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Fighting Gender Apartheid in Israel

The world is increasingly taking notice of the turmoil brewing in Israel, where a growing culture war between the rest of Israeli society and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, or “haredim”, is becoming impossible to ignore. Simply stated, what the haredim want is gender apartheid: the forced segregation of the sexes in all public accommodations and the erasure of women from public life. And they’ve repeatedly proven that if they can’t achieve this through the political process, they’re perfectly willing to turn to intimidation and violence.

In the past few weeks, these stories have been coming fast and furious: a gynecology conference where women weren’t allowed to speak; threats and harassment against women activists who refuse to sit at the back of public buses; religious neighborhoods which erect barriers on the sidewalk to segregate the sexes; an 8-year-old girl who has to run a gauntlet of insults and threats from ultra-Orthodox men to attend school; haredi protesters who absurdly dress up like Holocaust victims to protest their inability to segregate public streets.

In the town of Beit Shemesh, one of the flashpoints of this conflict, ultra-Orthodox Jews have been rioting in the streets, assaulting reporters and police officers. At one point, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu proposed dividing the city into two sections, one for for the ultra-Orthodox and one for everyone else. (Pity the liberal Jews who happen to live on the wrong side of that line when they draw it.) That plan seems to have been tabled after fierce criticism, but I suspect the idea isn’t going to go away so easily.

Part of the problem here, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is that most of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox don’t work – they’re literally paid by the government to do nothing but study the Torah – which I suspect leaves plenty of spare time for rioting and other such activities, like defacing posters, throwing stones, and spitting on schoolgirls for not being dressed in sufficiently shapeless clothing. Also, I can’t help but wonder if many moderate Israelis have been slow to realize the extent of the problem. After all, in a country that’s had a female prime minister and currently has a woman presiding over its supreme court, it seems almost impossible that the medieval views of the haredim could be posing a serious threat.

Also, for all their isolation from the modern world, the haredim are surprisingly adept politically. As this article shows, they’re well acquainted with good cop-bad cop tactics:

Rabbi Dror Moshe Cassouto, a 33-year-old Hasid, lives with his wife and four sons in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, one of the centers of Haredi life in Israel. He never looks directly at a woman, other than his wife, and he believes that men and women have roles in nature that in modern society have been reversed, “because we live in darkness.”

…Still, the spitting and Nazi talk horrify him. He says hard-liners have caused harm to the Haredim.

The key thing to keep in mind is this: Even if Cassouto magnanimously grants that the haredim who spit on schoolgirls are wrong, he still advocates gender apartheid. Remember, “he never looks directly at a woman”, and “he believes that men and women have roles in nature” – which invariably means that men should make all the decisions and have all the power, and women should be invisible, powerless and silent, with no function in life other than having babies. That is his ideal; that is his vision of the perfect society; and if he thinks the haredim hardliners have caused harm, it’s only because the backlash could make it more difficult for him to realize this goal. (Note that he fails to express similar concern for the women who’ve been targets of haredi bullying.)

No clearer example than this could be given of Christopher Hitchens’ dictum that “religion poisons everything”. In the 21st century, in a modern, industrialized democracy, religious views straight out of the Dark Ages are making a resurgence, and they’re doing so in sufficient strength to threaten the foundations of society. As liberal and secular as Judaism seems, horrendous verses like the ones that inspire the haredim are still there in its holy text, always waiting to be rediscovered and put into effect by anyone who takes that text literally. As long as our society, or any society, treats these books as sacred objects, this is a threat we can’t hope to solve.

Image: This sign is posted at the entrance to Kiryas Joel, an ultra-Orthodox community in upstate New York. Photo by the author.


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