In my previous post, I described seven frightening trends of religious radicalism in Israel threatening women’s well-being and in some cases women’s lives. Despite this dire report, there have also been some inspiring actions by women’s groups and other social activists fighting for human rights and change in Israel. The most interesting developments are those that come from religious feminist groups, fighting for change from within the religious world. But the work of religious feminism is tremendously bolstered by social activist NGOs working on a variety of fields. Below are 10 examples of inspiring campaigns by Israeli NGOs to reclaim women’s rights in the face of religious threats:
1. Segregated buses. IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) and Kolech (The Religious Women’s Forum) led a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transport, which eventually made gender segregation on buses illegal. Today, every bus has a sign saying that women can choose to sit where they want. Bus drivers comply because they know they can be fined a month’s salary if their buses are found to have segregation. Today there are less than 50 segregated lines left, down from over 150 in 2011.
2. Women’s faces on Jerusalem streets. The campaign of an NGO called “Jerusalemites” to hang faces of women around the city forced businesses to change their policy of showing women’s faces on billboards in Jerusalem. Even the Jerusalem municipality has restored women’s faces to many of their printed materials, such as this year’s brochure for the Jerusalem marathon which showed women’s faces for the first time in several years.
3. Gender segregation on the streets. Another IRAC lawsuit is pending against the Netanya Hevra Kadisha on behalf of a woman who was excluded from delivering a eulogy at a funeral.
4. Rock throwing in Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh resident Nili Phillip is leading a class-action suit against the municipality of Beit Shemesh to hold them accountable for the fact that women are being hurt by rock throwing Haredi men. It is up to the municipality, they argue, to take down signs saying women cannot be on certain streets and to protect women. The lawsuit is pending.
5. Women’s voices on the radio. Kolech and IRAC are in the midst of a 100 million NIS ($30 million U.S.) lawsuit against the broadcasting authorities to protest the practice of the Kol Berama radio station to exclude women’s speaking and singing voices. Kol Berama is at risk of losing its license. The lawsuit may also pave the way for similar actions in other areas.
6. Civil marriage and divorce in Israel. Several organizations are pushing for civil marriage and divorce in Israel—including The Center for Women’s Justice, New Family, Hiddush, and Be Free Israel, among others. The Masorti Movement is also pushing to have non-Orthodox marriages recognized as valid. Public sentiment is undoubtedly increasing in support of this movement and the possibilities are encouraging.
7. Women as directors of rabbinical courts. ICAR is also promoting a bill to change the current law that says that the executive director of the Rabbinical Courts—an administrative position, not a rabbinic one—has to be an ordained rabbi, meaning an Orthodox rabbi. This excludes women as well as non-Orthodox Jews. Changing this law would open up at least one position of authority to women.
8. Challenging the abortion panels. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) is spearheading legislation to make the abortion panels obsolete.
9. Challenging the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction over conversion. The Center for Women’s Justice is awaiting a decision on their appeal to the High Court of Justice challenging the right of the rabbinical court to overturn conversions.
10. Reform in the “services” of the Religious Ministry. The Religious Ministry has responded to public pressure by beginning to institute reforms in the way the clerks of the Religious Ministry relate to the public, including allowing for some free market competition by allowing people to choose which city to register for marriage in. Although these proposed reforms contain some problematic elements as well (such as a proposal to make it an arrestable offense for non-Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings!), the fact that there is any proposed reform on the table points to the impact of social pressure and the fact that this entire issue is arguably in the midst of major transition.
There is still much work to be done in Israel to protect women’s basic rights and to curtail the onslaught of radical religious ideas, but the work of these wonderful NGOs, especially the work of religious feminist groups, leaves me inspired.
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Women being arrested for praying out loud at the Western Wall – it’s a story so shocking that it has managed to make headlines around the world. But the Western Wall is just one piece of a larger picture of religion and gender in Israel today. In fact, the threat to women’s well-being in Israel today, which comes from an increasingly radical religious power structure, finds expression in many areas. On public streets, on buses, in the government, in the army, in the courts, and in hospitals, women’s bodies are the objects of public scrutiny, debate and even violence.
