In Israel, Orthodox women are fighting to be heard ... and seen

Why We Wrote This

Gender segregation among devout Jews has been expanding in Israel, creeping into wider secular society. In this first of two stories, we look at how religious women are combating what they see as their marginalization.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File
A girl peers through a curtain separating men and women at the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, a Moroccan-born sage known as the Baba Sali, during an annual pilgrimage held on the anniversary of his death in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, Jan. 13, 2016.

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Among the most devout Jews, gender segregation has long been observed during prayer and at community celebrations, such as weddings. Modesty, a shorthand for avoiding sexual tension or distraction, is cited as the reason. For some, the practice now extends to objecting even to photos of women displayed in public places.

But within the religious fold in Israel there has been an internal backlash by women, many of them the products of a new generation trained in Jewish scholarship. They oppose what they see as a religious extremism that in some cases attempts to all-out erase women and girls from the public sphere. There is no basis in Jewish law to call for this kind of exclusion, they argue.

One group of ultra-Orthodox feminists who call themselves “the last of the suffragists in the modern world” recently won a legal battle that went all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court, which ruled that a religious party had to rescind its ban on electing women.

“It’s Jewish law that is blamed for this kind of exclusion, but Jewish law knows how to be flexible," says Esti Shushan, whose organization won the lawsuit. "When someone wants to find a solution, rabbis find them.”

In July, three men from an ultra-Orthodox, or religiously devout, radio station carried bucket after bucket brimming with coins into the small office of an Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Jerusalem.

It was not a donation dutifully collected in a school charity drive. It was the 30,000 shekels an Israeli court had ordered the station, Kol Be’Ramah, to pay the religious women in court fees after ruling it had illegally discriminated against women by keeping them off the air, either as interviewees or broadcasters.

Delivering the equivalent of $8,470 in nickels and pennies was intended to be provocative. But the feminist group, Kolech, responded that money was money, and they were delighted that “every penny” would be going to a fund to help women.

Kolech, Hebrew for Your Voice, is part of a larger struggle for gender equality and against religious fundamentalism that is being waged by religious Jewish women in Israel, from modern- to ultra-Orthodox. They are trying to find solutions to the divides – often physical and behavioral in addition to philosophical – being placed between women and men by powerful members of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, sector.

As the ultra-Orthodox community swells in Israel – today it numbers 1,125,000, or 12% of the population – so has its political power to fight for its own socially conservative mores. Specifically, its preference for gender segregation, citing reasons of religious modesty, a shorthand for avoiding sexual tension or distraction. Long observed during prayer in Orthodox synagogues and at community celebrations, such as weddings, it now extends, among some, to objecting even to photos of women displayed in public places, such as on billboards or within media.

Over time, the pattern and methods of the ultra-Orthodox marginalization of religious women have crept increasingly into secular society as well, creating a national political battleground with almost daily skirmishes.

But within the religious fold there has been an internal backlash by some women, many of them the products of a new generation of observant women trained in Jewish scholarship. They are fighting back against what they see as a religious extremism that excludes, separates, and in some cases attempts to all-out erase women and girls from the public sphere.

The resistance comes in different forms, including a group of ultra-Orthodox feminists who call themselves “the last of the suffragists in the modern world.” They are lobbying to give women from their community a voice in politics and recently won a court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that an ultra-Orthodox party had to rescind its ban on electing women.

Others have also turned to the courts to secure their rights for everything from giving eulogies for their loved ones at cemetery chapels to being able to walk on certain neighborhood sidewalks.

Social media has also been a tool. A Facebook group called Chochmat Nashim, Hebrew for the “wisdom of women,” works to highlight examples of women’s exclusion. The group’s members also work to spread the word that there is, according to them, no basis in Jewish law to call for this kind of exclusion.

“Our mission is to raise awareness of policies doing damage and present alternatives – to say this is what is happening and this is what you can do about it,” says Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, one of the group’s founders. “The more it spreads, the more people are pushing back and saying this is warped.”

