By now, readers of The Sisterhood are aware that 17-year-old Israeli singer Ophir Ben-Shetreet was suspended from her religious girls’ high school for appearing on Israel’s “The Voice,” a televised talent competition. The suspension was a punishment for defying the halakhic injunction of “kol (b’)isha,” which prohibits a woman’s singing voice from being heard by men. It was also meant to serve as a warning to other students who might have been thinking of following Ophir’s example.
As might be expected, the story has been covered in the Israeli press. Among those offering their opinions on the matter is Rachel Azaria, the religiously observant Jerusalem councilwoman and leader of the Yerushalmim political party. Azaria has been profiled several times in The Sisterhood, particularly in regard to her leading efforts to fight against discrimination against women, and for a diverse and pluralistic future for Jerusalem and Israel.
After reading a popular column she wrote on Tuesday about her take on the Ben-Shetreet story, we asked her what she thinks is really behind the suspension, the rightward shift of religious public schools, and what devoutly secular rock star Aviv Geffen’s mentoring of the religious teen singer might mean for Israel’s future.
I read Renee Ghert-Zand’s post on the Sisterhood earlier this week, and then made the mistake of reading the comments under the article (51 of them as of this afternoon). I was disturbed for many reasons, but not, like everyone else, because a high school girl was suspended for singing in public
For starters, let’s clarify something: It simply can’t be that everyone hearing this story is actually upset that the school suspended Ophir Ben-Shetreet. From what I see, the real anger comes from those who view all Orthodox laws pertaining to women as automatically sexist, demeaning and backwards. But let’s get to that in a minute. First, if you believe that the school is in the wrong, take a moment to think about this situation as objectively as you can.
A private high school has the right to suspend its students for breaking the rules, whether that student disagrees with the rule or not. Of course, not every suspension is fair, but in an openly Orthodox institution that does not hide its affiliation with Orthodoxy, where parents are aware that they’re sending their children to a school that adheres by halacha, how can one argue with the school’s right to act in accordance with those very laws? It certainly seems as if the parents support the school’s decision, as Ghert-Zand states in her article: “The 12th grader has been suspended (with the agreement of her parents).” Unless the laws in Israel are wildly different, wherein a student can flout school rules and cannot be suspended — which I suspect is not the case — the school did nothing to warrant this uproar.
We like to encourage young people to develop their natural talents and follow their dreams. Just look how far the preternaturally talented 13-year-old diva Carly Rose Sonenclar got on the “The X Factor” with the support of her family and community (not to mention millions of American television viewers).
But that’s not necessarily how things work in some sectors of Israeli society. Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a 17-year-old with a voice as outstanding as Sonenclar’s (at least to my untrained ear) is a leading competitor on Israel’s version of “The Voice.” One would think that she would be rewarded for her confidence, effort and talent. Sadly, that is not the case.
Ben-Shetreet is essentially being punished for having an exceptionally beautiful voice and wanting to share it with the world. The 12th grader has been suspended (with the agreement of her parents) for two weeks from her religious girls’ high school in the seaside city of Ashdod. Her offense? Singing in public.