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The Oppression of Women in Israel

Norman Epstein
June 21, 2016

by Norman Epstein

Discussed in this essay: The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom, by Elana Maryles Sztokman. 2014, Sourcebooks, Inc., 352 pages.

world-leadersAT THE HEAD of the gigantic Charlie Hebdo march in Paris in mid-January stood German Chancellor Angela Merkel, surrounded by several male heads of state (including Benjamin Netanyahu). But readers of the HaMevaser, a Jewish ultra-Orthodox newspaper in Israel, were prevented from seeing Merkel or even knowing that she was there, as the paper’s editors digitally removed her from the photo. This act of erasing women, not only from photographs but from all aspects of public life, is typical of the increasingly powerful religious fundamentalists, or haredim, in Israel.

Their power originates in a decision made after the first election in the newly created State of Israel, in early 1949. David Ben Gurion’s Labor Party (Mapai), which won a large plurality but not a majority of Knesset seats, gained the support of the few Orthodox Knesset members by granting the Orthodox rabbinate control of important aspects of Israeli life (marriage, divorce, conversion, kashrut), and an exemption military service for men studying in yeshiva. (These young men were also provided with generous monthly financial allowances, which are presently in excess of the average monthly salaries of working Israelis.)

Ben Gurion is quoted as having said, “Any Jewish woman who does not bring into the world at least four healthy children is shirking her duty to the nation, like a soldier who evades military service.” His words, motivated by demographic rather than religious considerations and largely ignored by secular Jews, resonated with the growing religious and especially haredi population: The number of freeloading yeshiva students has grown from 400 in 1949 to more than 37,000 today, and while the Jewish population of Israel has grown ten-fold since 1948, its haredi population has increased almost 100-fold. They now constitute more than 10 percent of Israel’s population, and the proportion of Knesset seats held by the religious parties (two ultra-Orthodox and one ultra-nationalist) has in recent years varied between 18 and 25 percent. These numbers help account for the increasingly repressive control that male haredim now have, not only over haredi women but over all religious and even-non-religious Jewish women in Israel.

SegregationThe author of The War on Women in Israel, Elana Maryles Sztokman, is a religious Jewish feminist activist. Formerly the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in the U.S.A., she has been living in Israel for more than twenty years. Her book takes on the task of recounting the many ways in which Israeli Jewish women, particularly but not exclusively those who are religious, are ignored, sidelined, punished, blacklisted, and otherwise subjected to male domination — and the fighting responses of many Israeli Jewish feminists and their organizations, which strive to overcome the subjugation of women and to achieve gender equality in all aspects of Jewish and Israeli life.

WOMEN MUST SIT at the back of the bus, say ultra-Orthodox men, some of whom have screamed at, kicked, and beaten women who refuse to move from the front. Ultra-Orthodox leaders have actually prevailed upon the Egged Bus Company, Israel’s main line, to run some segregated buses through haredi territory. This has been countered by “freedom rides” organized by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Israel Religious Action Center. Eventually, Israel’s courts ruled against bus segregation, but this served only to raise the level of violence against women who refuse haredi orders to move to the back, so the issue has not been resolved.

In areas of Israel populated by religious majorities, Sztokman notes, every attempt is made to eliminate the sight, sound, and presence of women at conferences, conventions, on governing bodies, public stages, TV and radio, even in pictures and on posters. Professor Chani Ma’ayan, an expert on respiratory diseases who works at Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, and Naama Holtzer, a nurse, on being jointly awarded a prestigious prize by the Health Ministry, were forced to refrain from appearing onstage to accept the award in person, but instead had to send a man in their place. They were also asked to sit in the back of the hall, far from where the men in the audience would be able to see them. Separate lines and hours for men and women, along with other methods of gender segregation, are enforced for health clinics, hospitals, post offices, libraries, trains, cemeteries, and stores.

Female visitors to the ultra-religious Mea She’arim district of Jerusalem who have not covered all their non-facial skin, even their toes, are familiar with the verbal and even physical abuse they encounter from the male guardians of female “modesty.” Such modesty squads are now present in many parts of Israel, where young girls and grown women who are “improperly” dressed and spat upon and screamed at as “whores,” “sluts” and “shikses.” In some places, women have been prohibited from public dancing and even from working as cashiers in supermarkets.

For the haredim, the main function of women is to bear children and rear them. Contraception is forbidden until at least one boy and one girl are born to a family. Women are paid “birth grants” for each baby by the Israeli government, and in vitro fertilization is free, but abortion, though legal, is expensive and not covered by the health insurance system, and is permitted only after the applicant satisfies the criteria of a rabbinical “abortion panel.” Black-market abortions thus proliferate and are even more expensive.

NASHOT HAKOTEL, the “Women of the Wall,” in their prolonged battle for the right to pray, read Torah, and conduct religious services at the Kotel, have encountered violence and verbal abuse from ultra-Orthodox men and women. An attempt to settle the conflict has resulted in the allotment of space near the Wall for women’s religious services, but even this is tentative; it is being contested, on the one hand, by a splinter group of Orthodox feminists, “Original Women of the Wall,” who insist on their right to pray at, not adjacent to, the Kotel, and on the other hand by the haredim, who deny women any right to conduct their own services with prayer shawls and Torah scrolls.

An analysis of marital freedom around the world by Hiddush, an Israeli organization that seeks to implement freedom of religion and equality as guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, gave Israel a score of zero — the only self-regarding “Western” country to receive that grade. Only marriages that follow Orthodox rules, with officiation by Orthodox rabbis, are permitted to take place in Israel; civil marriages, including intermarriages, can only be obtained outside the country, usually in Cyprus.

For Jewish women, the absence of civil divorce is a particular affliction. As administered by state-sponsored Orthodox (mostly ultra-Orthodox) rabbinical courts, a divorce (a “gett” in Hebrew) can be legally initiated only by a man, so a woman seeking a divorce must get her husband’s agreement — often at great cost — or she becomes an agunah, a “chained woman,” unable to remarry. The recent Israeli film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” vividly displays the almost hopeless plight of an Israeli woman victimized year after year by a patriarchal rabbinical court that refuses to grant her an escape from a loveless marriage simply because her husband will not agree to let her go. Other such case histories are described in detail in Sztokman’s book. Women’s rights organizations estimate there to be some 10,000 agunot, many with abusive husbands, in Israel.

Sztokman’s book ignores the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab, as well as the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, the only quarrel she has with the Israel Defense Force is that the duties and opportunities for participation and advancement offered to women are not equal to those offered to men. At the same time, however, she emphasizes that the war on women is not unique to Israel.

Her book concludes with a list of twenty Israeli organizations, some with links to the diaspora, that continue to be involved in the struggle for women’s rights and equality. Prominent on the list is The New Israel Fund (NIF), which also works for civic equality between Israeli Arabs and Jews, and has recently been vigorously attacked by the Israeli right as “anti-Zionist” and “foreign” to Israel. Unlike the secular NIF, most of the organizers involved with feminist issues in Israel are religious, often Orthodox, women. The dwindling secular majority, who live in their own enclaves and are to some extent shielded from some (but not all) of the blatant discrimination against women described in Sztokman’s book, are more passive in their response to gender segregation and discrimination, seeing it as problem within Orthodoxy more than as a society-wide issue. Just as many Israelis are able to live in indifference to “the situation” with the Palestinians, so do they tolerate the “quaint” religious practices that taint Israeli democracy.

Norman Epstein is a chemical engineer, a libertarian socialist and a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.