Hundreds of people are expected tomorrow in downtown Jerusalem to listen to female singers, including Noa, in a demonstration being called “A Song for Equality: A Demonstration of Women Singing.” On display at the event, which is being organized by an Israeli group called Be Free Israel, will be a large banner of photos of American men and women holding signs that say “Women Should be Seen and Heard.”
The banner was created by the New Israel Fund, which recently launched a campaign to counter the growing disappearance of women from public view in Israel’s capital city, where increasing Haredi influence has led to women being told to sit at the backs of public buses and advertisements that show only men — even when they are for a women’s product or service. There are also increasing efforts to bar women from singing in places where there are men in attendance even in the IDF.
More than 200 photos have been submitted to the “Women Should be Seen and Heard” campaign, said Naomi Paiss, the organization’s director of communications. Sixty of the photos were hastily assembled into the banner, and Paiss says the organization hopes to display some of the of the 6-foot-long banners in a public advertising campaign.
Every area pertaining to religion and state has been defined in recent years as a battle between secular and Haredi Jews. That has been the accepted view in Israeli society: Ultra-Orthodox and secular are the two camps, and they fight. Shabbat, kashrut, the so-called hametz and pork laws: All the battles have been portrayed in black and white, with everything seen as clear-cut.
But Israeli society is more complex than that. There are a lot more shades of gray, and many more people who define themselves in a more nuanced manner, whether they affiliate themselves with religious Zionism, are traditionally observant or formerly Orthodox, or identify with one of the other Jewish streams — Conservatism or Reform, among others. This complexity began to find expression in the last municipal elections in Jerusalem, when essentially all of the non-Haredim found themselves aligned in one camp, opposite the ultra-Orthodox. We called ourselves “pluralists.”
This past month, the main front in relations between religion and state in Israel has centered around the exclusion of women from the public domain.
True confession time. Even as I have been writing here at The Sisterhood regularly about the struggles of women in places like Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, with their issues of gender segregation and the disappearance of their images from public space, personally I have felt pretty far removed from the situation.
The town where I live, Ra’anana, feels like something of an oasis from the religious-secular tug of war that happens in other Israeli communities. We have an unusual demographic make up. Our small city has a solid non-Orthodox majority, with a substantial minority of Orthodox Jewish families, estimated at about 25 percent, nearly all “national religious,” or modern Orthodox. Haredim in Ra’anana, though they exist, are few and far between. The town is a magnet for immigrants from Western countries: South Africa, the U.S., Canada, France, England, Argentina are only the biggest sources. We have Orthodox and non-Orthodox residents from nearly every country in Europe and South America. As a result, our Orthodox population tends to be tolerant of their less observant neighbors, and the non-Orthodox population is extremely respectful of those who observe mitzvot. With many Orthodox women from abroad in jeans and uncovered hair, you can’t always tell who is who. We also have a critical mass of residents who identify as Conservative and Reform Jews, also uncommon in Israel. In short, Ra’anana is about mixed and as ‘live and let live’ as predominately Jewish cities in Israel go.
I’ve always felt that the local spirit was embodied nicely in the building where I take Pilates classes. The three-story building has storefronts on the ground floor, and the side entrance leads to the stairwell. Upstairs, there is a large Chabad center where prayer and study takes place. Downstairs, is a dance studio, where a different kind of learning happens: girls and women — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — learn ballet, jazz, hip-hop and take Pilates classes. That the men heading to study Torah at Chabad and girls in leotards and dance gear could amicably share space, to me illustrated the harmony in the community.
It was small, low-key and the participants numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. But a crowd of Israeli women took to the streets to speak out — or, more accurately, sing out — against the continuing attacks by religious extremists on women’s right to be seen and heard freely in the public square.
The November 11 action was a long time coming. Too long. As Sisterhood readers know, for months the situation has become increasingly disturbing. There has been: bus segregation, harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, streets free of females in Mea Shearim during Sukkot, soldiers walking out on ceremonies that include women singing in the IDF and women soldiers being excluded from Simchat Torah celebrations, in addition to disappearing and defaced images of women on Jerusalem billboards. None of it is new.
