Women's groups plan Knesset song protest

Weeks after female MKs complained that their voices had been silenced in order to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of their haredi co-workers, women's groups have issued a call to arms for a series of protests when the winter Knesset session opens on October 26. Activist and former Jerusalem Municipality councilwoman Roni Aloni called for the general public to join in a protest by exercising their right to enter the Knesset plenum visitors' gallery and bursting into song while debates are under way on the house floor. "I call on all women - Ethiopians, Arabs, Russians, young, old, religious [and] secular, as well as men who also don't agree with what is going on, to come to the plenum every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," Aloni said Monday. "I call on everyone to come in groups - to organize five, six, 20 women and to bring a songbook, or even Psalms, everyone with the music they like, to hold hands and to begin to sing." Aloni's call to protest followed a decision last month whereby the women of the Knesset Choir, including MKs Marina Solodkin (Kadima), Orit Noked (Labor) and Colette Avital (Labor) were excluded from leading the singing of the national anthem at the conclusion of British Premier Gordon Brown's Knesset appearance. The day after Brown's visit, Avital got all 17 female MKs to sign a letter protesting the decision. Knesset Director-General Avi Balashnikov explained that the rule was nothing new, and that the choir had performed previously at other events, in other Knesset halls, where haredi MKs could choose not to attend. But Aloni says that the Knesset decision was simply the latest in a series of decisions by governmental bodies to put a gag on female singers at official ceremonies. Aloni complained that the Ceremonies Department in the Jerusalem Municipality has for years operated under instructions from Orthodox assistant mayors to avoid having female singers perform at official ceremonies, including Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers commemorations. "What happened in the Knesset has crossed every red line," railed Aloni. "The Knesset isn't a synagogue, it is the symbol of Israeli democracy. And women are the greatest fighters for democracy because the greatest risk to democracy comes from places where there is interaction between religious fundamentalism and ignorance. The first people who are harmed by this are women, they close their mouths and force them to cover themselves in rags." Aloni argued that these restrictions violated female artists' rights to employment, but that such restrictions were allowed as long as they were in the private sector, and not maintained by government institutions. "There is no problem with people who chose that as their lifestyle, who chose to do it at private ceremonies," she explained. "There is simply, however, no room for this in the public sphere." Aloni says that her call has already received responses from a number of organizations, including Kolech, Congregation Mevakshei Derech, the Reform Movement, various womens' rights organizations and even a group of women from Sderot. Such a protest, Aloni said, does not violate any specific laws, but only the internal regulations on behavior in the Knesset. In which case the singers could be punished by being barred from the Knesset for three months, but not arrested or having to face criminal charges.