Last week Army Radio reported that a group of students from the Chai Roi Institute, in the settlement of Eli, refused to attend a lecture by the director of the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC) during a visit to the Knesset, because she happens to be a woman. The Knesset refused to replace her with a man, and the students had to make due with a visit without lectures.

According to the organization’s website, the Chai Roi Institute offers “a unique program, that enables the graduates of the Beit Midrash and Kollel [of Eli] to continue to engage in the Torah, and develop themselves towards public and idealistic leadership roles within Am Yisrael, parallel with their academic studies.”

Though the head of the program at Eli, Rabbi Eli Sadan, apologized to the director of the RIC, Dr. Shirley Avrami, and said that the incident was the result of the mistake of one of the students, who had been sent to organize the visit to the Knesset, he nevertheless admitted that it was connected to the issue of modesty.

Though on the face of it little harm was done, in fact the incident is very worrying. The Knesset prides itself on the fact that a majority of its employees are women, that many department heads, most of the committee directors and senior legal advisors, and its current secretary-general are women. Furthermore, three of the department heads are religious women – two of them haredi. This is a reality that all the religious MKs and their assistants have learned to live with.

IT IS profoundly worrying that educated young men with leadership ambitions in the national religious camp apparently have a problem with the presence of women in public life. It is a matter of great concern that within this group there is a clear trend of seeking to exclude women from the public domain in the name of “modesty,” and of protecting religious men from impure thoughts.

I have frequently heard religious people make the argument that acceptance of (Orthodox) religious norms on the issue of women’s place in society would go a long way towards eliminating the problem of violence against women.

Would were that the case. Unfortunately, however, there is no indication that removing women from public roles does in fact reduce incidents of violence against women.

While there are no statistics about violence against women specifically in the religious community, such violence certainly does exist, as it does in all sectors of society, including the most “enlightened.” I remember being utterly shocked when I first discovered that one of my former Knesset colleagues – a religious divorcee – had suffered physical violence from her rabbi husband.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel women have struggled for equality in terms of career opportunities, employment conditions and salaries, as well as social status and professional respect. This in addition to fighting for effective legislation dealing with violence against women, including domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The progress has been painfully slow – but progress has been made.

The issue of how one can prevent men from hurting women is certainly one that should concern everyone in society. In my personal view, in many cases women can do more to avoid being hurt, without losing any of their freedom or dignity. However, one should make it absolutely clear to all those who call for the exclusion of women from the public domain, for whatever reason, that what they are doing is also a form of violence against women. It is, in fact, a frontal attack against what women in this country have achieved in the course of years of struggle.

When this comes from young men with leadership ambitions who plan to pursue academic studies, there is real reason for concern. I would suggest the spiritual leaders of the religious Zionist community start dealing with the sexual dilemmas of their flock without pushing women to the sidelines.

The problem isn’t the presence or the rights of women. It is getting men to cope appropriately with their presence and these rights. In the specific case of the Chai Roi students, didn’t it occur to anyone simply to ask the Knesset to ensure that all those giving lectures should be dressed appropriately? Had they done so they would have been told that they need not worry since the Knesset has a proper dress code for its employees.

Incidentally, the current chairperson of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women is a religious woman – MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), who told Army Radio on the Chai Roi incident that “the decision of the Knesset not to cooperate with the illogical request... is a model for how public institutions should act in cases of the exclusion of women.”

The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.

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