The great and equivocal vanishing trick of Israeli women

Why are rabbinic courts allowed to keep out women?

Israeli women 88 (photo credit: )
Israeli women 88
(photo credit: )
Last August my husband and I spent 10 days in Istanbul. For the weekend, we took a ferry to the island of Büyükada, the Turkish equivalent of Martha's Vineyard. There tourists of all persuasions stand in line for the horse-and-buggy ride up to the top of the island and rub shoulders in the town square to take family pictures. Time and again, we saw Muslim men wearing jeans, sneakers and baseball caps, mugging for the camera with their multiple wives clad in identical, formless chadors with only their eyes peeping through the endless folds of cloth. How, we wondered, could they possibly tell one wife apart from the next when they got home? The women were one big, black, indistinguishable, polyester blur - veiled and virtually invisible. The great vanishing trick of Muslim women behind the weight of the chador is a bit heavy-handed and obvious. We in Israel are much more subtle. We eliminate our women with élan, delicacy - and equivocation. For example: The High Court of Justice has held that it is okay for state-subsidized buses to operate lines that require women to sit in the back of the bus - out of sight's way - to accommodate the "religious sensibilities" of the haredi population. Thus the State of Israel allows its women to vanish in sophisticated deference to multiculturalism. For example: State laws and taxpayer money support rabbinic courts that do not allow women to sit on the bench. Taking express reservation to article 7(b) of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Israel defends its purge of women judges from the rabbinic courts as follows: "[T]he appointment of women to serve as judges of religious courts is prohibited by the laws of any of the religious communities in Israel." Thus the State of Israel allows its women to vanish in the name of religious laws. For example: Aside from being precluded from acting as rabbinic judges, women have virtually disappeared from inside the rabbinic courts. There's only one female court reporter in all of the rabbinic courts; there are no women bailiffs. And until recently, there were no women clerks at all in Petah Tikva. The secretary of the Petah Tikva rabbinic court is quoted as saying: "It has been our custom in Petah Tikva that the clerks are all men, and we should not break down that long-held barrier to employ a woman in any position in our rabbinic court." Thus the State of Israel allows its women to vanish by custom. THOUGH THE state has become rather adept at its erudite elimination of women, it does not engage in its great magic act of the disappearing Israeli woman without equivocation. Thus when Egged recently refused to run bus ads with the pictures of women who were candidates for Jerusalem city council citing "religious sensibilities," the High Court did not think this was okay. It accepted the Reform Movement's motion to force the publication of those ads. And when the executive office of the rabbinic courts and the Civil Service Commission published tenders for the position of legal advisers to rabbinic judges in 2007, and again in 2008, effectively marking the position with an asterisk that gave preference to those applicants who had qualified as rabbinic judges (men), the Jerusalem Labor Court balked at the affront. In 2007, the Center for Women's Justice appealed to the court to withdraw the tenders as discriminatory and the rabbinic courts and the Civil Service Commission immediately capitulated, agreeing to rewrite them. Last month, when the rewritten, new version of the tenders fell short, Judge Yaffa Stein heard the case and accepted CWJ's second petition, stating: "Giving preference to those who are qualified to be rabbinic judges is discriminatory and unreasonable given the fact that women can't achieve this preference, no matter how talented they may be." If it's so clear to us modern-Westernized-Israeli world travelers that the chador chokes and obliterates Muslim women, it's time that we modern-Westernized-Israeli world travelers, as well as our state courts and institutions, observe and eliminate - without equivocation - our more sophisticated versions of the same. The writer is the founder and director of the Center for Women's Justice.