While Israel is focused mainly on dealing with security threats at home and abroad, it might be better off diverting some of its energies to tackling an increasingly problematic domestic issue: rampant gender inequality. Without separation of church and state, Israel is continually plagued by tensions between its religious and secular citizens. The divisions are particularly acute because of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population known as “Haredim,” an extremist religious sect whose traditional and strict lifestyle has clashed with modernity. The Haredim, whose population has boomed over the past decades, compose a significant percentage of the population. As a result, their representation in the electorate has increased and with it their political power. In return for Haredi votes, the ruling coalition exchanges welfare payments to Haredim, exempts them from mandatory military service, and now, tolerates their discriminatory practices towards women. If that doesn’t raise an eyebrow, what does?
As you may know, these orthodox discriminatory practices include gender separate sidewalks, banning women from singing in public, forbidding women to read the Torah at the Western Wall, removing billboards that have women’s images, enforcing neighborhood dress codes designed to force women to dress “modestly” and reminiscent of black segregation in America, forcing women to sit in the back half of the buses. Although Israeli law prohibits gender discrimination and specifically outlaws discrimination on public buses, they do not consider it illegal if it is “voluntary.” In other words, it is not a crime if women consent to being segregated and discriminated against by Haredi men. But secular Israeli women and even women from the Haredi community have protested in the streets in response to these unfair and backward practices. These protests have been fueled by recent events: a young schoolgirl “immodestly dressed” was insulted by Haredi men and even spit on. In another instance, a Jewish woman boarded a bus in the city of Ashdod only to be forced by a Haredi male passenger to sit in the back. When she refused, the male passenger prevented the driver from closing the door and from moving the bus. Eventually, the police had to be called and when they arrived they told the women to acquiesce (The Jewish Rosa Parks?). In turn, the Haredi have also protested: donning Holocaust garb and calling the police Nazi’s for threatening their way of life. This terrible offense to the memories of the Holocaust elicited outrage and a condemnation by Yad Vashem. Such tragic and memories should be left out of politics, doing otherwise is just insensitive and callous.
To address these issues, the Brandeis Hadassah Institute held the 4th annual Diane Markowicz memorial lecture on gender and human rights. The lecture featured an Israeli film titled “Black Bus,” a film by Anat Zuria describing sex segregation on buses in Orthodox neighborhoods as well as tracking the lives of two young women who left the Haredi community because they were fed up with being marginalized and repressed. The event was widely attended: in fact, myself along with many others who could not find seating, stood the entire time. But it was well worth it; The movie is not only well made but it is an excellent account of the nature and outrage over the current sex discrimination in Israel.
The struggle between religious and secular factions and the unfair oppressive practices against women is common in third world countries and in religious Arab countries. That a developed, democratic country founded as a safe haven from the crimes committed by the Nazis should tolerate or ignore these conditions is absurd. The lessons of black segregation in America proved the importance of equality for all and the importance of separation of church and state. The ever growing rise of modernity and globalization poses a constant threat to walled off religious communities around the world. As political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted, the biggest source of conflict after the Cold War would not be war, but a “Clash of Civilizations” between religious and secular identities. While his prediction is extreme, his general point is clear: we need to address globalization’s effect on religion and remedy the two. If Israel wants to succeed as a modern country, it must reconcile the two and address these unfair discriminatory practices against women. While, on the one hand religious views should be respected, such public discriminatory practices as separate sidewalks and segregated buses (which are publicly funded) should not be tolerated.