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Gender Trouble

Suddenly, it seems, gender segregation is everywhere in Israel—buses, army bases, Jerusalem sidewalks, Beit Shemesh schoolyards and, above all, the front pages.  What is going on here?  Why is all this happening now?

Relevant Links
Beit Shemesh and Kabul  Anat Tzruya, Eretz Acheret. Attacks by enraged Haredim on women who won’t move to the back of the bus sometimes turn physical.
Beacon of Hope in Beit Shemesh?  Yitzhak Meir Yavetz, Eretz Acheret. A yeshiva student tries to give a voice to the Haredim who have no taste for violence.
Excluded, for God's Sake  Ricky Shapira-Rosenberg, Israel Religious Action Center. Reform Judaism’s report on gender segregation in Israeli public spaces. (PDF)

Let's begin with the second question.  "This"—that is, efforts by some sectors of Israeli Orthodoxy to set terms for the public presence of women that are very different from those of the secular majority—has been underway for years.  Indeed, the better question is, what has taken mainstream Israel (if there still is such a thing) so long to take notice?

There are various trends at work here, but we can make one large assertion: The center no longer holds, and one of the most volatile seams along which the fault lines run is gender.

Let's start with the buses.  In the late 1990s, at the request of some Haredim, the Transportation Ministry created bus lines, serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and cities, on which women would enter from and sit in the back, on an officially "voluntary" basis.  The lines were called "mehadrin" or "beautified," the talmudic term for religious practices combining special piety with an aesthetic touch.  They were deemed legally permissible because Israeli law allows discrimination when it is necessary to provide access to public services and does not harm the common weal.  All the fundamental questions (necessary? common weal?) were left wide open. 

The lines grew to number around 50.  Their biggest problem was the violence, verbal and sometimes physical, regularly meted out to religious and secular women who, for whatever reason, entered and sat in the front.  In 2007 one victim—Naomi Ragen, a well-known Orthodox novelist who is, not coincidentally, American-born—went to court, represented by the Reform Movement's Center for Religious Pluralism.  Under orders by Israel's High Court to issue a formal report, the Transportation Ministry concluded in October, 2009 that the segregated buses were illegal.  The Transportation Minister tried to distance himself from the report and, for months, pleaded for more time.  The Court finally ruled that the segregated lines could proceed—on an entirely voluntary basis, with clear signs to that effect.  The lines still run, at times through force.

Next, Beit Shemesh.  Situated near ultra-Orthodoxy's holy cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, it has attracted growing numbers of Israeli Haredim.  They have joined the traditional but religiously moderate Mizrahim who arrived when it was a hardscrabble development town and the American Modern Orthodox, who began arriving in the 1980s.  Many Haredi arrivals were from Jerusalem's Meah Shearim, a venerable and veritable nuclear reactor of Haredi ideology, zealotry, and occasional violence.  Ultra-Orthodox cities have been growing in Israel since the mid-1990s.  But in Beit Shemesh, the ultra-Orthodox urban space abuts dissenting populations, religious Zionists as well as American Haredim who are changing Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy, both anathema to the zealots.

Religious zealotry has a long history in Israel.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Abraham Isaac Kook was dismembered in effigy, denounced as a Christian missionary, and doused with buckets of water in the streets.  Rhetorical violence is a staple of Haredi discourse; indeed, it has become an art form.  But the mounting violence against women, no doubt reflecting sincere conviction (not to mention the need for enemies and the bored young Haredim unsuited for yeshiva life), also seems to bespeak increasing internal tensions.

Israel's Haredim are increasing (some predict they will be in the majority by 2030) and are no longer an enclave.  Though traditionalist, they have internalized modern aspirations to remake society and strategies of ideological mobilization. Far from monolithic, they have they have their own internal kulturkampfen.  Haredi singers perform before mixed audiences.  Haredim serve in special military units—and often face community ostracism.  Haredi women have made extraordinary educational and occupational strides.  The response by some has been to send them, literally, to the back of the bus—and push them out of view elsewhere. 

