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The Kotel has been handed over to the care of ultra-Orthodox Rabbis who manage the area as if they are living in a medieval shtetl. They impose their interpretation of religious modesty on all who come to pray there. In the separate women’s section of the Wall, women are not permitted to sing or pray out loud as a group. They are not allowed to wear a tallit or to read from a Torah scroll. These acts of religious devotion are normal in many synagogues around the world, including in Israel, but at the spot to which all Jews turn when they pray, regardless of where they are in the world, the sound of a woman’s voice is a crime.
When people ask me about my arrest in October 2012 for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall, they often want to know what was the reaction inside Israel itself. We had hundreds of articles about the arrest in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and others from news sources abroad, but not one single article in Hebrew for local Israeli consumption. Journalists here did not understand why it was a worthwhile story, or how the treatment of women at a “holy site” that very few Israelis go to on a regular basis has any impact of them.
The Union of Reform Judaism’s Camp George in Canada doesn’t pay a water bill. This is my 4th summer as faculty at Camp George, and I can’t get used to the absence of a water bill. The water bill is one of the biggest expenses in our movement’s summer camp in Israel (Havaya), but Camp George simply pumps all the water it needs directly from nearby Maple Lake.
I came to Camp George for a week to teach kids “Trouble making 101 – social action in Israel, from the back of the bus to the top of the agenda,” a unique curriculum for a unique summer camp. At URJ Camp George, I am part of an energetic faculty of educators, rabbis and activists who volunteer at the 13 URJ camps.
SEGREGATION IN ISRAEL (Plain text)
“The US and Israeli public alike talk of countries like Iran not only in terms of their military and security threats, but also in terms of how their world view clashes with our own “open and democratic” world view. I do not believe that all Saudis think it is necessary to forbid women to drive a car or travel without the permission of a male relative, but the power of extreme religious interests inside the political systems of certain countries have made it nearly impossible for the true will of the people to find expression. When I see Israeli politicians and the public at large compromising their own values to pacify one extreme voice in society, I fear we could one day be in the same situation.”
This article will explore the emerging trend of segregation of women in Israel, how it is affecting their psyches, and what is being done to stop it.
For any reader who has never heard of the Israel Religious Action Center, let me tell you a little bit about us. We were founded as the political and legal arm of the progressive movement in Israel.
While the rabbis and synagogue communities are working hard to provide a spiritual alternative for Israelis, it is our job to reclaim Judaism, by representing our progressive Jewish values of social justice and equality, and by working against people who use Judaism as a weapon for racism of fundamentalism.
We also advocate for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, mainly the Israeli Arabs.
IRAC’s team of attorneys and professionals follow the guiding principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, articulated in May 1948, promising its citizens “freedom of religion and conscience along with equality of social and political rights, irrespective of religion, race or gender.”
We are committed to Israel as a Jewish state, and we are dedicated to protecting the democratic character of Israel. In that vein, these are IRAC’s main goals:
1. To win equal recognition for the Reform & Conservative Movements’ rabbis, synagogues, and schools, so that they can function on the same level as Orthodox rabbis and institutions and have the right to perform all life cycle events (marriages, divorces, conversions, burials, etc.).
2. To win the right for all Israelis to marry any person they choose, regardless of religious status or sexual orientation, without needing the sanction of the Orthodox Rabbinate.
3. To combat all forms of racism, particularly state-sanctioned racism toward ethnic minorities by rabbis employed by the state.
4. To end unfair preferences in government funding given to Orthodox institutions.
5. To generate public support for greater pluralism, tolerance, equality and an end to religious coercion.
One of the main tools at IRAC’s disposal is the Israeli court system. For all the criticism that can be thrown at all levels of the Israeli government, I want to assure you that our court system is something of which all Israelis can be proud. We have had some of our biggest victories (and some pretty hefty setbacks) in the courts. We file an average of 60 lawsuits a year, more than one a week.
Now that you’ve been introduced to IRAC (and please visit our website, www.irac.org, to learn more. Join our newsletter!), I want to tell you a little more about me. I am a Sabra, native-born Israeli, and I was also a swimming champion. I mention the swimming because thanks to that unique skill that not many other Israelis had, I was able to study in the United States. My English comes from the sunny and somewhat confusing state of California. I never realized all those years ago how important my swim training would be since, as an advocate for civil rights in Israel for over thirty years, I’ve had to constantly swim upstream and against the tide.
