Is silencing women, holding them captive to be the norm in Israel?

THERE IS a relentless push to theocracy in Israel, one incident at a time. We see creeping infringement on public space, limiting the rights and human dignity of women, in multiple ways.

THE FACES of women are defaced on a billboard in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE FACES of women are defaced on a billboard in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The phenomenon of vigilantes defacing ads that feature women’s faces is symptomatic of a broader social illness in Israel. An illness bolstered by product catalogs, bus lines and stores that respond by ceasing to post such ads.
This effacement is part of a larger project of anathematizing women’s presence in public space. This is becoming an insidious norm. To avoid “trouble,” sphere after sphere of life are “cleansed” of women, their voices, and faces, in policies that make “male only” normal and women’s presence, aberration; to be tolerated, if at all, in controlled fashion, as men decide.
Men have harassed women on buses, airplanes and trains, demanding that they change their seats to accommodate the men’s refusal to sit near women. Successful lawsuits have upheld the principle of non-discrimination, in transit, at least. Yet the incidents continue.
There has been a “bleeding” of such demands into events in public space, even publicly funded ones, such as the concert in a park in Afula, in August 2019, one of 300 segregated events the city was planning. A few months earlier, a segregated event was held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, both justified with the bogus claim that this is about freedom of religion. In the endlessly cynical words of the Shas Party, which relentlessly pursues the suppression and persecution of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, while its own, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) variant, enjoys official recognition and massive State funding, the Afula event was about “ensuring that every person can live according to his or her faith and way of life, without any coercion.”
But no one is challenging the right to segregate in private space, like synagogues or yeshivas. This about public space, which, by definition, belongs to all, and must remain open to all equally, without distinction by religion, ethnicity, skin color, or gender.  
Similar arguments have been made to introduce segregation – what the feminist psychologist, Phyllis Chesler calls, “gender apartheid” – in universities, asking women to pay the price in fewer employment and course opportunities for Israel’s endemic failure to require serious secular education in all schools. 
In a landmark case in 1954 about separate schools for blacks and whites, the US Supreme Court ruled that there is no such thing as separate and equal. Separation inevitably means hierarchy and inequality, with those demanding “separation” invariably those enjoying superior facilities. The very demand to limit the space or expression of others – an act which itself, makes those demanding separation the norm and those it targets, Others – is an act of power and privilege. Organizers of the Tel Aviv event spoke of “special places for women.” Can anyone imagine a public event with “special places” for men? Or for specified ethnic or religious groups?
Not surprisingly, during failed coalition talks in May 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted haredi party demands to alter the legal definition of “discrimination” to exclude segregation. More surprising and alarming was Attorney-General Mandelblit’s statement during the Afula affair that publicly funded, segregated events in public space – events using women’s taxes – could be legal under “special circumstances.”
All this goes a long way to normalizing discrimination against women. And to institutionalizing theocracy: a system in which religious authorities impose social norms and laws. Theocracies are always patriarchal. They are inherently anti-democratic, inegalitarian and misogynistic. Think: Iran of the mullahs, Afghanistan of the Taliban or Saudi Arabia. 
THERE IS a relentless push to theocracy in Israel, one incident at a time. We see creeping infringement on public space, limiting the rights and human dignity of women, in multiple ways. 
The rabbinic administrator of the Western Wall holds a yearly Hanukkah menorah lighting there. Or rather, in the men’s section created there, with no public input, in three-quarters of its space. Only men are invited to light that menorah. He then forbids women holding a similar service in the women’s section and tries to disrupt it when women spirit in a hanukkiah, in pieces. 
In 2012 and 13, this man, with a lifelong appointment – awarded in what process? – ordered police to detain women who donned a tallit there (myself, among them), leading to worldwide headlines about repression of Judaism in the Jewish state, action that would rightly be termed Jew-hating in any other country. He issued a seemingly neutral, if bizarre, directive forbidding anyone from bringing a Torah scroll into the site, while simultaneously denying women access to any of site’s scrolls. The purpose of this directive is discrimination against and anathematization of women, while asserting authority that is not legally his in order to expand that authority, de facto, just as he does with the hanukkiah lighting.
He calls himself “the rabbi of the Kotel.” But the Western Wall is not a synagogue, and does not have a rabbi. The legal status of the Western Wall is “national holy site” of the Jewish people, one of a class of such sites – including Meron. “National holy site” used to express how Jews across the globe and the religious-secular spectrum, including secular soldiers who fought to return it to Jewish hands, felt about the place, as this remarkable photo, taken just after the 1967 war, shows:
NO LONGER. Not only secular but many religious Jews avoid the site for the haredi shrine that creeping theocracy has made it.