The Haredi-controlled Health Ministry has forbidden women to appear at ceremonies honoring these same women.  Female community board members have been forced to sit behind mehitzot (partitions) at meetings.  There have been attempts to enforce separate hours for men and women in government offices. It took a petition to the High Court to get women candidates' campaign posters onto Jerusalem's buses.  Egged and its advertising firm were sued last week because of the onerous security deposit they require—a guarantee against likely vandalism, they say—from companies that use women's faces in bus advertising.  Other lawsuits (including one co-filed by this writer) have challenged separate sidewalks for men and women.  In conversation and on Haredi websites, many Haredim oppose forcible segregation and the accompanying violence.  But they have almost no collective voice and no support from Haredi leadership.  

The recent furors over women's singing in the Army come from a different, less obvious direction.  Increasing numbers of IDF soldiers and officers are so-called "Hardali" (Haredi Dati Leumi).  Unlike Haredim, they participate in the military and favor the idea of the Jewish state—but reject its integration into Western culture.  One element of their program is sexual modesty, or tsniut—partially for Haredi-like aims of male-female separation and the repression of public expression of sexuality, but also as a marker of national identity and a means of channeling romanticism in the direction of the sacred.

Both Haredi and Hardali countercultures seek to maintain the crucial gender divide while dissolving Israeli society's boundaries between the religiously public and private, between religious and mundane.  Indeed, the surrounding Israeli society has been a key, if silent, player here.

First, Haredim and Hardalim seeking an ideology and identity distinct from the surrounding society find in gender a powerful source of difference.  Second, their excesses are in part a reaction to the freewheeling sexuality of secular Israel, whose socio-cultural norms are more European than American.  Third, secular politicians and secular Israel at large have until just recently been thunderingly indifferent.  These battles have been waged, in court and elsewhere, by lonely groups of feminists, Reform Jews, and moderate religious Zionists.  They have been met with incomprehension by journalists, politicians, and other secular elites who see the mehadrin bus lines simply as political spoils and who, from the Prime Minister on down, have buried their heads in the sand for the sake of coalition politics.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton changed all that when she talked about the situation at the Brookings Institution.  The Prime Minister and the political class now understand that they have a problem.  Yet they may not understand that it is more than a public relations problem. At stake here is the constitution of Israeli public space and civil society.

In Israel's early decades, for better or worse, the Mapai Labor Zionist establishment constituted both the state's ruling body and society's symbolic and civic-religious center.  Mapai, with its flaws, offered a governing ethos and a plausible interpretation of Jewish history and identity.  Its political eclipse beginning in the 1970s, then its fissile social and cultural collapse in the ensuing decades, left Israeli society increasingly fragmented.  One casualty has been the idea of a public, civic space, open to and shared equally by all.  Major political parties lay less claim than before to representing the entire public and avowedly sectoral parties are growing.  The creation of entirely Haredi cities, largely in the territories, has further eroded the idea of neutral civic space.

In that respect, the public outcry galvanized by the broadcast of ultra-Orthodox thugs tormenting Naama Margolese is of a piece with last summer's economic protests.  In both cases, many people, particularly in Israeli middle-class society, who could choose to live elsewhere but who serve in the army, pay taxes, and still feel Zionism in their bones, have shown that they feel the common weal has been sold off in pieces—and that they want it back.

Americans may be astonished that we need to debate whether women should sit in the back of the bus.  But in Israel, this debate, unwelcome as it is, can still be a good thing.  Proponents of Israeli civil society, religious and secular, must demonstrate that they can mount a principled defense of their core values and their conception of the public sphere. 

