JERUSALEM — The joyful glint in Peggy Parnass’ eyes is so sharp it can be seen from the walls of Jerusalem’s bustling Old City. Posted across the street at the gateway to City Hall, twin images of the Holocaust survivor and activist gaze out at the ancient warren of holy monuments of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
But just outside this center of spirituality, someone saw her image as a problem. Five times since the photos of Parnass were posted as part of an exhibition that began in April, vandals — widely believed to be ultra-Orthodox extremists — spray-painted over her eyes and mouth.
The graffiti was cleaned each time, leaving Parnass smiling again. For many Israelis, however, the short-term fix highlighted a familiar pattern that’s all the more painful because the destruction is coming not from enemies across Israel’s borders but from within.
“It’s not anti-Semitic,” said Jim Hollander, the curator of The Lonka Project art installation at Safra Square. “This is anti-feminist.”
For all of its modernity, military firepower and high-tech know-how, Israel has for decades been unable to keep images of women from being defaced in some public spaces. Billboards showing women — including soccer players, musicians and young girls — have been repeatedly defaced and torn down by religious extremists in Jerusalem and other cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations over the past 20 years.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel was erased from a 2015 photograph of world leaders in Paris published by an ultra-Orthodox newspaper.
The pattern is especially uncomfortable now.
“This is not Kabul, this is Jerusalem,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a Jerusalem deputy mayor. “This is a concerted campaign by radicals to erase women from the public space, which belongs to all of us.”
The double photo of 94-year-old Parnass, who lives in Germany, is posted on an outside wall of Jerusalem’s City Hall complex.
Hollander said he specifically chose it among dozens of others posted around the complex to hang in the marquee spot because it projects vitality, perseverance and survival across one of Israel’s most famous expanses. Its central location makes it visible to thousands every day.
The vandalism is widely blamed on a small number of fringe members of the insular ultra-Orthodox community, which emphasizes modesty among women and has traditionally carried outsized influence in Israeli politics. The photo is posted next to a street that borders an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and is a popular walkway to the Old City’s Western Wall, the holiest Jewish prayer site.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 12.6% of Israel’s population of 9.3 million. That community’s population is growing faster than those of other Israeli Jews and Arabs, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan Jerusalem think tank. A majority of Jerusalem’s Jewish community is ultra-Orthodox, the institute said.
There is a difference, one expert cautioned, between the more pragmatic mainstream ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the vandals defacing photos of women.
“In the mainstream, they know that the world outside is functioning in a different way,” said Gilad Malach, who leads the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “And they know that in some situations, they need to cooperate with that.”
In the mainstream Orthodox community, some women have begun to push back on social media.
“The men aren’t in charge there,” said Kerry Bar-Cohn, 48, an Orthodox chiropractor and performer who a few years ago started posting YouTube videos of herself singing children’s songs. Recently, she tried to publish an ad in a local circular with her photo on it, and was refused.
“It’s straight-out discrimination,” said Bar-Cohn, wife of a rabbi and a mother of four. “I was thinking I want to sue them, but No. 1, who has the time? And No. 2, you don’t want to be that person.”
Advocates say erasing women carries dire societal risks.
“You don’t see women, you don’t hear their needs and their needs are not met,” said Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, 46.
Keats Jaskoll recently launched a subscription-only photo bank of what she calls “positive” images of Orthodox women called Chochmat Nashim, or “women’s wisdom.” The idea is to sell images of women that are acceptable to an Orthodox audience and better understood by people in general.
None of these initiatives has halted the constant wave of vandalism.
The Israel Religious Action Center, which is connected to the liberal Reform movement of Judaism, has tracked the vandalism and other attacks on women’s images for five years and filed a court petition to compel the city of Jerusalem to crack down.
Over time, the municipality has responded by saying it is engaged in “massive, effective and focused enforcement” of city bylaws against vandalism, but it acknowledged difficulty in collecting testimony and prosecuting suspects.
“The Jerusalem municipality has and will continue to condemn any damage to public images and deals with the problem if appears on the spot,” the city said in a statement.
Police say they investigate all complaints of vandalism and property damage and try to find those responsible, but had no information about the Parnass case.
By refusing or being unable to crack down, “the state sponsors this practice,” said Ori Narov, an attorney for IRAC. “We keep getting this impression that they keep making excuses,” ranging from a shortage of labor to even more limits due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The municipality said the Parnass photos have been restored and it has increased patrols around City Hall.
Parnass’ niece, Keren-Or Peled, who lives in Israel, says Parnass has been told what happened. After her photos were cleaned for a third time, Peled traveled to Jerusalem to take a photo to send to her aunt.
By the time Peled got there, however, the set of photos had been defaced again. She helped clean it herself.
“They paint over your picture time and time again because you are a woman,” Peled wrote to her aunt in an article published in Haaretz. ”A beautiful, strong, confident 94-year-old woman.”
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed.