Cherchez la Femme

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.

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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23 Responses to Cherchez la Femme

  1. Admiral Hestorb says:

    This is fascinating. There is no other way I could have learned this without reading what you have written here.

  2. I have heard many women sing (including my sisters) and have also – in my admittedly sheltered life – seen one or two women naked. But I can assure you that it’s nothing like the same thing ;-).

    To quote Samuel Jackson from PULP FICTION. “It ain’t the same league. It ain’t even the same f****** sport!”

  3. Nigel Farringdon says:

    Regarding the young Haredi man who spat at a seven year old girl and called her a “whore” because she was dressed “immodestly” – I can understand the Haredim wanting girls to be modestly dressed from when they reach puberty onwards. But a sexually normal man would not be physically attracted to a pre-pubescent girl, so the problem should not arise. If he WAS sexually aroused by a seven-year-old girl, then he is a pervert and he should seek psychiatric treatment with the utmost urgency.

    • T-holy says:

      It is not a sin (or a crime) to BE a pervert. It is only a crime (and a sin) to give in to temptation. If he sought to avoid temptation by telling the girl to cover up, then it was a step in the right direction – he was trying to avoid being led into temptation. What’s so wrong with that?

      • Good Christian says:

        There’s nothing wrong with trying to avoid being led into temptation. But the way to do that would be to avoid the girl – not confront her and assault her. This would be like a repentant mugger telling people not wear Rolex watches.

  4. Angus Mhor says:

    Shimona, thank you for posting on this subject. I’d read the headlines, but knowing that most media, Western media included, revolve around agendas, I’d not put much credence in their assertions. I’ve had your blog on my reader for a few months. I’m so sorry about your sweet Pixie.
    Shalom!

  5. Red Tulips says:

    Shimona,

    I believe that you make good points, but you have left out the following: I believe that Israel as a state is nothing like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. However, the Haredim do have an ideology which appears to mirror the beliefs of these societies in some ways. I look at Haredi society as almost like a state-within-a-state. Specifically, you see Haredim who now want separate check out counters for women in super markets; women have to walk on a different side of the street; women shave their heads and wear a wig over their head and a scarf or hat on top of the wig; and women are not allowed to talk to men who are not their husband or families (let alone sing to them!). This is just for starters. Oh, and I read of morality police in Haredi communities. (!!)

    I believe this belief system is medievil in character and also NOT required by Jewish law.

    I finally do not believe that the ultra-Orthodox need to be ultra-Orthodox for Israel and/or the Jewish people to continue. I believe also that in years past, the Jewish people were ironically less extreme than some of what we see today.

    • Shimona says:

      @Red Tulips:
      Much of what you say is, alas, true. In my post, in fact, I mentioned the separate pavements. My point, however, was that the State of Israel itself is not in danger, now, or in the visible future, of turning into an Iranian-style theocracy. Nor should we lump all the ultra-orthodox together as if we are dealing with a single, monolithic group. I think, too, that it is important to understand the splits and schisms within the Haredi community. Much of what appears to be a concerted attempt by “the Haredim” to impose their lifestyle on the rest of us, is, in fact, a manifestation of the in-fighting among various Haredi groups and of the desire to appear, within the Haredi world, to be the most zealous in guarding the Torah lifestyle. That’s what I was referring to when I spoke of the cynical use by politicians of the tensions between Haredim and non-Haredim.

      You are correct – Halacha (Jewish religious law) does not require a woman to wear a wig – and certainly not to shave their heads. Merely, it requires MARRIED women to cover their hair. Wearing a wig allows a woman to fulfil the technical requirement of covering her own hair, without actually wearing a hat or scarf. It is frowned upon by some sections of the Haredi community as being, basically, a way of “cheating”. Moreover, it sidesteps the underlying reason for covering up a married woman’s hair, namely, that hair is considered “erotic” and it is no less so, simply because it happens to belong to another woman and is detached from the scalp! About the wigs over shaven heads, it is my understanding that this practice is more or less confined to the Toldot Aharon sect. If you live in Israel, or have spent any length of time here, you will have noticed that the practice of covering the hair with a wig, is peculiar to the Ashkenazi Haredim. Sephardi and Mizrachi women wear hats or, more often, scarves.

