Opinion: Jewish women, take back Purim [pg. 15]

How one group of women dedicated yesterday's Fast Day.

The time has come for Jewish women to take back Purim. According to the Biblical narrative the most conspicuous savior of the Jewish people was a woman, Esther. In some quarters, Jewish tradition and education may have found ways to gloss over the implications of this fact. But as we recite Megillat Esther and throughout Purim we should ponder how the story of one woman's wiles and courage prevented a national disaster might be applied to contemporary Jewish and global political dilemmas. And yet we have consistently failed to uphold this natural, feminist obligation. In the spirit of Megillat Esther, ask why most of Israel's would-be peacemakers - from Oslo until today - are men? This Purim, as we commemorate the heroism of a woman who averted a policy of extermination in Persia, let's remember that beyond concerns over Iranian efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, the Islamic Republic also embodies another danger: it wants to eliminate women's voices from politics. So are we really doing justice to the story of Esther if we overlook the basic fact that it is men who created this mess, and it is men who are failing to solve it? At our college, located in the Jezreel Valley region, we have decided this year to commemorate the story of Esther by protesting against the disempowerment of women. Yesterday, the 13th of Adar, Taanit Esther (the Fast of Esther), and in a show of solidarity with International Women's Day women on our campus - Jews and non-Jews, secular and religious, faculty members and administrative workers - observed a Woman's Fast Day on Taanit Esther. Our hope is that women on other campuses and belonging to other organizations in Israel and overseas will, in coming years, see to it that Taanit Esther comes to symbolize the demand for empowerment of women in Israel, the Middle East and the Diaspora. WE FASTED this year in the name of rape victims in Israel. Over 30,000 calls come in annually to the country's rape crisis centers; a quarter of the assaults occur in the victims' own homes. How many sexual assaults remain unreported? We fasted this year to protest against sex trafficking in Israel. Police statistics cite 3,000 foreign women working as prostitutes in Israel. This phenomenon has gone on for years, and it is a form of modern day slavery. That the country has not found a way to free these sex slaves is an outrageous reflection of legislative neglect, of fundamental human rights, and of the disempowerment of women. This year, at Taanit Esther, we demanded an end to sex trafficking. We fasted this year in protest against another variant of female slavery, this one enjoined by Jewish tradition. The plight of agunot or "chained wives" unable to obtain a divorce from their husbands and thus unable to carry on with their lives. This is the result of a human rights tragedy perpetuated by a blindly fundamentalist interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. We fasted on Taanit Esther to demand the liberation of the agunot. We fasted this year to protest against economic discrimination. Women in Israel have attained educational levels comparable, or superior to, those of men. Yet their average wage of women remains below those of men. And in gender politics, glass ceilings are as shatter-proof in Israel as anywhere else. That is unacceptable. Jews may talk about "the whole Megilla." However, in our contemporary political world, we are getting only half the Megilla. In Israel and in the Diaspora power and politics remain solidly a men's affair. That's why we fasted this year to "take back Purim" and why we hope next year more and more women will join in our struggle to take back Purim. At least one of Purim's messages is that gender empowerment leads to deliverance. The writer is president of the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel.