there are several active theater companies in town. Our walk will include a visit to the Beit Shemesh Conservatory, a neglected, underfunded institution that nonetheless produces outstanding, award-winning graduates every year. We'll pass by the concert hall that hosts our classical chamber concert series bringing internationally renowned ensembles such as the Equinox Trio and Yuval Quartet to town.

We'll also visit "The Pit," our cultural center whose construction has been delayed for years due to opposition by extremists who want the land for their own purposes, aptly mirroring the clash of values in Beit Shemesh. This morass has cost our city tens of millions of shekels, funds that should be promoting and nurturing artistic expression but are instead squandered by our dysfunctional city hall.

Directly across the street, our final stop will be a local community center that provides classes and mentoring to hundreds of students of the arts, from visual art to music, dance, theater, and more. There, at the entrance to the building, on the steps overlooking The Pit, we'll hear a live performance by Ben Hashmashot ("Twilight"), an all girls' choir. The juxtaposition of the girls' voices opposite the suspended void representing our cultural center summarizes where we stand today, and yet this is the best answer we have to the extremists who are trying to destroy our city.

Nili Philipp, a resident of Beit Shemesh, is a mother of five and works in patent law.

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