Gender insanity

Discrimination and violence against women – purportedly motivated by religious sensibilities – have spiraled out of control.

By
December 25, 2011 22:51
3 minute read.
Protester is arrested in Jerusalem

haredi orthodox protester arrest 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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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 exhaustive.

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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.

In 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 hurdle.

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 public domain.



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 even abbreviated.

This hyper-puritanical world view is, furthermore, being accommodated outside strictly ultra-Orthodox circles. As The Jerusalem Post’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.

Neither “breast” 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 elsewhere.

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 difficult.

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