The first business conference organized by the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, Agudat Israel’s organ, took place last week.
The guest of honor was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and among the speakers were Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant, as well as former ministers, MKs, and senior business and public executives, such as the head of Hadassah hospitals.
So who was not invited? Not a single woman – neither as a speaker nor as an attendee.
I wrote these distinguished guests and urged them to cancel their participation.
I stressed that their participation rendered a kosher stamp of approval to the policy of excluding women. It’s time to say “NO,” I wrote. Unsurprisingly, these distinguished individuals did not respond to my appeal. It did not matter to them that this is not merely a symbolic issue, but rather that the topics discussed: education, health and small businesses in the ultra-Orthodox community – are all areas that profoundly impact women and are often shaped by women. They cannot responsibly be discussed without women’s participation. What remains to be hoped is that the public will speak up and inform these political and business leaders that gender equality may be an insignificant trading card to them, but not so in the eyes of the enlightened public.
Ultra-Orthodox spokespeople preach to us on principles of modesty and religion when they are questioned regarding their refusal to allow women’s participation in public gatherings.
But this is not really about modesty (tzniut
), rather it’s about hypocrisy (tzviut
)! Hypocrisy on the part of the haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) leadership and hypocrisy on the part of secular politicians and movers and shakers of Israel’s economy. It would help to remind ourselves of a few chapters from distant and recent history to better distinguish between truth and cynical rhetoric:
In the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, a fierce battle was waged regarding the right of women to vote and be elected. As could be anticipated, the religious establishment dug its feet in in fierce opposition. Still, the end result is known – women were granted both rights. The ultra-Orthodox responded with a thunderous walk-out from “Knesset Israel
” (the organized Jewish community).
This walk-out did not last long. The ultra-Orthodox parties were not eager to pay the price of separating themselves: losing funding and other benefits available to those who participate in the political game.
Similar confrontation occurred when, years later, a demand was made to include women in the electoral body for the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. Threats were hurled that the chief rabbis would not recognize a city rabbi elected by a body including women, and that self-respecting rabbis would not submit their candidacy for the position. However, this threat also proved to be a toy gun.
Once the Supreme Court ruled that women could not be denied seats in the electoral body, Rabbi I. M. Lau did not pull out his candidacy, nor did the Chief Rabbinate persist in its threats. Moreover, ever since then, it is taken for granted that women serve on the electoral bodies for city rabbis, chief rabbis, and even rabbinic judges for Israel’s rabbinic courts. In the same vein we can mention the Shakdiel case, wherein the Supreme Court ruled that women may serve on religious councils, in spite of the threats that religious men would refuse to sit in the same forum with them. Inclusion of women has become standard, and recently the attorney general even accepted Hiddush’s demand, and instructed that at least 30 percent of religious council members should be women.
The height of hypocrisy in this regard is evidenced in the conduct of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians.
They do not hesitate to serve in the Knesset and government where women play active roles, nor do they leave the Knesset plenum or cabinet room when women speak. Yet they demand, in the name of modesty, that the Hamodia
conference be totally woman-free.
In an interview I gave to an ultra-Orthodox media outlet, the interviewer attempted to explain the difference to me: participation of ultra-Orthodox ministers and MKs in the democratic process alongside women was permitted on the basis of “great need,” but not so with events such as the Hamodia
conference. All he did was prove my point. Clearly, when the interests of the haredi sector are at stake, a way can be found to permit women’s participation. All that’s left now is, therefore, to act
in the spirit of the Governmental Committee Addressing Exclusion of Women from the Public Sphere, which decided such segregation is wrong and unacceptable; governmental and public representatives should refrain from participating in and accommodating it.
If these distinguished invitees had acted so, I’m confident that halachic permission would have been found to allow women’s participation in such public events. Gone would have been the empty excuse that it’s religiously mandated to exclude women in the name of modesty, and gone would be the pious quoting of the verse “all the glory of the King’s daughter is within” (Ps. 45:13).
This may not completely stop all conferences in the ultra-Orthodox sector from excluding women, but it is just as clear that the participation of public figures and senior business executives grants legitimacy to this objectionable phenomenon, rather than contributing to its elimination.
I’m hopeful that in the future, invitees to such events will demonstrate greater self-respect and care for the values of democracy and equality. Organizers should know that if they wish to enjoy the honor of their participation and gain from their experience, they should take the trouble of respecting their values as well as the honor of the State of Israel. If we wish to fly the flag of women’s equality, we must open such doors as well, once and for all.
The author, a rabbi, heads Hiddush, an Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom.