Haredi papers ignore International Women’s Day

The front page of a recent issue of Yated Neeman, a haredi newspaper in English (photo credit: COURTESY YATED NEEMAN)
The front page of a recent issue of Yated Neeman, a haredi newspaper in English
NOT A word. In their issue of March 8, none of Israel’s four Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) daily papers – Hamodia, Yated Ne’eman, Hamevaser, or Peles, which serve Israel’s estimated 900,000 Haredi population – said a word about International Women’s Day.
Sexual harassment does not exist in the Haredi community or, to be more accurate, is not reported. The media itself is a useful barometer for gauging discrimination against Haredi women. The Haredi media are family media, and as such present a picture less of what the world is and more of what the world should be. Each Haredi newspaper has a rabbinical censor whose job is, each evening before edition time, to check the next day’ s paper. Above him is a board of rabbis who determine editorial policy. The role of the censor is to make sure that concepts or ideas of which the newspaper’s board of rabbis do not approve are not printed in the paper, even in the advertisements.
The status of Haredi women in media terms is that the woman is not to be seen or even heard. There are no pictures in the Haredi media of women, not even head shots. The Hamevaser daily, which published a photo of world leaders marching in Paris in 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo caricature assassinations, famously removed German chancellor Angela Merkel from the photo. Defending the paper’s action, Binyamin Lipkin, the editor, said the newspaper is a family publication that must be suitable for all audiences. “Including a picture of a woman into something so sacred, as far as we are concerned, it can desecrate the memory of the martyrs and not the other way around,” he said.
But sometimes the “forbidden news” is so central to the country’s news agenda that even the Haredi media cannot avoid discussing it, and they will deploy different means to report the case without relating fully to it. When in 2007 president Moshe Katsav was charged with rape and resigned from the presidency, it presented a challenge to Haredi editors. On the one hand, Haredi media do not discuss matters like rape. On the other hand, the indictment of a president cannot be ignored. Ways and means were found – sometimes creating more confusion. Thus, Yated Neeman reported: “Yes- terday, the attorney-general decided to indict Katsav for a series of criminal offences, such as using state funds and obstructing legal procedures.” And the Haredi weekly Bakehila under the headline, “Presidents and the Atmosphere,” wrote that “a flood of criminal suspicions and new revelations are likely to bring about the resignation of the president.” Similarly, broadcasters at the Haredi radio station, Radio Kol Chai, were instructed in reporting the Katsav story not to use words like “sexual harassment,” “rape” or “abuse.” A news conference at which Katsav announced his resignation, which was broadcast live in its entirety in special broadcasts on television and mainstream radio, was broadcast on Radio Kol Chai only after offensive phrases had been deleted. And when in 2010 Katsav was found guilty of rape, not a word was published in the Haredi press. Katsav had left the presidency, and therefore there were no political implications from the court’s verdict.
The Haredi media owes its origins to a decision in the early fifties by the Gerrer Rebbe to establish Hamodia; otherwise readers would follow the secular media and be exposed to it. In building a cultural ghetto, Haredi leaders have repeatedly placed bans on exposure to the secular media – most recently against the Internet. This is considered so important that, for example, the Gerrer Rebbe approved the paper coming out on Hol Hamoed (the intermediate days of religious holidays) – notwithstanding the prohibition on writing and printing – lest readers look to the secular media.
Tzniut or modesty is the key motif, based on Deuteronomy 23:15: “Since the Lord, your God moves about in your camp...let Him not find nakedness among you and turn away from you.” By distancing oneself from illegitimate sensuality, one achieves personal sancti- ty. The human body in Jewish terms is not an object of beauty, as it was in Greek culture, in an aesthetic sense, but rather in sacred terms – and that which is sacred needs to be hidden. Tzniut is to do with honor, self-respect, or an awareness of one’s self worth. Just like the dignity of God is its very concealment, the dignity of the human individual – created in God’s image – is in his covertness. This sometimes reaches Taliban-like excesses. While women are employed in the Haredi media as editors, producers and feature writers, there are few news reporters. And if they do write, institutional Haredi dailies do not publish the first name but only an initial. This rule extends to the subjects of the news items. One Haredi news editor dealing with an item, which concerned then Knesset Speaker Chair - person Daliah Itzik “dealt” with the “problem” ingenuously by adding the letter gimmel in the Hebrew alphabet – and Dalia Itzik became Gedaliah Itzik and, therefore, respectable.