I used to be in government. For fourteen years, I was a member of the Jerusalem City Council. For those of you familiar with the Israeli system of government you know that we have many political parties, and no one party gets a majority of the seats. We have to make coalitions. (That’s right: Jews have to work together.) So while you have two major parties, Democratic and Republican, and they take turns being the majority, we have coalitions. The majority coalition runs the government and a minority, or opposition, tries to keep them honest.
As the opposition leader, it was my job to keep the majority honest, and that was a full time job. I was always suing the city to obtain information the good old boys would rather I didn’t see. The mayor and his deputies were always looking for new and creative ways to shut me up; interrupting me and calling me names in Yiddish was their mode of choice. When the Mayor (Olmert) would do this, the other members in the chamber would laugh and it became impossible to get a word out of my mouth.
I went back to the official record of the city and I counted how many lines women, myself included, were able to get out before being interrupted. The average was around three lines. There was one exception to this phenomenon. One female member of the council always started with a little self-deprecating humor. She would say things like “I’m such a silly girl” or” “I couldn’t possibly understand this” and the mayor and the other deputies would chime in with “No dear, that is ridiculous.” “Go ahead and ask your question. Please, talk.” So it seems that if a woman wants her voice to be part of the debate in Israeli society, she needs to play these games. As IRAC’s executive director, I made “a women’s voice” one of our key issues.
I love Israel and I want everyone who experiences Israel in one way or another to love her as well. Although, I am not looking for you to love Israel the way Fox News loves America, I want you to love Israel the way a grown child loves a parent. This is when the idealism of youth is gone and she sees the cracks and imperfections that exist in every person. Nevertheless, now that their parent is a “human” and not “an ideal”, they are able to love them even more. I have come to believe that real love is what remains when you finally know the truth.
For the last three years, we at IRAC have been on the forefront of one of Israel’s hottest controversies: gender segregation on buses and in other public areas. There are few social issues that are debated as passionately today in Israel as that of bus segregation.
Here is a little background:
Segregated bus lines, referred to as Mehadrin buses, first started operating in 1999 as a trial project in Jerusalem and B’nai B’rak, areas with high numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews who requested separation from the opposite gender. After this small, and largely hidden, trial run, the number of Mehadrin bus lines swelled to around 90 lines operating all over the country. These buses were part of the Egged system, which is the national public bus company, meaning it is funded and administered by the government!
On Mehadrin bus lines, men enter and sit in the front, women enter and sit in the back, and modesty requirements for women’s dress are imposed. Though these requirements were technically voluntary, in reality the social pressure and intimidation by groups of Haredi men, often young yeshiva students encouraged by their rabbis, would enforce the segregation while the bus drivers would do nothing.
These bus lines are a result of ultra-Orthodox demands that Egged chose to concede to in order to not lose ultra-Orthodox business. As a result of a petition submitted by IRAC in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled declared unequivocally that bus segregation, as it was practiced at the time, was illegal. All buses had to post a sign saying that segregation was illegal and the bus drivers were supposed to keep riders from being intimidated for choosing a seat in the front of the bus. Even after the court ruling saying that segregation was illegal, we found that all too often this was not being enforced.
So what did we do at IRAC? We made it our mission to keep the bus company honest and monitor the enforcement of the law. We started sending volunteer Freedom Riders on the bus lines that were known to segregate in spite of the court ruling. We had brave women go on to these buses and sit in the front and even encourage other women to do the same.
Sometimes they were just ignored, but other times they met resistance and even aggression from ultra-Orthodox men. They were called terrible names and even spit at and threatened while the bus drivers would sit back and do nothing. We also found an elegant solution to this problem. We sue them!
We have found that civil lawsuits against the bus drivers have been a very effective method of encouraging Egged to obey the law. The average settlement has been around 4000 Shekels and word spread fast among the drivers that sitting back and allowing the Haredi to squash the rights of other Israelis is going to really hit them were it counts—in the wallet.
Where are things now? The buses are improving but this fight has moved to other public spaces.
First the buses: we have gone from over 2500 bus rides a day being segregated down to under 1000 and dwindling. It has turned into a “cause célèbre” in Israel in recent months. Israelis from all walks of life and all sides of the political spectrum have begun to see that this is not simply a strange and localized “quirk” practiced in Haredi neighborhoods. Many now see that this affects larger Israeli society. There have been major protests against bus segregation in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and other parts of the country. I have to say that we might actually see this phenomenon die out or shrink to almost nothing in a matter of months. That is the good news.
On the other hand, segregation is popping up in other areas. For a while now, private advertising companies in Jerusalem have bent to Haredi demands to keep images of women off billboards and other advertisements. We have found supermarkets, stores, and even medical clinics that are segregating men and women. In some parts of Jerusalem, women need to have their heart attacks on even days!
