Jewfem Blog

Is this about the exclusion of women, or hatred of haredim?

Israeli women are stirring. For the first time in Israel’s history, we are witnessing a mass women’s protest movement using some fascinating and inspiring tools of civil disobedience. This sudden eruption of sentiment for gender equality is perhaps simply late in coming, a generation or two behind its American counterpart from the 1960s and 1970s. Or perhaps it is not merely a late arrival but an entirely different animal. It is both similar to and vastly different from feminist revolutions that preceded it, a product not only of the universal need for equality but also of the particular, local cholent that we call Israeli society. The movement is in some ways fueled by classic feminist spirit, but in some ways driven by diverse and perhaps dubious motives that may have little to do with women’s issues. To be sure, the grass-roots activities of nonviolent protest that are emerging from dozens of corners around Israel would make Gandhi proud. In response to segregation on buses, for example there are now “Freedom Rides”, organized by IRAC, in which small groups of men and women ride buses and sit unsegregated. In response to soldiers’ refusal to listen to women sing, a group called “Be Free Israel” organized an event called “Singing for Equality” in which the weapon of choice was women’s voices in song. In response to the destruction of pictures of women on billboards, the New Israel Fund organized an activity called “Women should be seen and heard” in which women are hanging photographs of themselves on balcony posters. This is in some ways a classic movement of civil disobedience, one that women in Israel have never really tried before, and it is truly budding from the ground up. The energy is phenomenal, and it feels like quite an exciting time to be a woman in Israel. Women are finally speaking up and being heard. Politicians from all corners are responding with initiatives, bill proposals and provocative statements of support.  Things are happening, and they are starting with the voice of the people. It is significant, however, that thus far all the targets of protest are practices are haredi.  Perhaps this is because the practices in question are so very backward and anti-democratic that they seem to cross all boundaries of normalcy. An event last week, for example, in which the Ministry of Health held an award ceremony and refused to allow one of the recipients to appear on stage to receive her award is beyond ludicrous. There is a real sense that practices being promoted as “sensitive” to the religious world are simply relics of the dark ages. That government officials regularly capitulate to such demands for “sensitivity” sparks a justified outrage, as if an entire ethos of democracy, civility, and human rights is being sold off to the most outrageous religious fanatics. Perhaps this is catching on as a movement because people relate not so much to the gender issue but to the fear of widespread religious coercion. Indeed, some of...

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