Anyone following the Israeli media over the last couple of weeks or so might be pardoned for thinking that Israel is about to turn into a mediaeval theocracy in which women are excluded from all walks of public life.
It started with a young woman travelling on a bus from a haredi (ultra-orthodox) neighbourhood in Ashdod to another haredi neighbourhood in Jerusalem. By the very nature of things, most of the other passengers were haredim and it has become an informal custom on bus routes travelled mostly by the ultra-orthodox, for the sexes to be segregated and for women to sit at the back. As I say, this is merely a custom, most certainly not enforced (or enforceable) by law – and certainly not on public transportation, which is subsidized by the taxpayer.
To cut a long story short, the young woman in question sat down immediately behind the driver. This might have bothered some of the other passengers but they kept silent – until one young ultra-orthodox man, who got on at a later stop, decided to make an issue of it and demanded that the woman move to the back of the bus. She refused, the man started shouting, got off the bus and prevented it from continuing on its way, a crowd gathered and hey, presto! Suddenly you have a demonstration. Why? Because, in the haredi world, all that is needed to spark a demonstration is a haredi who is perceived as protesting against the “Zionist” establishment. The Egged Bus Company is, in the haredi perception, part of that establishment. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a large proportion of the demonstrators joined the spontaneous protest without even knowing exactly what they were protesting about! Naturally, the media pounced on the story and the young woman suddenly became a national heroine, being likened by many to Rosa Parks.
The same week, public opinion was galvanised by the case of a 7 year old schoolgirl from a government religious school in Beit Shemesh (that is to see, Zionist orthodox , not haredi) which has been a target of protest and abuse from some of that city’s haredi population, on what grounds I am not sure – possibly simply because the school, close to a haredi neighbourhood, is not itself haredi. The Press chose to believe that the very fact that it is a girls’ school is what angered them, as if the haredim, like the Taliban, oppose education for women, but that is a ridiculous claim, since the haredim have several networks of girls’ schools, some of them of a very high academic standard and, in fact, a teacher’s certificate enabling its owner to teach in government-funded schools, is considered a definite asset for a young haredi women seeking to make a good marriage. The abuse has, in fact, been going on for months, but what made the story suddenly pressworthy was the fact that a young haredi man spat at a 7 year old girl and, apparently, called her a whore, because, in his opinion, her dress was (by haredi standards) immodest.
All of a sudden, the entire country is up in arms at the so-called “exclusion of women from the public domain”. Isolated incidents have been dug up from all over the place to “prove” that Israel is no better than Saudi Arabia or Iran in her treatment of woman. For example, a couple of months ago, there was a news item about a group of ultra-orthodox male soldiers who walked out of an organized leisure-time activity because part of the evening’s entertainment included singing by women soldiers. (Ultra-orthodox Jews believe it is forbidden for a man to listen to a woman singing, holding that it is equivalent to seeing her naked.)
The soldiers were subsequently disciplined by their commanding officer. But the Press, seeing yet another way to hit at the ultra-orthodox, started bombarding the public with banner headlines about the exclusion of women in the Israel Defence Forces. The Left jumped on the bandwagon too. Suddenly, it is all the fault of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who, they claim, is pandering to the right wing ultra-orthodox parties in his coalition (no matter that the Left’s bete-noire, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is also the bete-noire of the religious parties).
In short, a good many people with a political agenda – on both sides – are making cynical use of what are, undeniably, ugly incidents. But from there to making the claim that Israel resembles Afghanistan under the Taliban is a quantum leap – and those who make it are either hysterical, or unconscionable liars.
But as an Israeli and as a Jew, the amount of hatred on both sides greatly troubles me. We are taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred (שנאת חינם) between Jews. I was discussing this with some friends at work and they said “but this isn’t causeless hatred”. They were referring to the fact that many haredim evade military service because they are (real or fake) yeshiva students. Well, yes, that’s true. But when haredim do enlist, in separate army units, where, of course, they don’t serve with women soldiers, they are accused of excluding women and trying to force their way of life on all the rest of us. I should explain that they believe that it is forbidden for a woman to serve in the army because taking up arms is equivalent, in their perception, to wearing male clothing, which is forbidden, just as it is forbidden for a man to dress as a woman – and also because, for her own protection, it is forbidden for a woman to be under the command of any man other than her father or her husband. (Some might say that, in view of the sexual harassment cases reported recently, there is justification for their point of view.)
Yes, as a non-Orthodox, taxpaying Israeli citizen, I find it enfuriating that many haredim pay little income tax, if at all, while enjoying as many, if not more, services as the rest of us (having very large families, many of whom are dependant on Child Support payments). On the other hand, were it not for the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle of those who clung to their (our) faith during two thousand years of exile, there would be no Jewish People today and the State of Israel would not exist.
In the past few days, we have heard many haredim (rabbis and others) speak out in condemnation of the phenomenon of “exclusion of women” – particularly against the background of another phenomenon, which has absolutely no basis in Judaism, whereby signs were put up in certain streets in haredi neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, instructing women to walk on one pavement, men on the opposite side, effectively segregating public thoroughfares. But for those with a political agenda, it is the haredi community as a whole which is trying to force gender-segregation on us all. True, there was a haredi counter-demonstration to the demonstration in Beit Shemesh calling for an end to “haredi domination of the city”. But that’s hardly surprising! When the entire haredi population is blamed for the actions of a small, extremist group, it is no wonder that the main body of the haredi community feels defensive. Once again, it’s all about perception. They perceive themselves to be under attack and so they rally round the flag, as it were.
So let’s have a sense of proportion. Women are not being excluded from public life, there are women doctors, lawyers, judges – the current President of the Supreme Court is a woman. There are women Knesset members – including the leader of the Opposition, Tzippi Livni and the Leader of the Labour Party, Shelly Yachimovich. Last week, five women were among the graduates of the prestigious Pilots’ Course of the Israel Air Force.
And to those irresponsible journalists and politicians who like to scream hysterically –and baselessly – that Israel is turning into a Taliban-like state, I would like to point out that they are merely providing fodder for those who seek to delegitimise Israel.