Where is the ‘tzniut’?

True modesty should not attempt to erase women, whether in the recesses of Mea She’arim, or through their objectification in the aggressive world of advertising.

Mea Shearim barrier 311 (photo credit: Yehudah Mirsky)
Mea Shearim barrier 311
(photo credit: Yehudah Mirsky)
During Hol Hamo’ed Succot I joined a petition to the High Court of Justice submitted by Jerusalem City Council members Rachel Azaria and Laura Wharton and the Yerushalmim movement, with the assistance of Prof. Aviad Hacohen.
We requested that the police remove the barriers to women placed on the street in Mea She’arim, and, perhaps more importantly, the “ushers” who prevented women from entering the neighborhood.
The High Court directed the police to act, and ruled that “the state accepts that gender-based discrimination is forbidden in eminently public space such as streets.” In other words, the issue at hand is not haredi-baiting, which has no place. Rather it is a principled struggle over the integrity of civic public space in the State of Israel.
When I walked through Mea She’arim two weeks ago, I saw the mehitzot, which began at Rehov Shmuel Salant, near the yeshivot of Breslav and Toldot Aharon, and which cleared the street and sidewalk for men to move freely and directed women to a narrow sidewalk. The mehitzot extended all the way to Rehov Shivtei Yisrael and wrapped well around the corners.
SEEING THE Italian Hospital behind a mehitza was surreal. But far more disturbing were the ushers standing near the western entrance to the neighborhood – secular, bareheaded security guards who, with no explanation, forbade women from entering the main street. When asked, they pretended not to know the name of the company employing them. I saw haredim ask them, with understandable irritation, who had given them the right to keep their wives out of their own neighborhood. Of course they didn’t answer.
This should disturb all of us: How can a private company, hired by God-knows-who, arrogate to itself, with no license, the most basic attribute of the state – the use of coercive power to limit the extent of the public sphere? This phenomenon, like that of sex-segregation on public transportation, is the result of small and controversial elements in the haredi community imposing extreme forms of – ostensibly – tzniut with no precedent in Jewish history.
There are many reasons for this, including the unease felt by some haredim with the increased education and employment opportunities available to women in their own communities.
YET THERE can be no denying that it is tied to a corresponding extremism in secular society. The objectification of women in extreme haredi practices is more than matched by the objectification of women to which we are subjected day and night by the colossal apparatus of marketing and advertising. And that apparatus is taking over the public sphere in its own way, with massive billboards and inescapable ads which forcibly revamp the public sphere no less than do the mehitzot of Mea She’arim.
Ironically, it is the ideal of tzniut itself which seeks to undo objectification. It is a moral demand to refrain, step back, pause for reflection, precisely to enable another to be present. True tzniut should not attempt to erase women, whether in the recesses of Mea She’arim, or in the aggressive world of advertising.
In other words, the struggle for civic public space is by no means confined to the lanes of Mea She’arim, nor to the giant billboards in Tel Aviv. The sale of public beaches, the abuses and corruptions in zoning and land use of the sort now on display in the Holy Land scandal are all symptoms of the same fundamental deterioration in citizenship, human dignity and the right of another to take his or her rightful place alongside me, you, or anyone. It is a continuing failure which, if unchecked, will continue to undermine our public space and civic society.
The writer is a member of the Board of Yerushalmim, a fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing editor at Jewish Ideas Daily. He is currently writing a biography of Rav Kook.