Separate and Unequal
One of the obsessions of ultra-orthodox (haredi) men is not to be close to women. Even proximity to mothers, wives and daughters is at times restricted.
Though public transport in Israel doesn’t allow segregation, some private buses used by haredim put the women at the back. There’re many reported instances of men refusing to sit next to women when flying. Not long ago a neighbour of ours in Jerusalem won a case against EL Al because she was “persuaded” by a crew member to move.
And in Beit Shemesh, a town not far from Jerusalem where many haredim live, they’re trying to force women and men to walk on different sides of the street.
The issue become particularly complicated when efforts are being made to encourage haredim to get a secular education that would enable them to make a decent living instead of living in poverty and being dependent on handouts from the state and private charities. But many haredi men, though prepared to get an education that would lead to a profession, won’t sit side-by-side with women in lecture halls. To accommodate them, some institutions have arranged for separation curtains allowing women and men to sit there the way they might sit in their synagogues.
Recently criticism was expressed when Professor Aharon Barak, a former president of Israel’s Supreme Court and a jurist with an international reputation, lectured to law students who sat on different sides of the divide. His response was, “When in Rome do as the Romans.”
He seemed to be implying that bringing haredim into productive life is so important that Israeli society should be prepared to compromise over the seating issue.
In order to encourage haredi men and women to serve in the Israel Defense Forces it appears that many concessions are being made to accommodate them, including gender separation and making sure that haredi soldiers aren’t exposed to female singing voices, which they’ve been taught to regard as licentious.
I surmise that many Israelis, and not only feminists, aren’t happy with any of this. For the issue isn’t only separate seating and gender-separate army units. Here’s another example: In an effort to encourage students in haredi schools to visit museums, the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem screens off the section that deals with evolution when haredi schools come. People keep asking if indeed the end justifies the means.
A cartoon in my daily paper last Thursday depicted a groups of haredi children with their teacher in front of a huge skeleton of a dinosaur. The teacher is saying: “Isn’t this a large chicken!”
The majority of Israelis would like their country to be both Jewish and democratic. The question is whether haredim can accept this or whether when “democratic” and “Jewish” are clashing, they insist that the former must give way to the latter as understood by ultra-Orthodoxy.
Those who say that if the haredim get their way, Israel may no longer be the country of the majority of Jews, may have a very strong case.
Jerusalem 3.5.18 Dow Marmur