      • Red Tulips says:

        Dear Shimona,

        I can tell you that women shaving their heads is not limited to the Toldot Aharon sect. I myself spent time in New Square and saw the shaven heads of the Skver Hasidim. I know for a fact that the Satmar Hasidim also shave their heads, as I spoke to Skver Hasidim women who spoke of the shaven heads of their Satmar relatives. I believe the Ger Hasid women also shave their heads. Yes – shaven heads only occurs upon marriage.

        Overall, yes, there are schisms between the various sects of Hasidim. However, overall, the trend has been to become more and more religiously lunatic. And the trend is also to grow further and further away from Halacha. Several hundred years ago, the stringencies that the Haredim are applying to tziunut were unheard of.

      • @Red Tulips
        That’s very interesting. You write as one who has inside knowledge of the haredi world. Am I right?
        I wonder, is it your impression that the trend towards “religious lunacy” you describe is confined to Israel, or does it appear to be a worldwide phenomenon?

        BTW – I was told that the reason for the shaven heads was so that the local “seigneur” would not demand to sleep with Jewish brides on their wedding night ie. to make the women unattractive to goyische men. I don’t know how much truth there is in that. I do know, however, that in many Balkan and Eastern European countries, it was customary to cut (though not necessarily shave) the bride’s long hair upon her marriage, even among non-Jews.

        As for the Satmar Hassidim – if the Haredi community is a “State within a State”, the Satmar Hassidim are surely “a State within a State within a State”.

  6. Silke says:

    if I got Yaacov Lozowik’s latest right, then some or a lot of the Haredi community are moving towards greater participation. If that is the case then it is only natural (human nature being what it is) that others react by becoming even more removed.

    http://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com/2011/12/israel-at-end-of-2011-better-than-ever.html

    • That’s true enough. Haredi units in the army are a good example. But then, as I explained in my post, the haredi soldiers are condemned for excluding women. They’re also condemned by more extremist haredi circles for “selling out” to the Zionist state. It’s kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for them – rather like Israel’s own situation.

    • Red Tulips says:

      I just want to comment that you cannot compare the situation of women shaving their legs for work, and women shaving their heads because they are married. No woman is forced to shave their legs. Period. It is a societal norm for women in certain “western” countries to shave their legs, but it is not required. Nothing will happen to women who do not shave their legs. And no normal job (outside of being a bikini model) in the Western world will require a woman to shave their legs. If there is a fear of hair showing on their legs, women can wear stockings or pants. I personally have two friends who do just that. So you are frankly wrong about society “forcing” women to shave anything.

      And then you claim that women “choose” their spouses, and thus have free will to decide whether or not to shave their heads. That “choice” is a total farce. I personally have met a 17 year old babe in the woods, in New Square, New York. She was an innocent who did not know basic things about the world. Her mother shaves her head, and this is all she knows about in the world. She was engaged to a man she met for 45 minutes, who was 18 years old. Do you believe she had a “choice” to marry this man, who was determined by arrangement? I don’t see how she had a “choice” in any meaningful sense of the term.

    • Satomi says:

      Haaretz likes to use the name “Mizrahim” so as to up the statistics. That way they get to araevge. But while Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian Jews have done better in universities, government and the army, and the private sector, the situation of Jews from North Africa has only worsened. Women have been replaced in the Supermarkets and banks by Russian immigrants. In my town, most teaching and non-profit jobs were taken by urban kibbutzniks, who have set up an enclave called “urban kibbutz” smack in the middle of the town. For construction jobs for men the lowest have been taken by Africans/Sudanese while the skilled construction jobs are taken by Palestinian from Gaza and the West Bank and the contractors are generally Israeli Arabs.I find it outrageous that Haaretz questions Maoz’ motivations just because he was successful. What they are saying in effect is that you must be poor to speak out for the poor, gay to speak out for the gays, Palestinian to speak out for the Palestinians. This is insane. As to the land, it is legitimate to dispassionately use the phrase “land robbery”. The supporting evidence is all there.Take the Tamar regional council in the Negev for example: there 1500 people are sitting on some 42000 dunams, while the whole town of Dimona which counts a population some 40000 occupies a mere 3500 dunams. They are practically strangled. Sapir college where ironically the yearly social issue conference is held, is on their land.To make things worse, you also have the Negev Bedouin who with every new wife and new set of children, or after a feud or another with another tribe or family, go plant their tent elsewhere and start a new unrecognized village, which people of Dimona and Yeroham cannot do.

