By Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, New York Times, January 14, 2012
At a time when there is no progress on the Palestinian dispute, Israelis are turning inward and discovering that an issue they had neglected — the place of the ultra-Orthodox Jews — has erupted into a crisis.
And it is centered on women.
“Just as secular nationalism and socialism posed challenges to the religious establishment a century ago, today the issue is feminism,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. “This is an immense ideological and moral challenge that touches at the core of life, and just as it is affecting the Islamic world, it is the main issue that the rabbis are losing sleep over.”
The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.
Public discourse in Israel is suddenly dominated by a new, high-toned Hebrew phrase, “hadarat nashim,” or the exclusion of women. The term is everywhere in recent weeks, rather like the way the phrase “male chauvinism” emerged decades ago in the United States.
All of this seems anomalous to most people in a country where five young women just graduated from the air force’s prestigious pilots course and a woman presides over the Supreme Court.
But each side in this dispute is waging a vigorous public campaign.
The New Israel Fund, which advocates for equality and democracy, organized singalongs and concerts featuring women in Jerusalem and put up posters of women’s faces under the slogan, “Women should be seen and heard.” The Israel Medical Association asserted last week that its members should boycott events that exclude women from speaking on stages.
Religious authorities said liberal groups were waging a war of hatred against a pious sector that wanted only to be left in peace.
That sector, the black-clad ultra-Orthodox, is known in Israel as Haredim, meaning those who tremble before God. It comprises many groups with distinct approaches to liturgy as well as to coat length, hat style, beard and side locks and different hair coverings for women. Among them are the Hasidim of European origin as well as those from Middle Eastern countries who are represented by the political party Shas.
As a group, the ultra-Orthodox are, at best, ambivalent about the Israeli state, which they consider insufficiently religious and premature in its founding because the Messiah has not yet arrived. Over the decades the Haredim angrily demonstrated against state practices like allowing buses to run on the Sabbath, and most believed the state would not survive.
The feeling was mutual. The original Haredi communities in Europe were decimated in the Holocaust, and when Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, offered subsidies and army exemptions to the few in Israel then, he thought he was providing the group with a dignified funeral.
“Most Israelis at the time assumed the Haredim would die off in one generation,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, a Haredi writer.
Instead, they have multiplied, joined government coalitions and won subsidies and exemptions for children, housing and Torah study. They now number a million, a mostly poor community in an otherwise fairly well-off country of 7.8 million.
This piece was forwarded by a reader.
Dr. Daniel Gordis is President of the Shalem Foundation, and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He is a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, in print and on-line. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, the first rabbinical college on the West Coast of the United States. Dr. Gordis joined Shalem in 2007 to help found Israel’s first liberal arts college, after spending nine years as vice president of the Mandel Foundation in Israel and director of its Leadership Institute.
Gordis is widely cited on matters pertaining to Israel. Professor Alan Dershowitz has called him “one of Israel’s most thoughtful observers,” while Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic has written, “If you asked me, ‘of all the people you know, who cares the most about the physical, moral and spiritual health of Israel?’ I would put the commentator and scholar Daniel Gordis at the top of the list.” Leonard Fein has written that Gordis is “perhaps the single most popular speaker on Israel to American Jewish audiences.”
Kamal Subhi, formerly on the faculty of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University, recently joined other clerics in warning that if the Saudi ban on women driving is lifted, mixing of genders will increase and that, in turn, will encourage premarital relations. If women are allowed to drive, he said, in 10 years’ time the kingdom will have no virgins left. “The virgin dearth,” I guess we could call it. In Europe – and I’m not making this up – a Muslim cleric ruled that women should not touch or be proximate to bananas and cucumbers, in order to avoid “sexual thoughts.” Their fathers or husbands should chop them before they eat them, he suggested. Ouch.
It’s tempting to laugh, of course, to point to the absurdity that can result when a religious tradition develops thoroughly unfettered by any contact with or influence from the outside world, guided by clerics with the narrowest intellectual training imaginable. But before we point with derision to Saudi Arabia and some dark corners of Europe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look around and remind ourselves of what’s unfolding right here at home.
Israel, our perky start-up nation, now has another credit of which to boast. We have our very own Rosa Parks. Her name is Tania Rosenblit; she’s the young woman who refused to move to the back of the bus when instructed to do so by haredi passengers on a bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem. It’s almost 2012 – practically 99 years since Rosa Parks was born. But parts of the Jewish state are still struggling to enter the 20th century, which, of course, ended over a decade ago.
Thankfully, and none too soon, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, rushed to condemn the segregation of men and women on public buses. “We [the ultra-Orthodox] don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others,” he asserted. “This state does not belong to the haredi community.”
Ah, so there’s the problem. The issue is not that it’s wrong to relegate women to the back of the bus (why don’t the men go to the back of the bus and let the women sit up front if they’re so worried?) or that the segregation of men and women on buses is absurd (does insurmountable temptation really lurk at every stop?) but simply because the haredim don’t (yet?) have the political power they need to enforce this. Metzger’s concern was only tactical – the haredim were over-reaching. Not a word about the shamefulness of a society in which men and women cannot respectfully and properly occupy the same public space or how similar to Saudi Arabia we seem intent on becoming. Will there be a separate section on the bus for women carrying uncut fruit?
Buses are far from the full extent of it, of course. Now we learn that the Karmiel Employment Bureau has assigned different days for men and women seeking unemployment compensation. But lest we worry that this is fundamentalism-creep, rest assured, it’s only an administrative nicety. It is “more convenient” for men and women to use the office’s services on different days, the office explained to Ynet. “It prevents stress and chaos in the waiting room and is more aesthetic.” Aesthetic? How’s that, exactly?
And let’s not forget the still-simmering controversy over women singing at army ceremonies. Since halachic rulings are apparently immutable, Israel’s noble political leaders are resorting to – what else? – technology. That, after all, is where we Israelis shine. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has a brilliant solution: he simply puts his fingers in his ears when women sing at army events. (I would pay for a photograph of that.)
Not to be outdone, and perhaps in order not to offend those singing young women (who are actually in the army serving their country – yes, some people still do that, apparently) who might find the sight of the state’s chief rabbi with his fingers stuck in his ears somewhat disconcerting or even offensive, Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev has a much better idea: religious men should simply use earplugs when women sing. Brilliant. One only hopes that they remember to remove them before heading into battle. I’m told that being able to hear your commander can increase effectiveness in combat. Unless you had no intention of obeying his orders in the first place, I guess.
And we have, infinitely worse, the burning of mosques, vicious and violent attacks on Israeli soldiers by radicalized settlers and an emerging national debate as to whether (or when) the army is going to have to start shooting them. And our government? It’s tiptoeing around, doing nothing and saying little, its only genuine concern that the coalition not be weakened.
AH, THE joys of Jewish sovereignty, the nobility of Jewish independence. A.D. Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion may have all disagreed in life, but now they have one thing in common – they are undoubtedly turning in their graves. That, by the way, was the real absurdity of those much-discussed ads begging Israelis abroad to come home. Those pot-shots at Jewish life in America (gratuitous and simplistic, a bit offensive and not entirely wrong) utterly missed the point – maybe those Israelis live in America because what’s unfolding in Israel is so thoroughly unappealing to them. Maybe they’ve noticed that back “home” in Israel the pockets of outrage against all of this violence and medievalism are tiny, virtually muted.
It’s Hanukka, our collective reminder that in an era of darkness, Jews struggle to create more light. Do those of us unafraid of cucumbers or mixed buses, those of us who believe that women serving their country ought to be able to sing, those of us who are ashamed of a country that takes only the feeblest action against Jews who do to mosques what anti- Semites did to our synagogues not that long ago, possess the courage of which this holiday is a reminder? Will we, like the Maccabees, take our country back before it’s too late?
It’s hard to know. So far, it seems we are so desperately afraid of our external enemies that we’ll support at all costs a government that just watches as the country rots from within.
At moments like this, it’s hard not to think about the Altalena affair. Tragic though it was, it was the defining moment at which Ben-Gurion made it clear to all that there would be one central authority in the Jewish state. Those who sought to subvert it would be treated in accordance with what they were – threats to the state’s very existence. One prays that some progress can be made here without the use of force. But if it cannot, it’s worth remembering that we once had a prime minister who knew what had to be done.
But then, of course, it’s been a very long time since we’ve had a leader with that character, that confidence, those deeply held commitments. These days, with Hanukka reminding us of the enormous power of convictions, it would be nice to have some leadership with any principles at all.