Women’s rights, religious sensibilities. Can Israel respect both?

Why We Wrote This

In a pluralistic society, are a woman’s “right” to wear shorts and a religious man’s “right” not to see her on an equal footing? It's a pressing issue in Israel. The second of two parts.

Reuters/File
Israeli women ride on a bus used mainly by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, during a protest against religiously devout Jews trying to enforce gender separation in public places, in Jerusalem, Jan. 1, 2012.

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Ady Kleiner-Tobias, a fitness instructor and model from a town in northern Israel, says a guard at a train station once told her she could not board because she was wearing a cropped shirt: “It made me feel like we are not living in a democracy, but a theocracy, where people have decided how women should appear.”

Gender segregation that has become routine in the deeply traditional ultra-Orthodox sector is moving into Israeli society as a whole, experts say. Its effects range from separate sections for men and women at public events, to seating in parliament.

For most of Israel’s history the ultra-Orthodox have lived in their own areas. But recently, cracks have appeared in that insularity, through technology and the encouragement of the government, which seeks to integrate them into the economy and the military. Religious leaders argue that if they are going to interact with secular society, their cultural sensitivities need to be accommodated.

“So you have these two colliding values,” says Allison Kaplan Sommer, a journalist. “One is wanting the religious to participate and contribute to modern Israeli society. But they are saying, ‘If you want us, there are restrictions, and gender segregation is part of those restrictions.’”

On a scorching summer afternoon in Israel, an 18-year-old woman is waiting at a bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem. She’s on her way to her first day of work waitressing, eager to arrive on time.

When the bus pulls up, a man waiting with her boards. But the male bus driver tells her, “You can’t get on the bus like that.”

The driver then closes the door and drives off. The young woman, who is now serving as a soldier and can only be identified as M., says she was baffled: Why couldn’t she get on the bus?

Then she realized: The driver was religious; she was wearing shorts. When she filed a complaint with the state-run bus company, she was told her “inappropriate clothing” offended religious passengers.

“At first I felt paralyzed. I was really hurt, and the next day the flush of hurt passed and turned into anger. How did this happen in my country? No one should treat a young woman this way,” says M. She’s now suing the bus company with Israel Women’s Network, which advocates for women’s equality.

Gender segregation and, in some cases, the outright exclusion of women that has become routine in the ultra-Orthodox sector of the Israeli public, is moving into Israeli society as a whole, experts warn.

Its effects range from separate sections for men and women at concerts in public parks and public events at city halls, to separate water fountains at some colleges. In advertising targeting religious consumers, women and girls are often entirely absent, or in some cases even erased.

In Israel’s parliament, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker was granted permission to be reseated to avoid sitting next to a woman counterpart, and female lawmakers were scolded for wearing sleeveless dresses deemed “immodest” by religious colleagues.

Civil rights

What some call segregation, and others call the erasure of women in the public sphere, is positioned as a civil rights issue by ultra-Orthodox leaders. They argue that if they are going to interact with secular society at public and civic events and in the realms of education, the military, and the professions, their cultural sensitivities need to be accommodated.

It’s a need that goes to the heart of the question of how a pluralistic society adjudicates competing rights and sensitivities, in this case for the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, or “those who fear God.” Are a woman’s “right” to wear shorts and a religious man’s “right” not to see her on an equal footing?

“Both Haredi women and men feel more comfortable in a gender-segregated environment,” says Leah Zach Aharoni, founder of the religious group Women for the Wall, which advocates continued gender segregation at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Jewish holy site (in opposition to the organization Women of the Wall).

“Because it is a central value for the Haredi lifestyle, it would behoove the general community to be accepting. I don’t think anything is being pushed on other communities,” she says. “Haredi rights are just as important as anyone’s rights.”

Their opponents respond that segregating men and women, and a world where women are rarely seen in public roles or in the media, normalizes behavior that discriminates against women and is one that does not remain an isolated, internal issue for the ultra-Orthodox, but affects all Israelis.

They argue that discrimination seeps in across the board when, for example, women academics are not allowed to teach college classes for ultra-Orthodox men and lose out on professional opportunities, women lawyers are seated at the back of the room of professional training courses, and women army cadets must peer through a partition to see a ceremony celebrating their training as officers.