In this brave new networked world, passively following MacWorld's dictates du jour is as demoralizing and useless as a return to an imagined Haredi idyll in the shtetl that never was.  Faced by a flood of emails, images, videos, status updates, and tweets, which may reshape not only our communications but our inner worlds, we—not just Haredim or Hardalim—should renew the indispensable Jewish value of tsniut.  It teaches that I must contain some of my own presence, not to erase the others but to let them, him or her, be and flourish.

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susan pashman on January 16, 2012 at 9:18 am (Reply)
Bill Clinton first rallied support for a mission to Afghanistan by calling America's attention to the Taliban's abuse of women. HiIlary Clinton should go beyond the Brookings Institution and carry this problem to the center of American government. America cannot support, financially or morally, a country that permits segregation of any kind or relegates women to a lower social and political status. Nor can it overlook the Israeli government's reluctance to require basic education for all its citizens, whether they subscribe to religious education or not.
David S on January 16, 2012 at 9:18 am (Reply)
The author devotes his article to discussing the source of the problem only to stick in a plea for tsniut at the end. He says the secular mainstream should make a principled case for its values, then throws out a platitude. The principle is this: All people, men and women alike, are made in God's image and cannot be treated like second class citizens.
elishebabb on January 16, 2012 at 9:23 am (Reply)
Find solutions that will be acceptable to both sides. For example, create a "land of goshen" where haredim can live and do what they want--but will have to be self-supporting, just as their ancestors were, with agriculture and animal husbandry.
ilan on January 16, 2012 at 10:05 am (Reply)
Excellent article. Informative and interesting. I do, however, take issue with your equating the soldiers who refuse to listen to a woman sing with the efforts of others to force women out of the public space. The article carelessly paints two very different things with the same brush. The soldiers in question, whether or not they were doing something wrong, did not try to get the women to stop singing; they simply didn't want to be present for it. Part of being in a free society is the right to not to expose yourself to something you don't want, not by stopping the undesirable activity from occurring but by excusing yourself. This instance was notable only because it occurred in a less-than-free part of society, the army.
Eytan Mirsky on January 16, 2012 at 10:14 am (Reply)
An informative article marred by an absurd conclusion.
Shlomo K on January 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm (Reply)
When will the secular parties in Israel wake up and realize they have been "dealing with the devil?" Labor, Likud, and Kadima could form a majority in the Kenneset and not have to feed into a system of blackmail and corruption by the Charedim. They are so busy trying to protect Israel from the enemy without that they have failed to deal with the enemy within. I have no problem letting the charedim live the lives they want--just not with other people's money and not by infringing on other people's civil rights.
Cynic on January 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm (Reply)
Israel does not relegate woman to a lower social and political status. Have you seen who takes part in the political life and judiciary there? Only the ultra-orthodox do this, in their own areas--where, in a democracy, they are entitled to live their way of life. The Israeli government, requires basic education for its citizens; but one can take a horse to water . . . in the case of the ultra-orthodox; and, because of the world's hypocrisy, Israel cannot force Arab citizens to educate their women.
Eliezer Diamond on January 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm (Reply)
Does objecting to segregation on buses show a lack of tsniyut? Is asking that eight year old girls not be taunted and pelted with excrement a lack of tsniyut? Religious moderates may feel an imperative to propagate the value of modesty; but the lack of it in Israeli society is no justification for discrimination, harassment, and violence. Mirsky's conclusion plays--unwittingly, I am sure--into the hands of the extremists.

