Around a Knesset conference room table on November 7th, Members of Knesset and organizational leaders discussed the existential nature of gender issues in Israel. Variously using platitudes and at other times imperatives, the hearings’ speakers urged those in attendance to consider the serious nature of the erosion of women’s rights in the public sphere.
The hearing opened with a video that had aired on the news only a few days before. It featured the issue of bus segregation in Jerusalem. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, was shown distributing “pashkevils,” or flyers, informing women and men of their rights on public transportation and in other areas. Though the Supreme Court ruled that gender segregation on public buses is illegal, orthodox Jews continue to do so, albeit now “voluntarily.”
The problem, as this news-piece demonstrated, is that gender issues in Israel are like a balloon: address one area, and another issue will inevitable arise. The program discussed segregation in waiting rooms of national health clinics and separate hours for men and women in supermarkets. It also showed footage describing barriers erected on streets in Mea Shearim during Succoth.
After the news program, Tzipi Livni, current leader of Kadima and the Official Opposition, began to speak. She argued that everyone shares these concerns over gender segregation in Israel. Livni made a joke that her voice, which she claims is quite bad, could hardly count as being included in the “Kol HaIsha,” sexually tempting category. She added that people want a “State with a Jewish culture that isn’t like this,” and that “It’s not only about women, it’s about men, and its something that will change the whole fabric of Israeli society.”
Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of Labor, argued, “We’re fighting for the democratic image of Israel.” She contended that modesty campaigns hold many Orthodox Jews back from becoming a part of Israeli society. Indeed, an Orthodox woman called her on the phone, and Yachimovich recounted that she said: God created secular women to protect Orthodox women from Orthodox men.
Next to speak was Rachel Adato, an MK from Kadima, who questioned who is running the IDF, the rabbis, or the commanders. She emphasized that gender issues are a part of everyone’s lives because they affect the military. Recently, the issue has been getting coverage, as women who want to serve in combat units are denied participation because of the objections of religious soldiers.
Dani Ben Simon, MK from Labor, then noted that there’s no other country in the world where politicians and societal leaders have to have a conversation like this, “even in Afghanistan.” He questioned how to prevent such occurrences, “which don’t exist in normal democratic countries.” However, he argued that it is Orthodox women who have to create a revolution within their society.
The next issue to be discussed was that of advertisements by private businesses, raised by the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Pepe Alalo. He noted that an advertisement for a bank, outside of Jerusalem, used men and women, but that same bank used only men on the billboards within Jerusalem. He argued that the problem with secular society is that businesses are “giving in” to the Haredi.
Perhaps the most incensed at the Hearing was one MK Nino Abesadze (from Kadima) who told of how her 14-year-old daughter was refused entry to a bus going from Raanana to Kfar Saba, because she wasn’t dressed modestly enough. This raises two questions: do MK’s care about gender issues more once they have been personally affected, and are these gender issues mostly limited to Jerusalem, or to other cities?
The Executive Director of the Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, connected a lack of tolerance towards women to a general lack of tolerance towards other groups in society, including Arabs. He argued that this is not only a narrow gender-battle, but also one about the democratic nature of Israel as a Jewish country. He said “We have to be firm in opposing any kind of intolerance,” and that those who object must join forces.
Hana Kehat from Kolech said that the Establishment, including politicians in the Knesset, backs the radical Haredi and therefore the battle has to start in the Knesset. She noted that the day before, two researchers received a price from the Health Ministry and weren’t permitted on stage because the Health Minister is Orthodox, so had to send a proxy to receive the prize.
Next to speak was Ilan Gilon, a Meretz MK, who said these issues do not just impact women but everyone in society, and that politics and religion are so intrinsically connected that we must fight to ensure the separation of State and religion.
As an American, I found it fascinating how those speaking at the hearing frequently invoked Rosa Parks and civil rights issues in the United States. For instance, Dov Khenin, MK from Hadash, brought up Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus to make room for a white passenger. He said that it is “shocking” that in Israel, segregation on buses is still an issue: it should have been left behind in the 20th Century. He was encouraged to see religious women and men at the hearing, as religious women encounter these issues “every day.”
Other speakers noted that the Orthodox Jews’ proportion of the population is exponentially growing, and therefore these issues need to be addressed now. In the future, it will not just be Jerusalem that is affected, but the entire country.
Indeed, Marine Solodkim, a Kadima MK, said that what is happening in Israel is “an existential danger.” She argued that there is no division between the ultra-Orthodox leadership and politics, because of their monetary influence.
Near the end of the hearing, Anat Hoffman asserted that the Orthodox women who are fighting for gender rights are “heroes.” Next, Avital Feldman from the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center forcefully and eloquently said that “sexual terrorism,” is a huge problem; she wants to see her rights as a woman protected, as what happens in Jerusalem is against the law.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the hearing, as Anat Hoffman noted as we walked out of the Knesset, is that so many Members of Knesset showed up: the media attention is starting to make an impact. However, it’s a race against the erosion of the presence of women in public spaces in Jerusalem. Politicians must be held accountable for their votes and the monitoring of public facilities must continue.