The independent Haredi media, which is not affiliated with a Haredi political party, is freer – if only incrementally. Over the years, news weeklies like Mishpacha (or Family) and independent Haredi news websites included sensitive social issues not covered by the daily Haredi newspapers. One leading Haredi news website, “Kikar Shabbat,” which publishes blogs by women contributors, includes face photos at the top of the column. Yet even for the independent Haredi media, issues like sexual abuse remain out of bounds.
Beyond the media, there are nevertheless signs that some Haredi women are experiencing a bit more freedom. This got expression in the first Haredi women’s list that ran in the last Knesset elections. Many Haredi women go out to work, and some favor academic education – if albeit in controlled settings like single-sex lecture rooms. Last month (February) the Israeli courts appointed its first-ever Haredi woman magistrate judge. While Haredi rabbis banned Internet use outside of work, according to a 2016 survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics, 42% of women surfed the Internet at least once in the previous three months.
There are, as well, crisis centers catering to, among others, Haredi women in distress. So with all these changes, perhaps it is only a matter of time until the independent Haredi media joins the #MeToo conversation.
The struggle for women’s rights in the Haredi media took a leap forward with a legal suit by Kolech, the modern- Orthodox religious feminist group, against Radio Kol Barama, the Sephardi Haredi radio station, for failing to broadcast women’s voices – both as pro- gram presenters and interviewers, and in not allowing women listeners to appear in phone- in programs. Kolech charged that the station denigrates women.
Radio Kol Barama is the most popular Haredi radio station today. According to the TGI survey of Israeli media habits, in the first half of 2014, 26.4% of Haredim listened to the station. Kolech’s suit – demanding a record 104 million shekels for failing to broadcast women’s voices – is currently in the courts pending a final verdict.
Because Radio Kol Barama is subject to public supervision by Israel’s Second Authority for Television & Radio, a court victory by Kolech could force other Haredi media to change their style, challenging the very nature of the Haredi media.
In 2012, the Authority demanded that women be given greater involvement in the station’s broadcasts. But this has been, at best, cosmetic. An examination of 77 programs, lasting 101 hours during a single week, carried out by Yifat, an Israeli company which provides media-related data, found that only 37 women were heard in contrast to 484 men, speaking for 182 minutes (about 3 hours) for women in contrast to 3, 477 minutes (or 57 hours) for men.
The Haredi station’s approach to excluding women from its broadcasts drew upon an edict by an ancient rabbi, Samuel, quoted in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot 24) as saying, ”A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement. ...” However, the court challenged this because Samuel was referring to singing, whereas the station even banned women speaking, such as program news announcers or phone-in calls from women listeners. “There is no halakhic [Jewish law] prohibition on hearing women, and one may not use “glorification of halakha” as a pretext to damage the rights of women to equality and respect,” the judge remarked.
Will a Kolech victory in the courts change the standing of Haredi women in their society as presented through the media? Hardly. For many Haredim, Kolech is yet another in a long series of threats from outside the Haredi camp. A poll by Kolech themselves of Haredi women listeners to the station suggests that the majority of Haredi women listeners oppose changing the radio programming policy regarding women. They choose to live a Haredi lifestyle, and for most of them Kolech’s action is an interference in their chosen way of life. Only 32% of listeners polled favored the station allowing women to participate in programming.
The most successful revolutions for change are those that occur within social movements rather than outside. Thus, the appearance of independent Haredi weeklies since the 1980s and the creation of Internet websites have challenged the monopoly enjoyed by the institutional party daily Haredi newspapers, which had been under the close control of rabbis at the helm. However, the Kolech suit is saying that in any society there are basic minimal standards – and that the status of women today has to be respected by all.
Prof. Yoel Cohen is on the faculty of The School of Communication, Ariel University. His book ‘ Spiritual News: Reporting Religion around the World’ was published recently by Peter Lang.