Below are seven places where women’s bodily well-being has been threatened in Israel over the past several years because of growing religious radicalism:
(1) Public buses. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as official gender-segregated buses in Israel. The first segregated line was established in 1997 between Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, as an experimental Egged pilot to appease haredi leaders threatening to boycott Egged. In 2001, after years of pressure, Egged added another route from Ashdod as well, and stores along the gender-segregated route were pressured to change their displays, remove mannequins, avoid the central bus station to avoid ‘immodest’ signs, and play only certain radio stations. Each year more gender-segregated lines were added – 11 in 2005, 30 in 2006, by January 2011, there were 128 lines. By 2011, there were over 150 lines. And the more lines there were, the more violence against women rose, from one reported violent incident in 2004 to a Transport Ministry report that showed bullying and threats of violence on 5% of all buses.
(2) Public spaces. Signs have been erected on public streets in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, and other cities, demanding that women walk on the other side of the street. Signs excluding women have been erected in many other public locations around the country, including cemeteries, health clinics, post offices, libraries, and even public universities. University gyms have asked women to leave at the request of religious male students, women singers have been asked not to sing in cities including the avowedly secular Modi’in. In some cases, this is accompanied by violence: women in Beit Shemesh have been beaten and have had rocks thrown at them and acid poured on them by haredi thugs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(3) Municipalities. Gender-segregated municipal events have been held all around the country, including Rechovot, Safed, Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, and more. Women have been disinvited from performing, including singers being asked to leave the stage or having their microphones shut off and dancers who have been forced to wear shawl-like dresses to cover their dancing costumes. Some municipalities have published materials without any photos of women, including the brochure for the Jerusalem marathon.
(4) Media. The Kol Berama radio station not only refuses to air women’s singing, but also refused to allow women to be presenters, announcers or news readers, and would not let women callers speak. The Cnaan advertising company, which places ads on public buses, does not allow women’s faces to appear on the sides of buses in Jerusalem and certain other places. Similarly, companies and organizations ranging from Honigman to organ donation created special no-women ads for Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and elsewhere
(5) The Knesset and government offices. Women were disinvited from singing in the Knesset choir. The health ministry and education ministries have held all-male events – and in one case a leading female medical researcher was barred from walking on stage to accept a prestigious award from the health ministry because women were barred from the event. The Education Ministry also ran a separate ad campaign for Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in which women’s faces did not appear on billboards.
(6) The IDF. As pressure mounts to induct haredi soldiers, the IDF is under pressure to keep women hidden from certain places to make the army “comfortable” for haredi men. This includes plans to build an all-male training camp. According to reports, women have been removed as instructors following complaints from religious soldiers, other soldiers refused to take orders from their female infantry instructors, discussions were being held about limiting the roles of women in tanks and armory, in the Intelligence Corps, women were asked to teach only while standing behind a desk, and more.
(7) Rabbinical courts. There is arguably no place in Israel where women’s rights are more systemically trounced upon in the name of religion than the rabbinical courts. The current system for marriage and divorce leaves all Jewish women in Israel, regardless of religiousness, lifestyle, or volition, completely at the discretion of the ultra-Orthodox state-backed rabbinical courts. This situation has been chronicled by many great activists, and there are some band-aid solutions in place. But the fundamental situation in which haredi judges can ruin women’s lives according to their own constantly radicalizing perceptions of women remains in place. And this situation makes Israel a scary place for Jewish women to get married.
In my next post (Part 2), I will share 12 remarkable ways that women are fighting back and reclaiming power over body integrity and basic human rights in Israel.
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The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births. Continue reading
In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah – the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl’s coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women’s experience in the last half-century in the United States.
Grandmothers of today’s bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care. Although the first bat mitzvah took place in 1923 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and ’70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women’s coming of age ceremony.
But bat mitzvah still wasn’t analogous to boys’ ceremonies. Middle-aged mothers tell us that they had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue on Friday night, a time when a boy’s bar mitzvah would rarely be held. In this way, the girl could chant the “Haftorah,” a reading from the Prophets, and not from the Torah, the holy scroll that contains the five books of Moses, a lesser kind of honor. In fact, sometimes the reading was known mistakenly as the “half” Torah.
Nowadays, girls and their mothers in Progressive branches of Judaism take it for granted that the bat mitzvah will be virtually the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah. Girls learn how to read from the Torah – not an easy task – and some wear a prayer shawl (tallit) during the ceremony, until recently a male-only prerogative. Religious transition is rarely so tangibly or so swiftly demonstrated as the generational change in bat mitzvah observance from grandmothers to mothers to today’s bat mitzvah girls.