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Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women

Monday 16 January 2012, by siawi3

Rina Castelnuovo

for The New York Times


January 14, 2012

Peeking through a tear in a curtain separating the men and women at an ultra-Orthodox wedding in Jerusalem. Secular Israelis oppose such segregation. More

JERUSALEM — In the three months since the Israeli Health Ministry awarded a prize to a pediatrics professor for her book on hereditary diseases common to Jews, her experience at the awards ceremony has become a rallying cry.

In Israel, a Clash Between the Secular and Ultra-Orthodox

The professor, Channa Maayan, knew that the acting health minister, who is ultra-Orthodox, and other religious people would be in attendance. So she wore a long-sleeve top and a long skirt. But that was hardly enough.

Not only did Dr. Maayan and her husband have to sit separately, as men and women were segregated at the event, but she was instructed that a male colleague would have to accept the award for her because women were not permitted on stage.

Though shocked that this was happening at a government ceremony, Dr. Maayan bit her tongue. But others have not, and her story is entering the pantheon of secular anger building as a battle rages in Israel for control of the public space between the strictly religious and everyone else.

At a time when there is no progress on the Palestinian dispute, Israelis are turning inward and discovering that an issue they had neglected — the place of the ultra-Orthodox Jews — has erupted into a crisis.

And it is centered on women.

“Just as secular nationalism and socialism posed challenges to the religious establishment a century ago, today the issue is feminism,†said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. “This is an immense ideological and moral challenge that touches at the core of life, and just as it is affecting the Islamic world, it is the main issue that the rabbis are losing sleep over.â€

The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.

Public discourse in Israel is suddenly dominated by a new, high-toned Hebrew phrase, “hadarat nashim,†or the exclusion of women. The term is everywhere in recent weeks, rather like the way the phrase “male chauvinism†emerged decades ago in the United States.

All of this seems anomalous to most people in a country where five young women just graduated from the air force’s prestigious pilots course and a woman presides over the Supreme Court.

But each side in this dispute is waging a vigorous public campaign.

The New Israel Fund, which advocates for equality and democracy, organized singalongs and concerts featuring women in Jerusalem and put up posters of women’s faces under the slogan, “Women should be seen and heard.†The Israel Medical Association asserted last week that its members should boycott events that exclude women from speaking on stages.

Religious authorities said liberal groups were waging a war of hatred against a pious sector that wanted only to be left in peace.

That sector, the black-clad ultra-Orthodox, is known in Israel as Haredim, meaning those who tremble before God. It comprises many groups with distinct approaches to liturgy as well as to coat length, hat style, beard and side locks and different hair coverings for women. Among them are the Hasidim of European origin as well as those from Middle Eastern countries who are represented by the political party Shas.

As a group, the ultra-Orthodox are, at best, ambivalent about the Israeli state, which they consider insufficiently religious and premature in its founding because the Messiah has not yet arrived. Over the decades the Haredim angrily demonstrated against state practices like allowing buses to run on the Sabbath, and most believed the state would not survive.

The feeling was mutual. The original Haredi communities in Europe were decimated in the Holocaust, and when Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, offered subsidies and army exemptions to the few in Israel then, he thought he was providing the group with a dignified funeral.

“Most Israelis at the time assumed the Haredim would die off in one generation,†said Jonathan Rosenblum, a Haredi writer.

Instead, they have multiplied, joined government coalitions and won subsidies and exemptions for children, housing and Torah study. They now number a million, a mostly poor community in an otherwise fairly well-off country of 7.8 million.