Sunday, December 25, 2011

Balancing Very Real External Threats with the Equally Real--and Destructive--Internal Threats: Daniel Gordis and the JPost on 'Gender Insanity' & Haredi Fanaticism

It's been said that the parts of the Arab/Persian world that wish for our destruction might do better to sip their tea and let us do the heavy lifting. Below, two pieces that point that to our own overly developed internecine tendencies.

Gender insanity


Discrimination and violence against women – purportedly motivated by religious sensibilities – have spiraled out of control.

In recent weeks, we have been witness to women attacked for refusing to move to the back of the bus to uphold a policy of gender segregation; women forced out of a venue where elections in a Jerusalem neighborhood were being held; women denied the right to come on stage to receive an official Health Ministry prize for research into the relationship between Halacha and medicine; women banned from a Jerusalem ad campaign to encourage organ donations; and women prevented from serving in key IDF positions due to the opposition of a growing, increasingly vocal group of religious male soldiers and officers. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

These incidents have generated a debate over what has been euphemistically referred to as the “banishing” of women from the public sphere. But chauvinism, discrimination or downright violence would more accurately describe this behavior.

On Saturday night, a young haredi man was arrested on suspicion of spitting at a woman helping girls onto a school bus at a religious-Zionist elementary school in Beit Shemesh.

The recent spate of incidents is so severe that it brought the issue of gender discrimination to the center of public discourse. Significantly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who opened Sunday’s cabinet meeting by denouncing discrimination against women, has called on haredi legislators to speak out publicly against the phenomenon and ask their spiritual leaders to do so as well.

In recent years, a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox community has adopted more extremist positions, especially with regard to questions of female modesty, known as tzniut in Hebrew. Women’s physical proximity, no matter how perfunctory, has been transformed by radical haredi men into an insurmountable hurdle.

The inner dynamics of the ultra-Orthodox community allow these men to leverage their influence. Moderation is viewed with disdain as a weakness. The result has been an unrivaled push for the radical revamping of the public domain.

Much has changed since Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895- 1986), the most important halachic authority in America, permitted men to commute to work on subways and buses because “unavoidable and unintentional physical contact is devoid of sexual connotations.”

Today, in contrast, where the zealots have a say, women simply do not exist. You can search in vain for a female presence in the ultra-Orthodox press. Pictures of women are taboo, even when the subject is an infant. If there is a doubt regarding the gender of a baby – say in a diaper ad – sidelocks or a kippa are added. Female names are even abbreviated.

This hyper-puritanical world view is, furthermore, being accommodated outside strictly ultra-Orthodox circles. As The Jerusalem Post’s health reporter Judy Siegel reports in today’s paper, at least two state-funded health funds – Clalit and Meuhedet – have published special brochures in deference to ultra-Orthodox sensitivities.

Neither “breast” nor “cancer” is mentioned in these brochures. Instead, code words are used. And even the most innocent photos of women or young girls are vigilantly removed. Faced with the prospect that segments of the ultra-Orthodox community would refuse to read these “sexy” brochures – and thus endanger women’s lives by failing to detect breast cancer early – the heads of the health funds apparently felt compelled to make these modifications.

Similarly, public bus companies, apparently motivated by economic considerations, have allowed haredi activists to enforce gender segregation. By caving in to these unreasonable demands, the bus companies and health funds are giving them legitimacy. And the inevitable side effect is a feeling of entitlement and self-righteousness that emboldens some particularly extreme haredi men to aggressively confront women – whether on the bus, in the streets of Beit Shemesh or elsewhere.

According to a recently released CBS report, by the year 2059, haredim – who currently make up 10 percent of the population – will grow by 580% and represent a third of Israelis. As it grows, the need for haredim to integrate into mainstream Israeli society and transform themselves from a parochial enclave to a full-fledged partner in the flourishing of a healthy Jewish state will grow as well.

What is desperately needed today in the ultra-Orthodox community is the sort of reasonable, pragmatic spiritual leadership personified by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that would enable such integration. Otherwise, coexistence will inevitably become more and more difficult.

Before we preach to Israelis living abroad


Are we so desperately afraid of our external enemies that we’ll support at all costs a government that just watches as the country rots from within?