Israel is indeed at a crossroads. It must decide if there can be a public space where all are free to express themselves as they wish. This may mean some discomfort for everyone: the presence of scantily dressed women--and men--for hardalim and haredim; and the presence of haredim who, because of their attire and sometimes their looks, comments, and actions (and, as my son feels, because they overwhelmingly let others defend the nation's borders), are experienced as a negative presence by secular Israelis. That's the way it is; people with different views and practices must learn to live together, or democracy is impossible. Anyone concerned about promoting tsniyut in society can do so only through engagement. Separatism and theocratic fiat are exactly the wrong tools. My son, about to get married, wants nothing to do with the rabbanut. Why? Because he experiences (not always justifiably, in my opinion) the haredim of Jerusalem, where he lives,as a people apart and because he resents a system that dictates the manner in which he must get married and who may perform the ceremony. This is where change needs to occur, and not with a wistful sigh about tsniyut.
Hilary on January 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm (Reply)
I had no idea Rav Kook was treated that way. I really resonated with his published work 'Orot.' The man was on to something. I know he would not endorse what is happening now!
Fran Gordon Immerman on January 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm (Reply)
This is an excellent overview of the situation that has been created by an over-empowered ultra-Orthodox religious/political minority. The Israeli public has awakened and begun to reclaim public Jewish space. One of the main pillars of 21st-century Zionism must be working with Israelis to re-strike the balance between core Jewish values and the democratic ideals articulated in Israel's Declaration of Independence. This social change movement is the "modern Jewish democracy movement." I applaud Israelis and invite American Jews to become advocates for "spiritual civil rights." For those interested in a creative advocacy project, please visit the website of the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song
David Neil on January 16, 2012 at 2:53 pm (Reply)
What if religious women (and men) want to have private bus lines where they can sit separately? Should they not be allowed to have them? What about women who are extremely uncomfortable when people are packed together tightly in very crowded buses? Would it be wrong to offer an alternative? If you look at the big picture, Haredi women are less discriminated against than their secular counterparts. As a Haredi father, I am glad that my teenage daughters (and sons) are not involved in pre-marital sex, which is the norm in secular circles; this prevents my daughters (and sons) from being used. As a father, I am glad to say that the first man who will touch my daughter is one who will commit to her for life, in marriage. How many secular fathers can say that? How sad for secular girls who grow up in front of the TV thinking they have to be models and forever young to be considered attractive--a guaranteed formula for depression and low self-worth. No one in our community has TV or internet in their houses. We’re glad our children aren’t on the internet and our boys aren't being fed a narrow notion of what beautiful is. Ever heard the line, "Yeah, sure baby, I love you, just let me . . . ." Isn't there some of that in all pre-marital sex when there is no commitment involved? Who is talking about discrimination? In secular Jewish societies, in both the United States and Israel, it is documented that women are paid about 39 percent of what men are paid for the exact same work. Isn't that discrimination? Not to mention giving the vast majority of the Executive positions to men. See the third article posted on if you have the stomach to have your preconceived notions challenged.
10024 on January 16, 2012 at 3:04 pm (Reply)
How does the idea that "I must contain some of my own presence, not to erase others but to let them . . . be and flourish" teach that "we," not just Haredim or Hardalim, "should renew the indispensable Jewish value of tsniut"? Can't "contain some of my own presence" mean others--women--have the responsibility to contain themselves?
Yoine Cohen on January 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm (Reply)
Re "The article . . . paints two very different things with the same brush," the two issues are different--but not so very different. The bus lines in in Israel, Egged and Dan, are monopolies subsidized and highly regulated by government. Haredim, who as a group are lower-income, are disproportionately users of public transportation. Haredim who wish to travel in segregated buses would gladly agree to have those buses operate privately; but the Egged and Dan cooperatives vehemently defend their monopoly and want to be the designated operators of these routes as well. Given the State's insistence on preventing the Haredim from operating these lines privately, how far are those Haredim from those religious army officers? Both are subject to an element of State coercion. In no way am I defending zealots who engage in despicable behavior. I condemn them not as a person with a more liberal world view but as a Haredi, on the basis of my own Haredi beliefs and values. Also, anti-religious coercion is the mother's milk of modern Zionism. Even the most moderate secular Israelis believe Haredi schools should