Democracy vs. theocracy

M. grew up in a religious family. She had stopped being observant herself about a year before the bus incident and had sometimes worn shorts – abjuring the traditional dress code of skirts – with some askance looks from neighbors, but no censure.

“I understand there is this issue of exclusion of women, you hear about it all the time,” she says. “But I never thought I would not be allowed to ride the bus because of what I was wearing.”

Ady Kleiner-Tobias, 19, a fitness instructor and model from Kfar Vradim, a town in northern Israel, reports a similar incident when a guard at a train station initially told her she could not board because she was wearing a cropped shirt: “It made me feel like we are not living in a democracy, but a theocracy, where people have decided how women should appear.”

The Israeli Haredi population is growing rapidly, with the average family size at about seven children. Projections suggest their community might swell from 12% to as much as a third of the country by 2065. The boom is bringing new power, as well as an increased backlash from secular Israelis.

For most of Israel’s history the deeply traditional ultra-Orthodox, who reject modern secularism, have lived in their own areas. The men have mostly studied Torah full time on government subsidies. Families are often poor.

But recently, cracks have been appearing in that insularity, through technology and the encouragement of the government, which seeks to integrate Haredim into the economy and the military. Women increasingly have entered the work force to support their large families, and more of their sons have joined the army.

“So you have these two colliding values. One is wanting the religious to participate and contribute to modern Israeli society. But they are saying, ‘If you want us, there are restrictions, and gender segregation is part of those restrictions,’” says Allison Kaplan Sommer, an Israeli journalist.

Segregation in secular Israel

A recent Pew study ranked Israel as one of the top 22 most religiously restrictive countries in the world, with the sixth-highest level of “interreligious tension and violence.” The study placed the blame, in part, on government officials who sometimes “defer in some way to religious authorities or doctrines on legal issues.”

Although historically Jewish tradition limited gender segregation to the synagogue, religious study halls, and dancing at weddings, recent decades have seen that segregation creep into other spheres that never existed.

A new battleground has been concerts. Last spring the national government backed an official in a Tel Aviv suburb when he refused to let a teenage girl sing at an event in compliance with a religious prohibition against men hearing female voices in song.

In November, a fundraising concert that was to include the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and several top Israeli singers was canceled following a public uproar over the demand by the rabbi being honored that no female singers be included.

Military service

All Jewish Israeli youths are drafted into the Israeli army, except for Haredim. Resentment against them, particularly over this military exemption, became a surprisingly potent issue in the two most recent elections.

But there is an increasing if relatively small number of ultra-Orthodox men who are joining the army. To accommodate them there are now all ultra-Orthodox bases, all-male dining tents or designated male-only hours for eating, female instructors who are not allowed to train ultra-Orthodox troops, and women soldiers ordered to abide by restrictions on their dress and roles.

According to Yofi Tirosh, dean of the law school at Sapir College and an expert in anti-discrimination law, the restrictions imposed on women in the army to accommodate their male, ultra-Orthodox counterparts even extend to the sound of female voices over military radio transmissions.

Along Israel’s borders, women are among those who monitor radar screens and fence sensors and relay information to forces on patrol. But Dr. Tirosh says there have been accounts of ultra-Orthodox soldiers refusing to work with women, even in this remote fashion.

“It’s seeping in, and what is really worrying to me is that the Israeli public failed to realize it. Each incident is dismissed as a stand-alone, a rotten apple, nothing we should draw conclusions from,” she says.

“There is this idea that once we cross a ‘red line’ Israeli society will know how to handle it and will stop the madness. But all of these incidents are happening, and the phenomenon is widening and deepening,” says Dr. Tirosh.

“The argument that it will all remain in the backyards and neighborhoods of the ultra-Orthodox is collapsing,” she says.

In September, a photo of an ultra-Orthodox man ripping the image of Stav Shaffir, an Israeli female member of Knesset, off an election ad was shared on social media. It was one of many campaign posters featuring Ms. Shaffir, alongside two male running mates, that was defaced.

In response, Ms. Shaffir reposted her own version of the shared photo, adding this slogan: “You will not succeed in silencing us.”

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