Astoundingly, until now, no Israeli women’s organization took the initiative to organize a public event of any kind to express the anger and frustration of Israeli women at these developments. So the 11-11-11 singing protest, created single-handedly by intrepid blogger Hila Benyovich-Hoffman, and promoted on her Facebook page, finally brought some objection to the public square was sorely overdue.
When Sandy Bar lost her head, many Jerusalem residents decided that enough was enough. The actress and model, who is featured in Israeli fashion company Honigman’s ads for its new winter line, was suddenly reduced to a hand holding a purse. The public could see Bar’s face, framed by her long dark hair and adorned with large sunglasses, in the ads posted in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. But in Jerusalem, she was represented by a disembodied appendage.
This head chopping has prompted two kinds of responses among Jerusalemites. Some have taken to social media to circulate photos showing the difference between the two ads. One has even made up a “missing” poster for Bar’s head. “Lost: Sandy Bar’s head. Last seen at the entrance to Jerusalem. Finder should call the following phone number immediately,” it says.
Activists with the Yerushalmim civic non-profit organization, who have been tracking the disappearance of women’s images from Jerusalem’s public spaces for the past several months are taking a different tack. As part of its “Uncensored” campaign, they are inviting women to be photographed for posters that Yerushalmim members have begun hanging from balconies in the center of the city.
Am I the only woman who hates those Victoria’s Secret “The Nakeds” commercials, which feature tanned, lithe young women with tiny bits of underwear covering their own tiny bits, as they writhe in apparent ecstasy?
I doubt it.
Now I’m joining the many American women who are angry that ABC and Fox have restricted this Lane Bryant lingerie commercial for their “Cacique” brand of lingerie.
The television networks’ purported reason? That the commercial is too revealing and “shows too much cleavage,” according to the plus-size retailer. On its Web site, Lane Bryant writes:
Sex sells. This marketing approach has become so commonplace that it is not only used to sell cars, beer, and football, but also to sell seemingly innocuous items like yogurt, laundry detergent, toothpaste, potato chips and lawn mowers. It is even used to target female consumers, for products such as facial cleanser, diet soda, perfume, tampons, and salads at McDonald’s. The marketplace has become so immersed in sexed-up images of women that, apparently, many people do not even realize anymore how hurtful these ads can be to the female gender.
To remind people that using women as sex objects in order to sell products is hurtful and distorted, WIZO has launched a campaign for the second year in a row to highlight “Israel’s Most Sexist Commercials of the Year.” No, not “sexiest” but most “sexist.” Their criteria for “sexist” is frighteningly simple. Sexist ads are ones that chop up women’s bodies into parts or depict women’s bodies without the faces, that depict women’s bodies as edible replacements for food or meat, that offer women’s bodies as objects for sale or consumption, that reinforce stereotypes and stigmas about women, that infantilize women or portray women as stupid, that promote women as sexual servants, that encourage violence or sexual violence against women, and that legitimize rape.
There are only two people whose gargantuan faces greet drivers along Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway. One is the larger-than-life-even-in-death Lubavicher Rebbe. The other is Bar Refaeli, possibly the most recognized Israeli face (and body) among American adult males.
Both billboards – and the glaring absence of any others – are indicative of the frightening and growing imposition of radical ultra-Orthodoxy on public life in Israel and the pressures women face.
Last year, after Israel’s Transportation Ministry declared that the billboards swamping the Ayalon were dangerous for drivers, massive white sheets were draped covering all of the advertisements but one. Chabad mysteriously got itself excused, and only the Rebbe remained, alone but seemingly content in his role staring down at motorists.
Fast forward to last week, when the Fox clothing chain successfully challenged the Rebbe’s monopoly on the Ayalon and received permission to hang its own advertisement. Out came a ten-meter high picture of Bar Refaeli in a provocative pose with a lesser known bloke, who is currently the envy of throngs of gawking Israeli male drivers.
That’s when some vocal members of the ultra-Orthodox community got angry.