haredi orthodox protester arrest 311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Discrimination and violence against women – purportedly motivated by religious
sensibilities – have spiraled out of control.
In recent weeks, we have
been witness to women attacked for refusing to move to the back of the bus to
uphold a policy of gender segregation; women forced out of a venue where
elections in a Jerusalem neighborhood were being held; women denied the right to
come on stage to receive an official Health Ministry prize for research into the
relationship between Halacha and medicine; women banned from a Jerusalem ad
campaign to encourage organ donations; and women prevented from serving in key
IDF positions due to the opposition of a growing, increasingly vocal group of
religious male soldiers and officers. And this list is by no means
These incidents have generated a debate over what has been
euphemistically referred to as the “banishing” of women from the public sphere.
But chauvinism, discrimination or downright violence would more accurately
describe this behavior.
On Saturday night, a young haredi man was
arrested on suspicion of spitting at a woman helping girls onto a school bus at
a religious-Zionist elementary school in Beit Shemesh.
The recent spate
of incidents is so severe that it brought the issue of gender discrimination to
the center of public discourse. Significantly, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu, who opened Sunday’s cabinet meeting by denouncing discrimination
against women, has called on haredi legislators to speak out publicly against
the phenomenon and ask their spiritual leaders to do so as well.
recent years, a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox community has adopted more
extremist positions, especially with regard to questions of female modesty,
known as tzniut in Hebrew. Women’s physical proximity, no matter how
perfunctory, has been transformed by radical haredi men into an insurmountable
The inner dynamics of the ultra-Orthodox community allow these
men to leverage their influence. Moderation is viewed with disdain as a
weakness. The result has been an unrivaled push for the radical revamping of the
Much has changed since Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895- 1986),
the most important halachic authority in America, permitted men to commute to
work on subways and buses because “unavoidable and unintentional physical
contact is devoid of sexual connotations.”
Today, in contrast, where the
zealots have a say, women simply do not exist. You can search in vain for a
female presence in the ultra-Orthodox press. Pictures of women are taboo, even
when the subject is an infant. If there is a doubt regarding the gender of a
baby – say in a diaper ad – sidelocks or a kippa are added. Female names are
This hyper-puritanical world view is, furthermore,
being accommodated outside strictly ultra-Orthodox circles. As The Jerusalem
’s health reporter Judy Siegel reports in today’s paper, at least two
state-funded health funds – Clalit and Meuhedet – have published special
brochures in deference to ultra-Orthodox sensitivities.
nor “cancer” is mentioned in these brochures. Instead, code words are used. And
even the most innocent photos of women or young girls are vigilantly removed.
Faced with the prospect that segments of the ultra-Orthodox community would
refuse to read these “sexy” brochures – and thus endanger women’s lives by
failing to detect breast cancer early – the heads of the health funds apparently
felt compelled to make these modifications.
Similarly, public bus
companies, apparently motivated by economic considerations, have allowed haredi
activists to enforce gender segregation. By caving in to these unreasonable
demands, the bus companies and health funds are giving them legitimacy. And the
inevitable side effect is a feeling of entitlement and self-righteousness that
emboldens some particularly extreme haredi men to aggressively confront women –
whether on the bus, in the streets of Beit Shemesh or
According to a recently released CBS report, by the year 2059,
haredim – who currently make up 10 percent of the population – will grow by 580%
and represent a third of Israelis. As it grows, the need for haredim to
integrate into mainstream Israeli society and transform themselves from a
parochial enclave to a full-fledged partner in the flourishing of a healthy
Jewish state will grow as well.
What is desperately needed today in the
ultra-Orthodox community is the sort of reasonable, pragmatic spiritual
leadership personified by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that would enable such
integration. Otherwise, coexistence will inevitably become more and more