Back of the bus

Yael Rockman, executive director of Kolech, says that the first sign of creeping gender exclusion came to the fore around 2011, when women were being seated at the back of some bus lines, mostly serving religious areas.

Kolech took part in the fight against the segregated buses, which eventually were ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.

“The problem with separation [of genders] is that it normalizes not seeing women and girls, and that makes for an unhealthy society. We need to teach each other how to treat each other well and with respect; that’s what we need to invest in – not separation,” Ms. Rockman says.

In the last decade, she says, Kolech has found that a two-pronged strategy works best to help women hurt by gender segregation and exclusion. The first is legal action if deemed necessary; the second is working to bring women’s voices forward by helping place them in leadership and management positions within the religious world. That second strategy is linked to the phenomenon in recent years of Orthodox women studying the Torah in depth, to the point that some are qualified as rabbis in all but name.

To help boost the visibility of these female Torah scholars who teach and can answer questions regarding Jewish law, Kolech has set up a program where the women can be “scholars in residence” over Shabbat in communities across the country.

“It’s helped create in-depth discussion of the role of women in the community,” says Ms. Rockman, adding that it’s part of the response that women, more than just belonging and being seen, can be at the center of Jewish life specifically and societal life in general.

Galvanized to action

The once-sleepy town of Beit Shemesh, nestled in a valley between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has been a flashpoint of violence and gender discrimination.

Nili Philipp’s activism began the day she was hit with a rock by an ultra-Orthodox man in 2011 while riding her bicycle on the edge of town.

Ms. Philipp, who is Orthodox, was galvanized by that attack and by a wave of other sometimes violent assaults on local women and girls that involved kicking, pushing, and spitting for the purported crime of “immodest dress.” She joined a grassroots movement of fellow Orthodox women against religious extremism in their town.

Steve Kamilar
Nili Philipp, who is Orthodox, says her battle against religious extremism in Beit Shemesh is "not a battle against religion or against tradition."

She and four other women took the city of Beit Shemesh to court for failing to remove signs, posted unofficially around town, that call for women to dress modestly and bar them from walking on some sidewalks. They won the case, but face ongoing harassment and threats.

Ms. Philipp blames the extremism for promoting the “fear and hatred of a woman showing any form of agency, autonomy, and power to decide for herself where she walks, what she wears.”

She says she and the other women in the community did not know it would be such a long, ongoing struggle when they began. She says she measures victory in the way they are beginning to see an impact – for example, in the growing number of high school students who have come to her and to other activists wanting to learn more about their fight and in some cases to document it in film and articles.

“To me that means the message is really getting through, and that gives me a tremendous amount of hope that we really did win,” Ms. Philipp says. It “proves this is not a battle against religion or against tradition. To the contrary, it’s to make sure that the religion and traditions we keep are the ones we have chosen ... through consent.”

Representation in parliament

The rise of the Haredi parties’ political clout has made the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a showcase of sorts for the marginalization of Orthodox women.

An organization called Nivcharot, the Haredi Women’s Movement, successfully sued an ultra-Orthodox political party that had stipulated that only men could serve as its lawmakers. The party, United Torah Judaism, still has no female lawmakers; nor do any of the other Haredi parties, but several ultra-Orthodox women have run with other political parties.

Nivcharot, which started as a Facebook group, was the brainchild of Esti Shushan, an ultra-Orthodox woman. Its members first met secretly, then started hosting workshops to spread the word about their campaign.

“It’s Jewish law that is blamed for this kind of exclusion, but Jewish law knows how to be flexible. When someone wants to find a solution, rabbis find them,” Mrs. Shushan says.

In the meantime, she and her fellow activists are explaining to others in their community why their mission is essential. They chose the political sphere, she says, because “the exclusion from making political decisions is the most meaningful and impactful on our lives.”

Mrs. Shushan says she and her family have been maligned personally because of her efforts.

“Of course there is a price; you can’t have a battle like this one without paying one,” she says. “But the price of silence is much higher.”

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