Sunday, December 18, 2011

Report from Israel: Buses, Burkas, and the Badatz

The State of Israel, once ahead of the curve in embracing women as equal participants in society, seems to be backsliding.  There are a handful of Haredi women wearing burkas, to the consternation of their (only male) rabbis; there is concern over the disappearance of female images in public spaces in Jerusalem; and two days ago an Egged bus (the main public bus company) was delayed for half an hour while a woman refused to move to the back at the behest of a Haredi man, who held the door open so the bus could not move.  According to news reports, the driver seemed reluctant to intervene, and when the police arrived, the situation was only compounded when the officer asked the woman to comply so the bus could go.  Unfortunately, this case is far from isolated:
Egged spokesman Ron Ratner condemned the incident, but said such incidents were increasing and that Egged's directives clearly prohibit the driver from "permitting or creating any separation on the bus unless it is voluntary," and instructing to call the police in such cases. Ratner advised [the woman, Tanya] Rosenblit to submit a complaint to Egged's ombudsman so the incident could be scrutinized more closely.
(Here's the rest of the article from today's Haaretz.)

Ms. Rosenblit's run-in is just icing on the cake.  This past weekend's Jerusalem Post Magazine contained two pieces (by Israel Kasnett and Naomi Ragen) that referenced the so-called "Taliban women" who are taking themselves out of the picture.  The burka case is now well-known, but both articles point to additional instances of radical modesty: a woman who refused to give birth in a hospital, lest the wrong person see her inappropriately attired, and another woman who had just been married (and was divorced soon after, according to Ragen):
But after the wedding, the bride, also a veil-wearer, said it wasn’t possible for her to go to the mikve (ritual bath) because that would require her not only to take off her veil, but to actually immerse naked in the water. Quite reasonable, don’t you think? The groom, apparently not on such a high spiritual level, didn’t agree, and found another, more willing veiled woman to take her place.
Shocking, and yet, as Ragen points out, these women have been cajoled to this point by the Badatz, the same Haredi leaders who are now denouncing them.

Meanwhile, the women's supplement editor of a Haredi magazine, Roni Shub, declared herself on the opinion pages of Haaretz to be proudly liberated while living modestly in Israeli society, in which wanton sexuality and the objectification of women are rampant.  She writes, "Iran is not yet here, but in the sacred public square, Sodom and Gomorrah already are."  She certainly has a point, but if thinking like this causes women to withdraw rather than fight for their right to be fully integrated and visible, I might be forced to opt for Gomorrah.

As if to highlight Shub's point, there was an investigative report last night on Israeli television (I never have time to watch TV in America!) about forced prostitution in Israel, and one particularly troubling story of a woman who was taken under false pretenses from Uzbekistan to serve ten clients a day in a seedy hotel in Ashdod.  After falling ill with pneumonia, she was rescued and returned to her parents' home in Tashkent, where she died soon after arriving.  (The family just won a lawsuit against the State of Israel, seven years after her death.)  That such horrific crimes occur in Israel (and all over the world) is not new information; in light of all of the above, however, this tale paints in stark colors Ms. Shub's portrait of increased segregation of women in the face of inappropriate sexuality in the public sphere.  

I call your attention to this not to throw mud at Israel, Israelis, or the Badatz, but rather to suggest that we as Jews, those in the Diaspora and those in Israel, recall that the work of moving society forward is never complete, that we should never take for granted what was achieved in the last century.  The egalitarianism that is vaunted in the progressive corner of the Jewish world empowers some women, but there are many more corners that are less enlightened.  With apologies to Pirqei Avot 2:2, here is a point where it is indeed up to all of us to finish the task.

(Supplemental reading: Rabbi David Golinkin's teshuvah on the issue of hearing women's voices, issued following the incident in September 2011 where observant male officer cadets in the IDF left a performance of a military entertainment troupe because they objected to hearing a solo woman singing.)

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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