be forced to teach their children about Herzl. Other subjects that are religious anathema to Haredim are part of the government's program as well. Subjecting Haredim to social engineering of the liberal socialist kind, by force if necessary, is the ultimate dream of secular Zionists. Last year Israel's High Court, in forcing the Hasidic school in Emanuel to accept Sephardi girls, also ordered the school, under threat of imprisonment, to change its "Chasidic-specific religious" curriculum, on grounds that this curriculum was, in and of itself, discriminatory. If this is not religious coercion I don't know what is. Contrast that to last week's unanimous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which positive right to freedom from religious coercion was deemed more important than the plaintiffs' complaint of unfair discrimination. See Sadly, in Israel the struggle is not about securing neutral rights for all; it is more of a contest regarding which kind of coercion will prevail.
Geoff on January 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm (Reply)
Refusing to hear women sing--that is, breaking military discipline to protest a personal inconvenience--is very much the same as driving women off sidewalks and into the back of the bus. It is forcing commanders either to (a) tailor every public event to the objectors or (b) accept the idea that religious soldiers may go their own way whenever they are inconvenienced (in which case, what happens when the IDF has to enforce anti-settler decisions by the political leadership that irk Hardali enlistees?). This poison, in the main merely annoying now, is on the slippery slope to Iranian-style "modesty police" and the loss of Israel to the family of western nations. The stand against it needs to start here and now.
YM on January 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm (Reply)
For a Jewish man, willingly listening to a live female singing is against halacha, just like eating pork or kindling a fire on Shabbos. The soldiers simply asked to be excused from the concert. Israel is supposed to be a Jewish and democratic state, not a secular and democratic state.
Ruth Mendes on January 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm (Reply)
It's a good thing that Miriam, Deborah, Esther, etc. were not subject to haredi rules. Or did Moses and the men Israeli absent themselves while Miriam led the women in singing on the shores? Dd the soldiers of Israel plug their ears when Deborah the Judge spoke? And of course, Esther fled from taking a leadership role in the court of Ahashueros. . . . There are many other examples, like that of Keturah circumcising Moses' sons; but Biblical women didn't seem to ride, figuratively, in the back of the bus.
Jerry Blaz on January 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm (Reply)
In 1948, when David Ben Gurion agreed to give the religious bloc in Israel the ability to exempt a couple of hundred superior yeshiva students from military service and permit Orthodox rabbis a monopoly over life passages, nobody realized what a problem would arise from it. Today, tens of thousands of young men, because they have declared that "torah is their calling," have never had to defend their country or go to war. So, today, there are tens of thousands of rabbis in Israel looking to continue their government-subsidized yeshiva studies while they start families to be supported by the government. With so many ultra-Orthodox rabbis, they began to compete with religious Zionist rabbis, known as Modern Orthodox in the United States. As this process continued, the yeshivot were teaching less Orthodox and more ultra-Orthodox approaches to religion. As a result, the rabbinate in Israel has become very ultra-Orthodox; and many religious Zionists have become more ultra-Orthodox. The Hardali, an acronym of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and dati (religious, denoting religious Zionist), reflects the influence of ultra-Orthodox rabbis on younger generations. At the same time, Orthodox women have been making strides in gaining ritual rights to engage in ritual rites. The "Women of the Wall" constitute a group that the rabbis decided could not be permitted to pray out loud and read from the Torah, particularly at the Kotel. "Black-hat rabbinicism" reacted to the "chutzpah" of these women, who are usually well educated religiously as well as generally; and, in what I believe is a reaction to this "female chutzpah," suddenly Meah Sha'arim, the historically ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, segregated their sidewalks, and the sex-segregated bus lines proliferated. (I still haven't figured out how the driver collects fees from women entering the bus through the rear door.) Stores that wanted the business of the ultra-Orthodox had to provide separate checkout lines and even separate doors for entering and leaving, based on gender segregation. As the ultra-Orthodox tend to use their women to work and bring in money--and as "brood animals," as they carry out the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply--their large families needed more room than they could find in Me'ah Sha'arim and other ultra-Orthodox areas; they started to "take over" neighborhoods in many towns, which brought matters to the boiling point when one of the "Cossacks of the KB"Hu" spat on an eight-year-old girl (wearing a long skirt) and called her a "whore." All hell broke loose in Beit Shemesh, answered by a flashmob dance several days later by a group of mostly religious women.

