It looked, at first, like another chapter in Israel’s gender segregation wars.
On Monday, an Open Zion/Daily Beast headline screamed that Ben Gurion University of the Negev had prohibited women from lighting the Hanukkah menorah. If a university rabbi had his way, that would have been true.
Even the president of the university, Rivka Carmi, hadn’t realized she was being excluded when she had not, in years past, been invited to say the blessing over the Hanukkah lights, according to former Sisterhood writer Allison Kaplan Sommer’s report in Haaretz.
Late last week a group of female students approached Carmi protesting that women were not allowed to recite the blessing at the Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony at the student center. Carmi agreed that it is unacceptable, and told them that she would have a man and woman jointly light and bless the candles this year, and next year have the genders take turns on alternate nights.
Dr. Hanna Kehat’s mother did not ride her local bus for three years. The 78-year-old lifelong resident of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim lost her bus because Haredi extremists would stone the bus every time it rode down her street. So Egged simply stopped the route, forcing her and many of her car-less neighbors to walk distances to find a different bus.
“Women in her community are being completely neglected – they are at the mercy of the sikrikim,” Kehat told The Sisterhood, referring to one of Israel’s the most extreme ultra-Orthodox sects.
Today, however, the bus has returned to its route, thanks to one change: Police intervention.
The question about what role the government plays in protecting Israeli citizens from Haredi violence came to the fore last week, when the Interministerial Committee to Prevent the Exclusion of Women, headed by Minister of Sport and Culture Limor Livnat, released its findings. Among the most controversial conclusions of its three-month long investigation is the committee’s recommendation to support a 2011 High Court ruling that deems gender segregation on public transport a matter of “choice.”
Israeli fashion magazine BelleMode is publishing a provocative spread in its February issue, featuring sexy young women wearing see-through clothes on what appears to be a gender-segregated bus in Israel.
Blogger Kung Fu Jew, better known to his friends as Ben Murane, wrote about it on Jewschool, and it was picked up by Gawker, which titled it “Sexy Israeli Photo Shoot Mocks Ultra-Orthodox Women Haters.”
The Jewschool post has a link to a Russian-language website that has a bunch of photos from the shoot, and a Hebrew-language “behind-the-scenes” video.
Just because I wear pants, it doesn’t mean I lack dignity. Or self-respect. Or even modesty.
Which is why I find pieces, like this one, suggesting that dignity for a woman means excessive body-cover, so offensive.
When rabbis or anyone else claim that women need to cover their skin, their elbows, ankles and necks for the sake of “dignity” or “self-respect” or “protecting sexuality,” what that means is that people who dress like me are not dignified. We are overly sexualized. We might as well be walking naked on the subway platform. But It is just not true.
My body is mine alone, and I project that in my clothes. Not floor-sweeping skirts, not scarves to my forehead or necklines that choke. No, I wear pants, sometimes jeans, sometimes shorts and, yes, sometimes even sleeveless tops. I wear clothes that are comfortable, that feel good, that let me move and sit on the floor or in a chair, that enable me to ride a bike or climb a tree if I so choose, that let me wear my hair in a ponytail or in a scrunchie or even just down. Ultimately my hair is mine alone, as are my elbows, my neck, my ankles and skin. Before I look in a mirror, I look inward and ask myself how I feel about my body at this moment, and I let my inner voice of self-respect guide me.
In addition Gavriella Lerner’s assertion of choice followed by an admission that she does what she believes is expected of her according to halacha is a classic Orthodox non-sequitur. As in, I choose to do what I’m told.
Loyal readers of The Sisterhood know well about the battle over women’s exclusion that is pulling Israeli society apart at its seams. But the problem extends beyond Israel, as our editor, Jane Eisner, wrote in her recent editorial, “Where Are the Women?” Here in the American Jewish community, the issue isn’t just about pay and promotion, Eisner explains. “Too many public discussions, events and programs hosted by the Jewish community have few or no women participating,” she writes.
In an effort to upend the status quo, she enlists Forward readers, writing:
To more fully address this issue, the Forward is reaching out to you, our readers, to send examples of the absence of women in your own communities to firstname.lastname@example.org, which we will publish for further debate. And we will hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable, too.
Eisner discusses the effort in the most recent episode of “The Salon,” The Jewish Channel show she hosts with Change the Ratio founder Rachel Sklar. Panelists, this month, are The Israel Project’s Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, The National Council of Jewish Women’s Nancy Kaufman, and New York Times Magazine columnist Gaby Dunn.