  7. Angus Mhor says:

    I think that any action that denies freedom of choice to a being is wrong and even sinful. For a woman to be forced to shave her head after marriage is to enslave her to the will of another. What is hair? It’s a part of the body. It’s a uniquely feminine accoutrement. A woman’s hair is to her what a man’s beard is to him..is a man required to shave his beard after marriage? To remove that outward symbol of his maturity, his wisdom, his identity? NO! Any system of thought or belief that requires the divorce of a part of oneself in exchange for a difference of status is inherently subjugating. OH! A “seigneur” is unable to restrain himself from violating a married woman with long hair? The shame belongs to him. He has not self control. Demand to sleep with a new bride? What is that but a craven, beastly soul? Such a man should be put out of the community, not pandered to in the way of the weak.

    • I doubt whether, in the days of the “droit de seigneur“, anyone had the power to force such a man out of the community. I was referring to the Middle Ages, when there were feudal overlords.

      But I think we can all of us agree that forcing a woman to shave her head after her marriage is wrong.

      • Silke says:

        women at lots of work places are “forced” to shave their legs….

        There are all kinds of appearance demands made on the working woman and man –

        I don’t see much discussion let alone hullaballoo about that – there it is just due to common agreement of what constitutes a person who is well-kept.

        If the woman agrees to marry into that society and hasn’t been forced to do it under threat of “honour-killing” it is her choice and I don’t see it as being much weirder than the demand that “we” shave our arm-pits.

      • These are not women who have married into that society, but rather, women who were born into that society and since it is a very closed society, as a matter of course, marry within the same society.

        Are women “forced” to shave their legs or armpits? I don’t think that giving in to the dictates of fashion, can be described as “force”.

      • Silke says:

        armpits may be covered up and thus their shaving may be avoided unless one has to attend one of those get-togethers where one meets at the hotel pools after meetings. Of course one can’t show up but one pay in career for it.

        not shaving legs if the work place is one where trousers are frowned upon is another one I wouldn’t recommend. Insofar as these are dictates of fashion they make the difference between getting the salary that comes with them or not.

        Just like wearing Jeans does where they aren’t wanted.

        Even if these women are part of a close knit society I prefer to consider them as adults responsible for their own lives.

        If one of them wanted to leave the community and ask me for help I’d give it as gladly as I gave it to the other women who realised they had chosen a marriage that was bad for them but as long as they chose to stay I respect that decision provided there is no threat of violence involved.

  8. Red Tulips says:

    Shimona,

    My only “inside” knowledge of the Haredi world is that I have had some Shabbat meals at the homes of Haredim, and once spent a weekend in New Square, New York. I am not Haredi and never have been, myself. (for the record)

    Anyway, my opinion is that Haredim around the world are become more and more black hat and more and more religiously extreme. This appears to cut across all religions – i.e., Muslims, Christians, and Hindus are also becoming more religiously extreme.

    I don’t know where the practice originated to shave the heads of married women. I believe it is an extension of modesty. In other words, I believe this means for the women with shaven heads that they will never have the inclination to go without a wig. Of course, this also means their husband gets to see a shaven head instead of lustrous hair.

    • Actually, it’s quite possible that shaving the head is simply because it’s more comfortable to wear a wig over a shaven head, otherwise it might feel unbearably hot 😉
      But then again – why wear a wig at all? Why not simply cover the hair with a scarf? As I mentioned before, many rabbinical authorities actually frown upon the wearing of wigs, which often look more attractive than the woman’s own hair did.

      As to the growing extremism in other religions – it’s certainly true of Islam. I’m not sure about Christianity – possibly you are referring to the growing power of fundamentalist Christianity in American politics?
      About Hinduism, I have no knowledge at all.

  9. In an intriguing postscript to the above, in another incident, a Haredi who insulted a woman soldier for daring to stand in the “men’s section” of an Egged bus, calling her a “prutzah” (lit. “whore”) was charged with sexual harassment. A fine example of creative thinking from the Police Prosecution Department. Controversial from the legal aspect, but later adopted by the Jerusalem District Attorney in another case.

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