Are the days numbered for second-class citizenship for women in Israel?
Following two announcements in two days, it seems the exclusion of women from Israel’s public sphere may finally be nearing an end. The Attorney General Wednesday recommended criminalizing behavior that stops women from receiving “public services with equal conditions.” And today, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that she is starting work on the legislation.
Israeli politicians should write Haredim who demand segregated buses a letter of thanks. They have provided them with the ultimate fits-every-occasion always-grabs-a-headline cause for whenever they need a bit of love from liberals or for when news is quiet. Women’s exclusion was never a popular story until it became about the ever catchy “back of the bus” and there is a seemingly endless supply of political points for anyone who condemns them.
But in the past we have seen the issue of gender exclusion disappear from the headlines as suddenly as they appeared. At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 gender segregation and women’s exclusion topped Israel’s national agenda. “They will be huge issues in the next general election,” went the common prediction. Yet soon after the international community finished its New Year vacation and news picked up again, it became yesterday’s story.
Now, once again, the “back of the bus” story has been wheeled out. The changes being promised are important and welcome. The subject is better for the government than having people talking about Syria or Prisoner X.
But will it survive the next big new story or will it just fade away? Only time will tell.
The rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz isn’t opposed to the plan for an egalitarian prayer section there, he announced in a statement emailed to reporters yesterday. But it’s already clear that he doesn’t speak for the Haredi mainstream.
Rabinowitz is Haredi, but softer on religious issues than most Haredi leaders. This is partly because he’s a state employee and realizes that there are limits to his autonomy, and partly because his family background is more moderate than many — for example he served in the army.
“The Kotel isn’t ours to give away,” rages the editorial of the Jerusalem-based Hasidic-establishment newspaper Hamodia today, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall. “The place of the Temple was chosen by God and the Shechinah [divine presence] has never departed from the Kotel.”
Hamodia went on to argue that the Women of the Wall fight is a proxy battle by American Reform which is trying to compensate for its failure to make inroads in to the Israeli religious scene. “The Reform Movement in the United States is using the Women of the Wall to bully the government in to giving it recognition that the people have withheld,” it claimed.
Hamodia argues that while much of the world sees the fight of Women of the Wall as a human rights issue “nothing could be further from the truth.” It insists that Women of the Wall are actually infringing the rights of other female worshippers at the Wall with their controversial monthly prayer meetings there, such as today’s gathering which resulted in two female worshippers being detained by police..
“Indeed, if anyone’s rights are being trampled, it is those of the regulars at the Kotel, the women who come — every day not just Rosh Chodesh [the start of the month] — to daven [pray], not to create provocation. These women are denied a place of quiet, holiness and dignity, where they have been coming for decades to pour out their hearts, by a group of lawbreakers that seeks to advance a political agenda.”
Hamodia portrays the Reform movement as hypocritical, writing: “How ironic that the same Reform movement that hails Israel’s Supreme Court when it rules that the Tal Law on drafting yeshivah students is unconstitutional, or that Haredi schools must teach the core curriculum, has no trouble ignoring what it when it bars the Women of the Wall from holding services at the Kotel.”
Jews are image conscious. A quick Google search of “embarrassed to be Jewish” will turn up two main hits—Jews ashamed of the state of Israel, and Jews ashamed of the behavior of certain “Hareidim” — tremblers, the Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox — in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. I should amend that statement: this Google search will turn up results for Jews with access to the media who have image consciousness about these two issues. As we all know, these are not the only kind of Jews. But let me first address these.
Jews on the left, politically and religiously, are often embarrassed by Israel’s behavior, especially when it fails to conform to a secular path. In 2011, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, enumerated the Gaza flotilla debacle, the chief Rabbanite, and its crackdown on non-governmental organizations as examples of “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment.”
Left-leaning Jews imagine that the outside world lumps them together with the values they see portrayed by the occupation, or perhaps by Israeli police brutality. Under the imagined gaze of the secular and gentile world, these Jews imagine that their own image will be tarnished by osmosis, by a proximity of blood, however diluted, to their Israeli brethren, especially those wielding guns or sitting in the Knesset. The burden of the imagined gaze of non-Jews rests heavily upon them.
But image-consciousness is not the sole property of Jews on the left. It is part of the tradition, any rabbi will tell you. Already in the Talmud, the term chillul hashem — profaning God’s name — begins to refer less to a verbal utterance and more to a public display, for example, “If I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once, Rav said” (Yoma, 86a).
The Jewish Press set off a firestorm last week when it published An Open Letter to Sarah Silverman by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. The Orthodox author criticized the comedian’s politics, vulgar presentation style, and the fact that she remains childless. As a linguist, what I found most interesting about this article was the language. By looking closely at the Hebrew and Yiddish words used by the author and commenters, we can learn a lot about Orthodox Jews in America.
In my research, I have found that Orthodox Jews use many Hebrew and Yiddish words when speaking to other Orthodox Jews, but they avoid or translate those words in their speech to outsiders. In the letter to Sarah Silverman, Rosenblatt uses only one, a word most Americans know: kosher. He talks about God, not Hashem, and Orthodox rather than frum.
Many articles in the Jewish Press use more distinctive language. For example, Mordechai Bienstock writes: “We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs [souls] Hashem [God] has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut [serving God through the physical world].”