Even halachah recognizes the difference between the private domain and the public domain. But a kind of "holy imperialism" seems to lead ultra-Orthodox extremists to expand the private domain to include public streets, and even entire areas that include non-ultra-Orthodox majorities, as theirs to do with as their rebbes dictate. We are talking about extremists among the ultra-Orthodox, apparently a small minority with loud voices and strong organization. There have been many reports of statements by other ultra-Orthodox that these extremists must be stopped, because the majority of ultra-Orthodox are afraid of this minority. But when the gentiles have anti-Semites among the their numbers, it is a gentile problem. We are not the cause; we are only the victims. This is the problem of the ultra-Orthodox community, for them to solve; the rest of Israel is only the victim.
Meirah on January 16, 2012 at 10:22 pm (Reply)
If a vocal minority is creating the ugliness, it is time for the silent majority to become more vocal and active; also, if those who desire modesty and religious observance to become more prevalent would themselves be more charitable, they would be more likely to see such changes in society.
Former Zionist on January 16, 2012 at 11:02 pm (Reply)
The article entirely fails to present the side of the haredim, whom Israel treats as sub-human, denying them speech by imprisoning those who say unpopular things and beating haredim at demonstrations. The article omits the many ways in which non-haredi Israel discriminates against men. Non-haredi Israel takes children away from 98 percent of divorced fathers, makes men work a half-decade longer than women, makes men give to Tsahal for years longer than women, and sends men to be mutilated and die in defense of the country at a far higher rate than women. The familistim have, justifiably, filed a girevance with the UN on behalf of Israeli males. Israel is misandrist and anti-Semitic and does not deserve support.
Cynic on January 17, 2012 at 7:17 am (Reply)
Regarding the "many reports of statements by other ultra-Orthodox that these extremists must be stopped, because the majority of ultra-Orthodox are afraid of this minority:" This is the same argument used when moderate Muslims cannot be found. Regarding the "holy imperialism" that "seems to lead ultra-Orthodox extremists to expand the private domain to include public streets," this week saw rioting by an ultra-orthodox clan because some of its members were arrested for tax evasion and other white collar crimes. For them, the laws of the secular state don't apply, even as they milk the wealth it provides.
TEVYA ZEE on January 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm (Reply)
Are we Jews nuts? With enemies all around ready to murder both male and female Jews, we argue about "the gender factor?" Will someone tell the ultra-extreme Haredi that it's the mother who passes on the Jewish hereitage?
Jerry Blaz on January 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm (Reply)
I don't know who is talking about murder, but we are talking about the fact that one person's freedom stops where another person's nose starts. A child should not be victimized verbally and assaulted by an adult because he doesn't like the way the child is dressed. Years ago, when the ultra-Orthodox were throwing stones at cars near that traveled on streets near their Jerusalem neighborhood on shabbat, they actually caused personal injury to drivers and passengers. The authorities reacted by closing off the street every shabbat. So, even then, the "city fathers" were too appeasing. Now, the ultra-Orthodox are used to getting their way; they even attack garbage collectors if the rebbe has riled them up. It got to a point at which garbage collectors feared for their lives and refused to go into their streets. The garbage just piled up. The ultra-Orthodox involved in this protest (for whatever reason, I don't recall) preferred living in the garbage, with their multitudes of small children playing in the streets,rather than give any leeway to governmental authorities on any level. I presume they believed that if their rebbe told them to do something, God would protect their children from the rats and disease of the accumulated garbage. Their aspirations for the heavenly Jerusalem are so prominent and prevailing that they negate any sense of their responsibilities to others during their sojourning in the earthly Jerusalem.

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