By calling himself its rabbi, including on his official stationary, the site’s administrator appropriates it as one where he rightly sets religious practice. We see the success of creeping theocracy in the media’s consistent use of this erroneous title for him, reifying his claim to the Kotel.
I was a founder of women’s group prayer at the Western Wall more than 30 years ago and I remain committed to the right of Jewish women to pray together in Jewish sacred space, with the same options available to men; for this to be an option, to exercise or not, in peace.
My name is on several Supreme Court cases arguing that right, which we have won: a ruling in 2003 that such prayer is legal. How could the court have held otherwise – that the same acts are holy when practiced by men but obscenity when practiced by women, as our opponents – represented by the State of Israel, our government-- have argued? We won a District Court ruling in 2013 that women’s group prayer at the Western Wall is “a custom of the place” (minhag hamakom). Organized efforts to prevent women from exercising our rights, abetted by the Western Wall authorities, who allow disruptors to use bullhorns and whistles to silence women at prayer, have sought to advance ultra-Orthodox appropriation of Jewish public, national, space. 
Several women’s prayer groups go to the Western Wall. The one I support rejects any alternate site or collusion with the haredi establishment to award the Western Wall to the latter in exchange for the Reform and Conservative movements getting state recognition at Robinson’s Arch. I reject that deal not because I oppose religious freedom; I fervently support mutual respect and accommodation. But the deal, consistently misrepresented in the media, would have criminalized women’s group prayer at the Western Wall, whose status was to have been changed from “national holy site” to synagogue under official, haredi auspices. It would have fueled denominational turf battles while accomplishing a key goal of the haredi establishment: anathematizing women in public, in this case, sacred, space, while expanding its power over the lives of us all.
IN A major area of life, women lack the right even to physical freedom and ownership of our own bodies. Israeli law gives the state-recognized Chief Rabbinate control over marriage and divorce. Growing numbers defy the marriage monopoly, using various means, but do not realize that, regardless of how or where they marry, if they register with the Interior Ministry, divorce is possible only through the Chief Rabbinate or independent haredi courts (the latter, formally illegal, operate unhindered). 
Marriage in halacha is unilateral, enacted by the baal (literally, master, owner), who acquires exclusive rights to his wife’s sexuality and reproductivity via kinyan and kiddushin (“acquisition” and “sanctification”); she gets no such rights. Few realize that Jewish marital captivity (iggun), with women chained in dead marriages (agunot), is the result of kinyan and kiddushin, making every woman who marries in this way a potential aguna; and that until and unless a baal gives his wife a rabbinic divorce, (get), she remains chained to his control. Consequently, women seeking divorce are subject to extortion, which rabbinic courts enable and negotiate, with women losing their assets, custody of their children or their right to child support as the price of freedom. 
There are no full, published statistics about all this because there is no transparency in the rabbinate’s operations. It is accountable to no one and above Israeli civil law, including that which makes polygamy (yes) – and holding someone hostage for ransom – illegal. Rabbinic courts do not count abuse as automatic grounds for divorce, or in cases of get refusal, for court annulment of the marriage. They control ascription of the official title of “aguna,” needed even for hope of rabbinic action against get refusers, forcing women, even in cases of domestic violence, to justify why they want a divorce and into rounds of mediation with their abusers. 
Even in egregious cases, such as that, recently, of Shira Isakov, whose baal bludgeoned and stabbed her nearly to death in front of their child, Isakov had to ask and, after he refused it, petition her husband for a get, which was still even his right to grant or withhold. And which get proceeding the rabbinic court insisted transpire in person – requiring Isakov to be in the same room as her would-be murderer and receive the get, physically, from the same hands that sought to end her life. This, though delivering a get by messenger the baal appoints is an option in halacha. Rabbinate courts label women who refuse get extortion deals “get refusers,” making the gaslighting claim that men are equal victims of iggun. 
Rabbinic courts, of course, charge for all such “services,” which can extend over years, even decades. Do they have an interest in prolonged divorce proceedings? Should accounting of the get business, including court involvement in negotiated get extortion deals, be required? The haredi establishment vehemently opposes introduction of civil marriage and divorce, which would allow, as Shas put it, freedom of choice for all, with no coercion. 
SEXISM IS racism against women. All the abuses outlined above have the same ideational bases of othering, demonization and anathematization that operate in Jew-hatred. 
When I hear defense of any of these policies, I say: substitute “Jew.” Can’t say it about Jews? Can’t say it about, or do it to, women. 
Scholars have shown that the status of Jews is the bellwether of a society’s health. The same is true about the status of women.
Theocracy is the single greatest threat to the constitutional democracy that Israel’s Declaration of Independence envisaged and upon which our social health and the rights of all depend. That document should become a Basic Law to which all others are subject.
The writer is a Jewish historian, author of four published books and scores of articles and winner of a National Jewish Book Award and other prizes. She resides in Jerusalem.