Watch a video clip below:
There’s been a lot of talk lately about tsnius, or modesty, lately — with all of the news coming out of Israel. I recently came across this cartoon, showing a woman in a bikini and a woman in a burqa, each judging harshly how the other is dressed. The cartoon got me thinking how both sides pictured get it wrong.
As someone who covers her hair, and dresses modestly in the name of tsnuis, and who finds doing so to be empowering, I object to the perception that I am subject to male domination because I cover up. I also reject the notion that modesty is about keeping myself silent and making myself invisible, lest I somehow lead men astray.
While there is most certainly a sexual component — which is why you wont see me walking around in a bikini, and why I deplore advertisements depicting scantily clad women — it’s not all about sex. Yes, the sex drive is powerful, which is why Jewish laws and customs dictate that a man and woman who are not related cannot be alone together or have physical contact, and they set forth basic parameters of modest dress.
But the rest is about dignity.
William Kolbrener has a compelling new essay in the Forward about the culture of silence between men and women in his Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood. In it, he notes the deep disrespect for women and girls to which it leads, as illustrated by the arrogant way a man clucks his tongue at Kolbrener’s daughter and her friend as he waves them to the back of the bus. It is also glaringly clear in the abuse hurled by multiple men at young girls in Beit Shemesh, including Na’ama Margolese, as they have endeavored to do nothing more than walk to school.
But there is another point missing from all of the discussion of the new vigilance on modesty and the backlash against it. The extreme focus on distancing from women turns them into sexual objects. There is something perverse about the obsession with female dress of these “guardians of modest,” and I don’t mean perverse just in the sociological sense. These men are so focused on sublimating their own sexual impulses that they see women only as sexual objects, whose images and very personhood must be contained to the point of invisibility.
And it is internalized all too quickly by too many religious women.
Who can blame the women of Beit Shemesh for wanting to cut loose? Times have been tough: They’ve been in crisis mode since the opening of school and ultra-Orthodox extremists began harassing the girls at the Orot Banot school. Not to mention the ongoing issues of increased gender segregation on buses, separate sidewalks in parts of town and harassment in the streets of Haredi areas if their dress is deemed insufficiently modest.
And ever since the story of the harassment of school girl Na’ama Margolese hit Israeli television, they’ve also had to cope with the glare of the media spotlight on their community.
So with the goal of generating positive energy and showing the world that they are unbowed in the face of religious extremism, a group of Beit Shemesh women, primarily from the Modern Orthodox community, began a campaign on Facebook to create a female “flash mob” in their community. On the morning January 6, 250 women came together in the center of town to dance joyously in unison to the triumphant upbeat lyrics of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.
In Jerusalem and Ramat Gan Sunday, women and men boarded buses to protest gender segregation on public transportation, and the exclusion of women from public spaces throughout Israel.
Settler “It Girl” and Israel Hayom columnist Emily Amrusi appeared on Israeli TV playing down the exclusion of women, saying that it is merely “separation” between men and women, and that the secular media has no right to tell religious women how to live.
Satirist Itamar Rose released a video showing how easily some Israeli women agreed to be hidden from view while singing Hanukkah songs for a (fake) filmed greeting to soldiers.
Last night, Israel’s first mass demonstration in protest of the increasing waves of Haredi violence against women took place in Beit Shemesh. It was a remarkable event, in its strength and diversity. There were speakers representing a range of organizations, Knesset members from five different political parties — including three women, two of whom are heads of their respective parties — and citizens religious and secular who have become symbols of the struggle against the removal of women from the public sphere. Yet, while history was being made, the event also raised some difficult questions, such as who the demonstrators are, what are they protesting, and to whom are they addressing their demands?
Part of the demonstration was undoubtedly local. Throughout the event, there were ongoing calls from the crowd for the Haredi Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul to resign. “You destroyed this city,” protesters called out during a speech he made about his intentions to put violent citizens behind bars. Several speakers and many signs referred to the current plans to build 30,000 new housing units exclusively for Haredim. There is no obvious gender issue in the housing plans, and the fact that this was a theme of the event suggests that many people came to protest the seeming Haredi take-over of the city, and blamed local and national politicians for that.
Another major theme of the event was a protest of religious extremism in Israel generally.
Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat was doing well for a while in her efforts to combat gender segregation. But then she, like others before her, fell into an all-too familiar trap: religious politics.
Livnat, a leading Israeli legislator recently decided to take a vocal lead protesting gender segregation in the public sphere. It was an exciting development when, during a weekly cabinet meeting mid-December, she proposed a series of governmental actions to fight such segregation. Her proposals included setting up an inter-ministerial committee to enforce equality, having the Civil Service Authority publish clear guidelines for several bureaucratic bodies, and opening up special government hotlines to field complaints about coerced gender segregation on buses and elsewhere.
Israel has a new and unlikely national heroine. She is a small, blond, bespectacled Orthodox 8-year-old girl, the daughter of American immigrants who live in Beit Shemesh. Her name is Na’ama Margolese and she was featured in a news broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 about the ongoing Haredi harassment of the girls who attend the Orot Banot School, and about the problem of extreme Haredi control in Beit Shemesh in general.
Naama spoke on camera of her fears while walking the short distance from her home to her school, after numerous occasions when she was cursed at and even once spit on by the Haredi demonstrators. Israeli viewers watched as her mother, Hadassah, holding her hand, tried to convince her to make the short walk as she cried, whined and protested; it’s a ritual they go through every school day.
To the residents of Beit Shemesh (and to readers of The Sisterhood) the story of Beit Shemesh and the intimidation of Orot Banot girls is nothing new.
Crossposted from Haaretz
On a sunny afternoon early this week, an ultra-Orthodox woman boarded a bus in the enclave of the Gur Hasidic community in Ashdod and took a seat in the second row. The bus, Egged line 451, was headed for Jerusalem. It quickly became clear that this simple, everyday act — choosing a seat to her liking — was enough to transform her presence on the bus into a palpable challenge to the rest of the passengers. I sat down across from the woman, fearing the worst.
Not only did the woman, whose name is Yocheved Horowitz, blatantly ignore the tacit agreement among the bus’ riders to adhere to the most stringent religious practices — in this case, an unwritten rule that men sit in the front and women in the back. And not only did she not conform to the seating arrangements dictated by men — that is, those in authority. This was also a woman who, judging by her appearance, seemed to come from within the community.
A young girl who boarded the bus at one of the stops in the Zayyin quarter, where the Gur compound is situated, apparently couldn’t have imagined that an ultra-Orthodox woman would relate dismissively to the highest social stricture of segregation by sex. Even as she saw Horowitz heading for the second row, she whispered to her, as if trying to save her before it was too late, “Mehadrin, mehadrin” — a term usually employed in connection with food, but which in this case referred to the adherence on the bus to the strictest religious principles; the girl also gestured to her to sit in the back.
Achinoam Nini, the recording artist better known as Noa,” was among the performers who took the stage recently at Jerusalem’s “Singing for Equality.” The gathering protested the increasing gender segregation in Israel, and the exclusion of women’s images and voices from public spaces. It was organized in all of five days, but was filled with 500 people and a stage set with colorful and elaborate posters declaring, “Good morning Israel, the time has come to wake up and get back the Israel we lost.”
Following her performance, Nini spoke with The Sisterhood:
Why I’m here: [E]verything that I’ve learned about Judaism, learning in yeshiva in the States — first in SAR Academy and then in Ramaz, where I had wonderful experiences — everything that I know to be important to Judaism is being destroyed by some radicals. They’ve interpreted the Judaism that I know and love in a way that I feel is erroneous and unintelligent, and I’m here to fight against that.
What I sang onstage: I sang three songs, one of which, “Mishaela,” is one of my older songs about a girl who looks at a desert and sees water flowing and trees growing. But actually all of this is only happening in her mind — in the eyes of her soul. I chose it because it describes the transformative powers of the human spirit, and I think only through these inner powers that we have to change our situation will we be able to actually change it.
Things were starting to look up earlier this week when both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres spoke out against the exclusion of women. It was also announced that the Knesset task force was meeting to discuss sanctions against businesses that discriminate against women.
…But then only one government minister, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, bothered to show up at the meeting.
At the meeting, the IDF’s human resources chief Major-General Orna Barbivai told attending Knesset members that “halachic considerations cannot override the considerations of army commanders,” in reference to recent demands to excuse religious male soldiers from military ceremonies in which women would be singing.
On the “modesty” front, 20 shops and businesses in Sderot, including some national chain stores, have signed a modesty agreement. Businesses making sure that their employees dress according to religious modesty standards get a “kashrut” certificate from the Torah-oriented Mimaamakim organization.
One would like to think that there are red lines of offensive bad taste that one doesn’t cross, even in a heated ideological argument, and especially when such an argument is taking place between Jews. But the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman has chosen to cross such a line, by publishing a stomach-turning argument in a piece defending the practice of gender segregation.
According to the website News1, the opinion piece, written by an editor at the paper named Yisrael Wurtzel, was attacking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the trend of gender segregation in Israel as a threat to democracy. In his list of arguments supporting the practice, he offered the following bizarre and sickening example:
Mrs. Clinton, let me remind you … during the time of the Holocaust, the Germans … kept the Jews in sex-segregated cell blocks in the death camps. Even these human beasts saw gender segregation as a natural practice. Men were sent to all-male sections and women to women’s sections.
When the Israel’s High Court ruled back in January that forcibly segregating men and women on so-called ‘mehadrin’ public buses was illegal, but that segregation could take place on a ‘voluntary’ basis, I was worried by what seemed to be to be a wishy-washy decision. At the time, I wrote:
One can’t help but worry about the reactions that women will encounter when they exercise their legal right to choose to ride in the front of such buses. It is hard to believe that the verbal and physical violence that has resulted from such situations in the past will miraculously evaporate as a result of a court ruling.
What I saw as the main bright spot of the ruling was Judge Elyakim Rubenstein’s clear-cut declaration that “a public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women. They must sit wherever they like.”
In the year that has passed since the decision, my fears have been realized.
Hillary Clinton has made some important people in Israel angry. But she has made a whole bunch of other people, especially women, really happy. I, for one, am grateful to Clinton.
I’m referring, of course, to her now viral comments that she is “worried” about Israel democracy, and about the status of women. Both issues should give all of us pause, and she gets a special kudos for linking the two issues, something no public figure had effectively done until now.
Clinton’s democracy concern stems from a series of troubling legislation that has recently been discussed and in some cases passed in the Knesset, led by several key Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parliamentarians. The bills that have been tabled over the past few months include: the Defamation Bill that, as the Forward explains here, would make life difficult for journalists reporting on activities of Knesset members; the Supreme Court Justice Appointment Bill, which gives Knesset Members increased powers in the process of appointing Supreme Court justices; the NGO Bill, which prohibits “foreign governmental bodies” from donating to “political” NGOs in Israel — followed by the tax bill that also proposes enormous taxes on foreign donations, and the Basic Law — The Judiciary, which aims to restrain NGOs from bringing lawsuits to the High Court of Justice.
The Salon celebrates its 15th episode this month, with panelists discussing New York City’s gender-segregated buses; the prospect that the ‘next Steve Jobs’ will be a woman, and Beverly Siegel’s documentary about the plight of Orthodox women ‘chained’ to unwanted marriages. Siegel, technology writer Joanna Stern, and communications strategist Jo-Ann Mort join the hosts, Forward Editor Jane Eisner and Mediaite.com’s Editor-at-Large Rachel Sklar:
Here’s a preview:
The troubling phenomenon of excluding women from cemeteries in Israel appears to be getting worse. Last week, Tal Yehezkeli of the IDF radio station Galei Tzahal broke the story of Rosie Davidian, who was not allowed to deliver a eulogy at her father’s funeral. Yehezkeli then reportedly received dozens of calls and emails from women around the country who have had similar experiences. In Jerusalem, women have been prevented from delivering eulogies. In Yerucham, Yavneh, and Elyachin, women were not allowed to accompany the deceased to the burial. In Petach Tivka, Nahariya and Tiberias, the crowd was forced into gender segregation despite the protestations of the families. All of these incidents are against the law, specifically the High Court (Bagatz) 2007 ruling that prohibits the exclusion of women from any aspect of funerals and burials. No less than eight cities are breaking the law, according to Yehezkeli, and women are furious.
Susan Ayad, one of the women who shared her story with Galei Tzahal, said that she was at a funeral in Netanya for her best friend’s husband in which there was enforced gender segregation despite the family’s wishes. She is suing the Hevra Kadisha in Netanya, aided by the Progressive Judaism Movement’s legal aid services (IRAC). According to IRAC: