Women and the Public Square

I  have a couple of posts cooking about some of the usual subjects, but felt that could no longer stay silent on an issue that is currently the hot topic in Israeli media and on the street – what’s being referred to as the exclusion of women from the public sphere – הדרת נשים מהמרחב הציבורי.

(For those of you blissfully unaware of this controversy, you can get an idea of what’s been going on by looking here, here and here).

Though I am listening to news and radio interviews about the subject whenever possible, the topic makes me uneasy and uncomfortable. Probably because once again, the issues are near and dear to my heart: Torah, civil and democratic values, and the place of women in society.

In the summer of 2008 we took ourselves off on a family excursion to see the inauguration of the “Bridge of Strings” in Jerusalem. I don’t like crowds, but figured it was an important civic event, a milestone in the history of a revitalized Jerusalem, and as such, worth participating in. At some point in the festivities, a dance group of young girls was to perform behind the opaque glass railings of the bridge. Turned out that even though you couldn’t really make out anyone’s form behind the glass, in the interest of modesty and to protect the eyes of those male Jerusalemites who showed up for the inauguration, these young girls had to cover themselves up in some kind of strange baggy clothing while performing their dance. My heart went out to the girls, who had probably eagerly anticipated this moment, and then, had their show, if not stolen, then certainly diminished.

If I needed any further proof, it was at that point I realized this issue of “modesty” was out of control.

It’s not that I think public events in Jerusalem should be insensitive to the needs of the mosaic of people who make up the city; indeed, public events should take be organized to take into account the sensibilities of a broad spectrum of the population.  Had the organizers of the bridge inauguration decided to invite Lady Gaga to perform before the crowd, I would have been the first to criticize this.

However, when the demands of a few stem not from any mainstream halachic category, but a desire to ensure that “the street” is protected from women, then we have a problem.

I tell this lengthy story to illustrate two points: first, the exclusion of women from the public sphere is not a new story, it’s just getting worse, and second, despite the need for individuals and society as a whole to  respect people’s religious sensibilities, it’s time to call a spade a spade, and admit that most of this has little or nothing to do with Jewish Law.

In an early post in this blog on the Supreme Court decision regarding segregated buses, I ended the post by saying:

Hard to know where this will go; at least a statement has been made. I suspect that the practice will continue, to the detriment of women, Israel, and dare I say it, healthy Jewish life.

Unfortunately, seems I was correct; the practice has continued, and gender separation seems to have become more and more entrenched in certain sectors of religious society and yes, healthy Jewish life is at risk, or dare I say it, already in the hospital.

I think that the Supreme Court in its decision was trying to solve the immediate problem before it.    It could have – and in hindsight perhaps should have – delivered a more aggressive decision, but  may have hoped that somehow over time, saner heads would prevail and the practice of segregated busses would fade away or at least lose some of its more unsavoury aspects, including insults and violence towards women trying to buck the system.

In the light of the latest wave of violence over separate buses and sidewalks (!) we now hear rabbinic voices decrying the forces of fanaticism and making clear that there is no prohibition against sitting next to a member of the opposite sex on the bus. We also hear rabbinic voices against sects of women who have decided to clothe themselves in burkhas.

I have a few questions; where have you been until now, and where have your education and leadership failed so abysmally that we misunderstand and misrepresent fundamental Jewish notions of modesty, while at the same time we undermine that most Jewish of principles – personal responsibility for our actions and reactions to our surroundings? I’m pleased our erstwhile leaders have found the gumption to speak out, but there needs to be some soul-searching as to how we reached this abysmal state of affairs.

My concern about the current media and political frenzy is that in the politicized world of Israeli society, it will do more harm than good. My concern is that those in the ultra-orthodox world who are offended and unhappy with the continuing marginalization of women will revert to a herd mentality, and back the extremists since they don’t want anyone in the secular world telling them how to live their lives.

At the same time, I am concerned that this frenzy will lead to protests about separations which have existed for decades in Israel- such as separate beaches for the observant public who wants them –  thereby harming the legitimate interests of the religiously observant population.

I’m also concerned because the ultra-orthodox is the group that everybody loves to hate, the group about whom is it permissible to speak in terms that we would consider unacceptable to use about any other minority group. The perception that blatant discrimination against women – with a few violent incidents thrown in for good measure – is what every ultra-orthodox person wakes up in the morning itching for, is grist for this unsavoury mill.

I was pleased to see an opinion piece today in the Hebrew edition of Ynet by Amnon Levi. To quote (my translation) from his piece, aptly entitled, “Won’t Participate in the Orgy of Hatred Against the Ultra-Orthodox” :

I look with anger at the holy secular person, and don’t understand him. He lacks the modesty of one who looks from outside at another society. There is no reason to hesitate; perhaps despite everything, we are making a mistake? Perhaps we have failed to understand the other?

Recently I have been fighting with my all my friends. They are good people my friends. Liberals, tolerant, moderate people with whom it is pleasant to deliberate matters. On the other hand, they are sensitive to every wrongdoing. They are people who, in our complex reality, have never been confused between good and evil. Because of this, among other reasons, I love them. I love to think that they and I are made of the same skin. That we are, as in ultra-orthodox parlance, “from the same cholent”. Therefore it amazes me to see the extent to which they become closed and full of hatred when a group of people known as the ultra-orthodox are on the table.

On this, the final day of Chanukah, I wish that the light of mutual respect and understanding penetrate each and every one of us, and that we each find the courage to stand up to iniquity, while maintaining our respect for the dignity of difference.

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3 Responses to Women and the Public Square

  1. Rachel Hershberg says:

    I am finding it all exhausting.

  2. shaananlaw says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that’s part of the reason I didn’t write about this; many of us were just hoping that it would kind of go away because from every perspective it is painful.

  3. Pingback: Don’t Stop Me | The Missing Peace

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