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The real reasons for Israel’s ‘woman problem’


Hannah Boast
WVoN co-editor

Progressive rabbis in Israel have founded a new Orthodox group that will focus on gender equality, in response to fears about the rise of religious extremism.

Osha Koren, a leader in Matan, an institute for women’s Torah study, founded the group Beit Hillel with ten other rabbis and has since found widespread support among the modern Orthodox community.

“The need for such an organization has been evident for some time,” Koren said.

“But the frustration grew following the recent events involving the exclusion of women.”

Israel’s long-ignored gender problem surfaced towards the end of last year with a series of incidents that highlighted the views of its ultra-Orthodox Haredim minority.

Women have been instructed to sit at the back of buses, told that women’s singing is “too sexual” to be allowed in public, and banned from speaking at conferences about women’s health, while billboards featuring women’s faces have been defaced, and in an incident in December that drew international attention to an ashamed Israel, an eight-year-old girl on her way to school was harassed by men with shouts of ‘prostitute’.

The Israeli activist Anat Hoffman has campaigned against gender segregation in Israel for years.

Hoffman is director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which campaigns for pluralism and tolerance in Israeli society, and became notorious in 2010 as leader of the protest group Women of the Wall when she was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where women are forbidden from reading Torah (Haaretz).

She warns that gender segregation in Israel is something of an invisible, internal threat to the coherence of the state, much more potentially explosive than the current fears about the nuclear capabilities of Israel’s enemy, Iran.

Israeli security is usually understood, Hoffman said, “in terms of Israel being surrounded by millions of enemies”.

“But security is not just measured by soldiers on the border. It’s also measured by an 8-year-old girl’s ability to go to school without being bullied” (JWeekly).

The increasing confidence of the Haredim in Israel is connected to a general rise in religious feeling in Israel and the demise of the country’s ‘secular majority’.

A new study by the Guttman Center for Surveys, part of the Israel Democracy Institute, found that 80 per cent of Israeli Jews believe in God, and 67 per cent that the Jews are the chosen people. This is a marked increase compared to previous surveys in 1999 and 1991 (Haaretz).

The current government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reflects the increasing role of the religious lobby in public life: it is a coalition between his right-wing Likud and smaller, more extreme Haredi parties (Haaretz).

Israel has always seen itself as an early adopter of progressive politics, and the principle of gender equality was enshrined in the original Declaration of Independence in 1948, which promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” (Jewish Virtual Library).

Israeli women were and sometimes still are seen by the world, in feminist writer Leslie Hazleton’s words, as ‘independent souls with a grenade in one hand and a wrench in the other’ (TIME).

However, these images of enlightened gender relations served to hide the fact that sexism in Israeli society was as entrenched from its early Yishuv beginnings as it is in any society, with many national myths lionising male traits while relegating women once more to domestic work (Esther Fuchs ed., Israeli Women’s Studies, and Leslie Hazleton’s Israeli Women).

The rise of Haredi Jews should not be a chance to demonise a minority, but to reflect on gender equality more broadly in a country with a 35% pay gap in the private sector, only 24 women politicians in the 120-capacity Knesset, and a mere 22% employment rate among Israeli Arab women (Jewish Virtual Library).

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