Certain radio stations have been coerced into keeping women from speaking on air for the same issue of religious modesty. At a recent Knesset hearing on this very issue we were told by the program director of one of these radio stations that they have a dignified solution to “problem” of hearing a women’s voice on the radio!
They set up a fax machine where women can fax their questions or comments and a man will read them on the air. Our jaws dropped in shock and I spent the rest of the hearing thinking of things I would like to fax him!
Now we have cases where prominent rabbis are telling religious soldiers not to participate in military ceremonies (like memorial services) if women are singing. Where does it end?
Segregation is not something that the majority of Orthodox, or even the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews wanted, but the level of extremism among that community has been growing steadily over the past twenty years. At the same time, ultra-Orthodox power in government has grown at an equal or even faster rate. In many ways, we let this happen right under our noses. Our leadership decided that staying in power was important enough to justify making tremendous concessions to this one minority interest group.
I know that to many this might seem like a purely internal Israeli affair. I understand that many readers outside of Israel might wonder how it affects them or the more pressing issues in Israel like peace. Here is my answer.
In addition to being a very real civil rights issue, segregation is also a symbol for something much deeper. As I stated, most religious Jews do not want this kind of segregation but, at the same time, they are afraid of secular Israeli society—and secular Israelis—creating an Israel where their way of life is threatened. The external conflicts and the internal conflicts must be dealt with at the same time. If we do not, we might find that we have created a state with secure external borders that is destroying itself from the inside.
For years in Israel, we have been trying to find a middle ground that allows for a full and diverse Jewish life inside the Jewish state, similar to what Jews enjoy in the Diaspora. It might seem counterintuitive that removing religious authority from the Jewish state would actually make Jews freer to practice Judaism, but that is the situation in which we find ourselves.
Political freedom is a function of compromise, but religion is generally not that flexible. If we are ruled by religious dogma instead of religious values we will never even have the option to pursue a lasting peace.
The US and Israeli publics alike talk of countries like Iran not only in terms of their military and security threats, but also in terms of how their world view clashes with our own “open and democratic” world view. I do not believe that all Saudis think it is necessary to forbid women to drive a car or travel without the permission of a male relative, but the power of extreme religious interests inside the political systems of certain countries have made it nearly impossible for the true will of the people to find expression. When I see Israeli politicians and the public at large compromising their own values to pacify one extreme voice in society, I fear we could one day be in the same situation.
For Orthodox Jews to have religious freedom in Israel, they need to accept that the Jewish state needs to recognize all forms of Judaism—and even Jews that need no religion at all. If not, their religious hegemony could turn into a theocratic rule just like the one that has been ruling Iran since 1979. Why should we beat the war drum against Iran if we are losing the values that separated us from them in the first place?
When this conflict with our neighbors is settled, the battle will not be over, and we cannot put off any longer what kind of Israel we are creating. Will Israel be a society that gives voice to the voiceless and strength to the weak? Will Israel be the kind of country that continues to excel in creativity or will we descend into a medieval world of oppression, paranoia and religious extremism?
Before I close, I want to return to my time as an opposition leader in the Jerusalem City Council. I spent years criticizing and scrutinizing every action taken by the city government. I didn’t do it because I hated the city; in fact, it was the opposite. If I didn’t want that city that is so important to Jews and non-Jews alike to live up to the high ideals our tradition demands, I would have simply sat back and kept my mouth shut. Criticism is a good thing.
I didn’t keep my mouth shut because it is the vigilance of a strong opposition that keeps democracy honest and functioning. You can disagree and even speak out without compromising your
Zionism, or patriotism or any other -ism you hold dear.
The opposite of love is not hate. Rather, it is indifference. Love and hate are both forms of engaging with something you feel strong about and want to see turn in a certain direction. Indifference towards Israel is the real enemy. Once people concede that Israel’s founding values are not worth fighting for and simply slip away into indifference, the State is doomed.
It is for this reason that I will never disengage with Israel, and I know one day we will see a Jerusalem free of segregation.
Anat Hoffman is a major leader for social justice in Israel. She is perhaps best known for never giving-up, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Anat was born and raised in Jerusalem and she served in the Jerusalem City Council for 14 years, leading the opposition to the right wing and ultra-Orthodox administration. She was a founding member of Women of the Wall and continues to be a tireless advocate for freedom of religion and women’s rights. In 2002, Anat Hoffman became the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.
IRAC’s goals are to promote the values of religious pluralism, human equality, social justice and religious tolerance in Israel and to protect the rights and strengthen the public standing of the Israel Reform Movement and its congregations.