Elana Sztokman's JewFem blog

Elana Maryles Sztokman, PhD, writer, researcher, educator and activist, writing on issues pertaining to gender and Jewish life in Israel and around the world.

Is this about the exclusion of women, or hatred of haredim?

Israeli women are stirring. For the first time in Israel’s history, we are witnessing a mass women’s protest movement using some fascinating and inspiring tools of civil disobedience. This sudden eruption of sentiment for gender equality is perhaps simply late in coming, a generation or two behind its American counterpart from the 1960s and 1970s. Or perhaps it is not merely a late arrival but an entirely different animal. It is both similar to and vastly different from feminist revolutions that preceded it, a product not only of the universal need for equality but also of the particular, local cholent that we call Israeli society. The movement is in some ways fueled by classic feminist spirit, but in some ways driven by diverse and perhaps dubious motives that may have little to do with women’s issues.

To be sure, the grass-roots activities of nonviolent protest that are emerging from dozens of corners around Israel would make Gandhi proud. In response to segregation on buses, for example there are now “Freedom Rides”, organized by IRAC, in which small groups of men and women ride buses and sit unsegregated. In response to soldiers’ refusal to listen to women sing, a group called “Be Free Israel” organized an event called “Singing for Equality” in which the weapon of choice was women’s voices in song. In response to the destruction of pictures of women on billboards, the New Israel Fund organized an activity called “Women should be seen and heard” in which women are hanging photographs of themselves on balcony posters.

This is in some ways a classic movement of civil disobedience, one that women in Israel have never really tried before, and it is truly budding from the ground up. The energy is phenomenal, and it feels like quite an exciting time to be a woman in Israel. Women are finally speaking up and being heard. Politicians from all corners are responding with initiatives, bill proposals and provocative statements of support.  Things are happening, and they are starting with the voice of the people.

It is significant, however, that thus far all the targets of protest are practices are haredi.  Perhaps this is because the practices in question are so very backward and anti-democratic that they seem to cross all boundaries of normalcy. An event last week, for example, in which the Ministry of Health held an award ceremony and refused to allow one of the recipients to appear on stage to receive her award is beyond ludicrous. There is a real sense that practices being promoted as “sensitive” to the religious world are simply relics of the dark ages. That government officials regularly capitulate to such demands for “sensitivity” sparks a justified outrage, as if an entire ethos of democracy, civility, and human rights is being sold off to the most outrageous religious fanatics.

Perhaps this is catching on as a movement because people relate not so much to the gender issue but to the fear of widespread religious coercion. Indeed, some of the most outspoken groups on this issue are those fighting most emphatically for the separation of religion and state. In an unnerving but rather typical scenario, when the only warriors on the battlefront are women’s groups, there is scant attention to the issue, but as soon as other, mixed-gender groups are involved, the issue goes mainstream. I don’t mean to accuse well-intentioned and highly dedicated organizations of hijacking the women’s movement. Rather, I would argue that, the composition of Israel’s grass-roots coalition between feminists and ardent secularists reminds us that Israel has its own rules, and that on the topic of gender, like almost every other public issue in Israel, the religious-secular divide seems to be unilaterally defining and domineering.

Perhaps, however, the reason why the current movement revolves around religious sexism – as opposed to sexism in government, in the economy, in the army or in social policy – is because it’s easier to point fingers at others than to look inwards.  I mean, it’s great that Prime Minster Netanyahu is speaking out for women’s rights, but let us remember that he has a total of three women on his cabinet, and only six women in his entire Likud faction. And Ehud Barak is even worse. How can we possibly expect an army to stand up for women’s rights to sing when the Chief of Staff and Defense Minister joke about female soldiers taking off their uniforms? The sexism in the IDF is so deeply entrenched that, frankly, religious soldiers walking out during official ceremonies is the least of our problems.  And to top it all off, let us not forget that, according to a study released last week by the Adva Center, women are still making 65 agorot to the shekel compared to men. I’m waiting for the sit-in that will fight that inequality.

So while it is thrilling to watch this movement of civil rights unfold in Israel, I am also cautious in my enthusiasm, worried that it will evolve into just another religious-secular war. What I hope will happen instead is that the movement will spark the beginning of broad change for women, that the issue of gender segregation will be only the first of many issues tackled by society and the government, and that it will ultimately bring about a real transformation in consciousness.  And I’m hoping that all those declaring solidarity with women will remember to look inward and repair their own backyards as well.

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