Don’t disintegrate women

We need to protect the hard-won rights of women in Israel, and not have them sacrificed on the altar of appeasement.

haredi women (photo credit: REUTERS)
haredi women
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most cultural conflicts end with a clear victor vanquishing a bloodied, beaten foe. Think of the English crushing Scottish Highland culture in the 18th century or the domination of the northern states after the American Civil War. Rarely are peoples holding vastly different world-views able to compromise and find common ground. Yet this is precisely the massive task currently facing the Jewish People in Israel.
Over the past 100 years, two strands of Jewish society have grown here. The first is secular, liberal, Zionist and thoroughly modern. The second is religious, conservative, anti-Zionist and traditional. These two groups – hilonim and haredim, respectively – live side-by-side in an uneasy and fraught relationship, like a married couple under the same roof, treasuring sweet memories but unable to communicate without shouting.
Thankfully, much of this is changing. Economic realities and internal social pressures are forcing haredi Israelis into the workforce. Secular Israelis welcome their productive capacity. With all the legal squabbles, the number of haredim serving in the IDF grows every year. The political representatives of the haredim now accept full ministerial posts. While the pace of change may not be enough for some, it cannot be doubted that haredi society is undergoing some sweeping adjustments.
For secular Israelis this might be seen as a great victory. Their long-held demands that haredim join the army and contribute to the productive economy are closer to being met than ever before. Yet at the same time, the haredim can claim victory too. They are now a massive and growing segment of Israeli society – 11% of the population, on their way to 17% by the year 2034, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Yet the haredim have not been vanquished. They have survived, flourished, built cities, founded great institutions and created a new way of Jewish living (though this they will deny).
So we are not witnessing an aggressive takeover. Rather these two vastly different cultures are attempting a merger. And that means both sides must sacrifice some cherished practices and notions. So far, neither side has fully articulated exactly which of their values they are willing to jettison in order to make room for the other. Both are pretending as though their side was victorious and thus has the right to set the terms of the other’s surrender.
For women this situation is particularly concerning. Most quarters of haredi society are unabashedly misogynistic. Certainly in the public realm woman play a secondary role. And most haredim still demand a forceful separation between men and women in many aspects of daily life – weddings, buses and schooling to name just a few.
Now, as Israel experiments with the integration of haredim and hilonim, there are troubling signs that women will pay the price. A few examples will serve. The IDF has set up entire army bases where you cannot find a single female soldier. Employers are asked to create safe, single-sex environments for haredi workers. Tertiary colleges catering to haredim are hiring fewer women academics so as not to upset the male students. In cities like Beit Shemesh, a mixed city now firmly controlled by haredim, women are assailed in the streets for immodest dress. The signs demanding modest dress were not removed, in clear violation of a court ruling.
While these are yet to become full-blown national issues, the worrying early signs are there. In the urgency to integrate haredim, we are at risk of disintegrating woman. Secular Israel is flirting with sexism.
The need to join the various strands of Israeli society is clear. We must find common ground. But at the same time, we need to protect the hard-won rights of women in Israel, and not have them sacrificed on the altar of appeasement.
The author is the executive director of Kolech. The 10th Conference of Kolech will take place on October 18, 2017, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. Featuring more than 100 speakers, the conference will tackle the core issues arising at the crossroad where the values of the Jewish religion and gender equality meet.