Forward Thinking

Will Israel's Haredi Draft Bill Empower Women?

By Nathan Jeffay

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As the Israeli government prepares to present the Knesset with its bill to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Haredi community is seething. But even as it kicks into reactionary mode, you’ve got to wonder whether, paradoxically, this could present an opportunity for some limited advancement among Haredi women.

The Haredi media in Israel is abuzz with talk of a possible “march of the million” against the plans to get currently-exempt Haredi men into uniform and criminalize those who ignore draft orders.

The Haredi leaders who are talking about a march saw the “march of the million” during the social protests of 2011 (which was big but didn’t quite reach a million). They believe that if their community can replicate that kind of mass activism, Israeli society and the government will need to take notice.

But there’s an obvious problem. In secular society, if you have a million people, you have a million potential demonstrators. In Haredi society, a million people gives you just 500,000 potential demonstrators.

One in every two potential demonstrators — people who believe in the cause and would be prepared to demonstrate if given the nod — is ruled out by gender. That’s right: Protesting is a men’s pursuit, widely considered immodest for women.

The question is, if the Haredi leadership is looking for sheer numbers, will it have the self-discipline to keep its pool of protestors to half its natural size? Will it not be tempted to double its numbers and rule that women may protest?

There is some recent precedent for female activism. The Women for the Wall group has been assembling large gatherings of women at the Western Wall to oppose Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group.

This has been done in the guise of prayer gatherings, and has taken place in the women-only section of the Western Wall, away from men’s eyes. But despite the differences between this and full-scale protesting, it has alerted rabbis to the potential of female activism.

So you start to wonder: Will the rabbis choose a weaker demonstration in order to keep women at home, or will they rule that what they consider the dangers of a Haredi draft is justification for bringing women out to protest? In the same way that the need for manpower during World War I led to the empowerment of women, could what the Haredi community is billing as its “war” for survival in some small way empower women?

The temptation will certainly be there on the part of rabbis to involve women, albeit in separate sections at protests. If they do it on this occasion, it could mark advancement for Haredi women that would be hard to turn back after this particular “war” is won or lost.


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