Posted by Nat Bernstein
Monday night, a group of Jewish students and professionals in their 20s gathered in the common room of the newly opened Moishe House of the Upper West Side over plates of kosher Chinese food for a discussion with JBC Network author Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman about her new book out from Sourcebooks, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.
Elana opened her talk with a brief description of a recent El Al flight in which the plane’s departure was delayed half an hour while passengers scrambled to accommodate a religious man assigned to the seat next to hers and insisting on another arrangement. The experience inspired an impassioned post on her blog, JewFem.com, that was quickly picked up and circulated by numerous news and media outlets including Tablet, The Telegraph, and Haaretz and launched a petition to El Al demanding an end to complacency in the harassment of female passengers by Ultra-Orthodox fliers. “If I had known that piece, out of all my writing and blogging, would be so widely forwarded, I would have never admitted that I cried,” Elana chuckled.
“All over the world, whenever religious extremism comes to power, women are always the first victims,” Elana pointed out, citing Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, “and Judaism is no exception.” The most visible outcome is the high premium placed on women’s modesty — “I hate to use that word, because modesty in Judaism was originally a beautiful idea, going back to Moses: true Jewish modesty is about putting the other person first, about putting others before yourself.” What it’s evolved into, she observes, is a way of controlling and hiding women’s bodies. “In the Orthodox world today, modesty is used as a measurement. We literally measure, inch by inch, religious observance against women’s bodies.”
Elana gave examples of how women are silenced, separated, removed, and prohibited from public spaces across Israel, from radio stations to cemeteries to sidewalks. Until recently, images of women were not allowed on billboards or other public advertising in Jerusalem; female scientists, educators, and medical professionals were barred from presenting at conferences in their fields or receiving awards at official ceremonies. “The levels of patriarchy are astounding: we go from modesty, covering women up, to removing women entirely, to the removal of images of women, to removing women’s voices. This is what’s going on in Israel, and it’s becoming violent.”
Questions for Elana ranged from pragmatic (“How can men and other outside groups be better allies to the religious feminist movements?”) to rhetorical, often raising personal experiences and responses. Members of the audience were appalled at the incidents of violence against Israeli women mentioned in Elana’s talk — stories of vandalism, of rocks thrown at women and their children for their attire or for turning down a segregated street, of women physically assaulted for sitting at the front of a public bus. “So a Haredi man can touch a woman to drag her off a bus and beat her, but he can’t sit next to her?” one participant blurted out, furious with indignation.
There, Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders — not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”
Globally, Elana holds, there needs to be less tolerance — even on the lay level — for religious fanaticism. This applies to the Jewish world, both in the Diaspora and in Israel: “There is a limit to pluralism; there’s a limit to how much we can accept as ‘multiculturalism’. This is not a legitimate culture, these are not legitimate demands. It is never acceptable for there to be a space in Israel in which women are not allowed.” She shared several examples from her own upbringing, career, and family to illustrate the challenges of upholding feminist values in the Orthodox world, even in her own life. When Elana apologized for adding such personal anecdotes to the discussion, the room erupted in protest: “No, these stories are amazing,” someone called out. “This is exactly what we came to hear.”
- Internal Dialogue: The Mothers’ Kaddish
- 7 Places Where Religious Radicalism Threatens Women’s Well-Being in Israel by Elana Maryles Sztokman
- 10 Inspiring Ways That Women Are Fighting for Justice in Israel by Elana Maryles Sztokman
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.