Report from the battlefild

A new book presents evidence that Israeli women’s liberty is being threatened by deepening religious extremism.

Elana Maryles Sztokman: Do not fall into the trap of moral relativism. (photo credit: AMAZON)
Elana Maryles Sztokman: Do not fall into the trap of moral relativism.
(photo credit: AMAZON)
 When, as a college student at Barnard in 1990, Elana Maryles Sztokman first attended a lecture about the Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group that meets monthly for New Moon ( rosh chodesh ) prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, her reaction was one of resentment and resistance. “At the time,” she re - calls, “the whole notion of women’s prayers and women’s empowerment within religion was such a foreign concept to me... all I could do was angrily spew back some of the rhetoric about arrogant women changing tradition, rhetoric I was brought up on and didn’t yet know how to unpack and analyze.”
A writer and activist who moved to Israel from the US in 1993, Sztokman has come a long way from that early encounter with Jewish feminist activism. Her previous books, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” and “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools” (written in collaboration with Dr. Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman), have twice earned her the National Jewish Book Council award.
Her latest publication, “The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom,” examines the phenomenon of religious radicalism in Israel, presenting a body of sobering evidence that Israeli women’s liberty is being threatened by deepening religious extremism.
Sztokman approaches this complex subject by focusing each chapter on a specific aspect of gender discrimination in Israel today. In a conversational yet erudite style, she discusses the roots, mechanisms and consequences of topics such as gender- segregated buses, attempts to banish women’s presence from the public eye (whether it be their faces from advertisements or their voices from official events), issues of women’s “modesty,” official policies regarding sexuality and fertility, (such as contraception, abortion, and use of public mikves ) and women’s service in the IDF.
As the descriptions of institutionalized discrimination and injustice accumulate, she builds a powerful indictment of the increasing ultra-Orthodox hegemony over Israeli women’s lives.
While some of the topics covered relate primarily to life in Israel, many, such as marriage, divorce and conversion are of interest to Jews the world over. The problems arising from the state-sanctioned Rabbinate’s monopoly over these issues, its refusal to recognize any denomination of Judaism except Orthodoxy, and the problem of agunot (women whose unresolved marital status prevents them from remarrying) are all examined in light of the great damage done to men and women (but, as Sztokman shows, particularly to women) seeking to ameliorate familial distress in their lives and those of their children.
Not surprisingly, the saga of the Women of the Wall is given special attention.
Sztokman describes how the group, whose main objective is to hold a monthly all- female prayer service at the holiest site in Judaism, is subject to constant harassment, demonization, verbal and physical abuse, and, in recent years, police arrest. She sees in this story a microcosm of how religious radicalism is given legitimacy by a secular, liberal political system. “This is not only about the Wall,” she writes, “but also about women and religion in Israel...It’s about a confluence of interested parties − religious, political, economic, who are all willing to sacrifice the well-being of women for their own symbolic needs, for their own perceptions of power, God and masculinity.”
Indeed, Sztokman describes how a uniquely Israeli combination of social, economic and political factors enable government-funded ministries and institutions to dominate women and exclude them from the public sphere. The lack of separation between church and state, the various economic interests that benefit from catering to the Haredi community and the web of political alliances and agreements all serve to support behaviors and actions that discriminate against women and curtail their basic rights.
For a very long time, secular Israelis, content to leave matters of religion in the hands of Orthodox hegemony, failed to take action, and religious people, too, felt reluctant to criticize what is often presented as an improvement, a better and more stringent interpretation of Jewish law. But that complacency, on the part of both secular and religious Israelis, is changing. What makes this book especially noteworthy is its focus on the phenomenon of protest and activism coming from Orthodox women who join forces with secular activists and organizations.
“What’s unique about these women’s religious feminist perspectives,” Sztokman writes, “is that they do not see religion in and of itself as an evil thing. Instead, they are fighting a sharp battle to protect the integrity of their religion, while removing the forces of radical misogyny that pervert it... it is about saying to those who threaten women, their families and their values, this violent behavior is not what it means to be a person living in the path of God.”
Having served until recently as the executive director of the New-York based Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Sztokman is well-acquainted with the way that religious feminists and feminist groups, such as Kolech, a religious women’s forum, have formed alliances with pluralistic, secular organizations like IRAC (the legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel), the Center for Women’s Justice, the National Council of Jewish Women, the International Coalition for Aguna Rights, and others. Working together, they use legal and political means to successfully challenge and change current discriminatory practices.
The issue of gender-segregated buses, for example, ultimately brought about a collaboration of more than 30 human- rights organizations and religious feminist groups. Operating as a coalition and using strategies such as organized protests, “freedom rides,” lawsuits, petitions and online campaigns, these groups joined forces to demand the implementation of the 2011 High Court ruling against segregated bussing. Their efforts resulted in forcing bus companies to post signs saying that all passengers can sit where they choose, ensuring that drivers enforce this policy, and increasing police intervention when needed.
Sztokman writes from the perspective of an insider who has found the courage to challenge received notions. Though the goal of the book is to offer an objective picture, she often calls up her own experiences with gender discrimination, giving her arguments power and authenticity.
Today, her views are a far cry from those of the young woman she once was.
“It took me forever it seems,” she writes, “to learn how to talk back to my own culture, to find the courage and the wisdom to acknowledge my own experiences, to even give myself permission to be an ob - server and driver of my own thoughts and feelings. In the Jewish community I grew up in, I was so used to being told what women want and need that I had to find both the courage and the understanding to question the veracity of all that.”
The book focuses specifically on the Israeli reality, yet Sztokman rightly points out that these issues are relevant not only for Israelis. ”Countries around the world are facing similar threats of religious fundamentalism. The idea of women’s bodies and sexuality as a “threat” to society – or to men – crosses cultural and religious divides, affecting places as free and democratic as America and as oppressive as Afghanistan and North Korea.”
For readers who finish the book feeling that they want to get involved, the book concludes with a list of organizations working to combat gender discrimination in Israel, and with a plea not to blindly accept the words of religious leaders. “Talk back. Question the messages... become aware of the language that surrounds not fall into the trap of moral relativism, thinking that if other people are okay with their own suffering then it’s none of our business...”
Or, as some might put it, the fight against religious extremism is perhaps nothing less than an assertion, for our own time, of the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world).