Even Rosenblatt uses Hebrew and Yiddish words in his other articles in the Jewish Press, for example, in an article about internet filters: “Our frum [religious] community”, “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying God’s name), and “Halacha Chabura” (study group about Jewish law).
The monochromatic ocean of Haredim at the funeral of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv last month concealed a deeper undercurrent of dissent. Elyashiv, the acknowledged leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community, had roped together two competing factions among a group usually seen as monolithic. There are the conservatives, led by Shmuel Auerbach of Jerusalem, as well as a more liberal faction led by Aharon Leib Shteinman of Bnei Brak, with the support of Elyashiv’s son in law, Chaim Kanievsky.
Now, the animosity and infighting between the two groups has spilled into the public sphere with anonymous pamphlets now being published and a level of hostility not often seen in the Haredi world. While the past few days have seen attempts by both sides to walk back the animosity and impose some kind of truce, the very open rift exposed in the pamphlets could prove difficult to paper over.
In the months before Elyashiv’s death, control of the main Lithuanian Haredi newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, was wrested from the Auerbach faction by a group loyal to Shteinman. As Elyashiv slipped in and out of consciousness, his son in law, Kanievsky, threw his support behind Shteinman’s takeover. At first glance, Shteinman may seem like an unlikely moderate. He was put on the Council of Torah Sages of the separatist Degel party by its founder, Elazar Menachem Shach. But in the Haredi world of today, Shteinman represents a slightly more moderate approach.
The pashkevil, or anonymous pamphlet, republished on the Haredi blog hirsheltzig.com, begins by assuring us that it doesn’t mean to impugn Shteinman’s “Torah, fear of heaven, or that his actions are all for the sake of heaven,” before going on to impugn just that.
Today was supposed to be the start of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his “historic change” for Israel. But in reality, everything stayed the same.
At midnight, the law that exempted Haredi men from national service expired. Which means that over the coming weeks, legally speaking at least, Haredi 18-year-olds are liable to be drafted just like all other Jewish 18-year-olds.
Not only that, but all Haredi men who deferred service in previous years and who are still reliant on the Tal Law for their exemption — some 54,000 — are also liable for the draft.
This situation has arisen because government attempts to institute a new law have failed due to disagreements on its details inside the government. The process seemed to be going well a few weeks ago, after Kadima, the largest Knesset party, joined the coalition promising to find a creative solution with the ruling Likud party. But it then objected to Likud’s plans and walked out of the ruling coalition on July 17, just 70 days after agreeing to join, and with another coalition party, Yisrael Beiteinu, also sparring with Likud on the subject, the legislative process hit a dead end.
The government’s hope was that a new law in place by today would outline a plan for a gradual Haredi draft, with certain concessions to make it palatable to Haredim like an older draft age and exemptions for some talented yeshiva students. When it comes to the Haredi draft “we must enact it gradually and in a way that does not lead to a rift in the nation,” Netanyahu said.
The ongoing protests against the exclusion of women from the public sphere by some Haredim, and counter-protests by Haredi activists who say they are maligned by critics, have everyone in Israel talking. The subject was quite provocative enough.
And then came the Holocaust reference to make it even more so. On New Year’s Eve night, 1,500 Haredim protested in Jerusalem against what they termed “incitement” of secular Israelis against them. Some of them also donned mock outfits from Nazi death camps and yellow stars.
The Jerusalem Post publishes a picture of some protestors kitted out in stars.
It quotes one of the protesters saying: “What’s happening is exactly like what happened in Germany.” He elaborated: “It started with incitement and continued to different types of oppression. Is it insulting that we wear these stars? Absolutely, and it hurts people to see this, but this is how we feel at the moment, we feel we are being prevented from observing the Torah in the manner in which we wish.”
The Republican upset victory in the Brooklyn-Queens special election to replace ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner is obviously bad news for Democrats. But it has more far-reaching ramifications, most of them bad, according to this take by Haaretz’s new New York bureau chief, former CNN commentator and onetime Forward Jerusalem correspondent Chemi Shalev.
Shalev thinks there are plenty of reasons for Democrat David Weprin’s loss, including anger at Obama over the miserable economy and especially the influence of social issues among the district’s many conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews. But Republicans are certain to package it big time the way former mayor Ed Koch pitched it, as a “message” to President Obama about his policies toward Israel. (Here’s what the Republican Jewish Coalition is saying the morning after.) And that could cause a heap of very real collateral trouble, Shalev says.
For one thing, there’s going to be a negative impact on Jews and pro-Israel advocacy within the larger American body politic.
Emboldened by their astonishing achievement in a district held by the rival Democrats throughout the past 88 years, the Republicans are bound to try and exploit their newly-found “wedge issue” in order to pry the proverbial “Jewish vote” away from its historic Democratic tilt. In the process, many Jewish leaders fear, the Republicans may irreparably erode the bedrock of bipartisanship that has characterized U.S. support for Israel for many decades. And by appealing to the Jews to “vote Israel” at the expense of all other considerations, they maintain, the Republicans may also be lending credence, albeit inadvertently, to the age-old canard of “dual loyalty” leveled at American Jews by their detractors.
Beyond that, it’s likely to increase tensions in the Middle East. Here’s where Shalev, for years one of Israel’s most respected diplomatic writers, gets most subtle and alarming:
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