Kamal Subhi, formerly on the faculty of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University, recently joined other clerics in warning that if the Saudi ban on women driving is lifted, mixing of genders will increase and that, in turn, will encourage premarital relations. If women are allowed to drive, he said, in 10 years’ time the kingdom will have no virgins left. “The virgin dearth,” I guess we could call it. In Europe – and I’m not making this up – a Muslim cleric ruled that women should not touch or be proximate to bananas and cucumbers, in order to avoid “sexual thoughts.” Their fathers or husbands should chop them before they eat them, he suggested. Ouch.

It’s tempting to laugh, of course, to point to the absurdity that can result when a religious tradition develops thoroughly unfettered by any contact with or influence from the outside world, guided by clerics with the narrowest intellectual training imaginable. But before we point with derision to Saudi Arabia and some dark corners of Europe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look around and remind ourselves of what’s unfolding right here at home.

Israel, our perky start-up nation, now has another credit of which to boast. We have our very own Rosa Parks. Her name is Tania Rosenblit; she’s the young woman who refused to move to the back of the bus when instructed to do so by haredi passengers on a bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem. It’s almost 2012 – practically 99 years since Rosa Parks was born. But parts of the Jewish state are still struggling to enter the 20th century, which, of course, ended over a decade ago.

Thankfully, and none too soon, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, rushed to condemn the segregation of men and women on public buses. “We [the ultra-Orthodox] don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others,” he asserted. “This state does not belong to the haredi community.”

Ah, so there’s the problem. The issue is not that it’s wrong to relegate women to the back of the bus (why don’t the men go to the back of the bus and let the women sit up front if they’re so worried?) or that the segregation of men and women on buses is absurd (does insurmountable temptation really lurk at every stop?) but simply because the haredim don’t (yet?) have the political power they need to enforce this. Metzger’s concern was only tactical – the haredim were over-reaching. Not a word about the shamefulness of a society in which men and women cannot respectfully and properly occupy the same public space or how similar to Saudi Arabia we seem intent on becoming. Will there be a separate section on the bus for women carrying uncut fruit?

Buses are far from the full extent of it, of course. Now we learn that the Karmiel Employment Bureau has assigned different days for men and women seeking unemployment compensation. But lest we worry that this is fundamentalism-creep, rest assured, it’s only an administrative nicety. It is “more convenient” for men and women to use the office’s services on different days, the office explained to Ynet. “It prevents stress and chaos in the waiting room and is more aesthetic.” Aesthetic? How’s that, exactly?

And let’s not forget the still-simmering controversy over women singing at army ceremonies. Since halachic rulings are apparently immutable, Israel’s noble political leaders are resorting to – what else? – technology. That, after all, is where we Israelis shine. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has a brilliant solution: he simply puts his fingers in his ears when women sing at army events. (I would pay for a photograph of that.)

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in order not to offend those singing young women (who are actually in the army serving their country – yes, some people still do that, apparently) who might find the sight of the state’s chief rabbi with his fingers stuck in his ears somewhat disconcerting or even offensive, Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev has a much better idea: religious men should simply use earplugs when women sing. Brilliant. One only hopes that they remember to remove them before heading into battle. I’m told that being able to hear your commander can increase effectiveness in combat. Unless you had no intention of obeying his orders in the first place, I guess.

And we have, infinitely worse, the burning of mosques, vicious and violent attacks on Israeli soldiers by radicalized settlers and an emerging national debate as to whether (or when) the army is going to have to start shooting them. And our government? It’s tiptoeing around, doing nothing and saying little, its only genuine concern that the coalition not be weakened.

AH, the joys of Jewish sovereignty, the nobility of Jewish independence. A.D. Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion may have all disagreed in life, but now they have one thing in common – they are undoubtedly turning in their graves. That, by the way, was the real absurdity of those much-discussed ads begging Israelis abroad to come home. Those pot-shots at Jewish life in America (gratuitous and simplistic, a bit offensive and not entirely wrong) utterly missed the point – maybe those Israelis live in America because what’s unfolding in Israel is so thoroughly unappealing to them. Maybe they’ve noticed that back “home” in Israel the pockets of outrage against all of this violence and medievalism are tiny, virtually muted.

It’s Hanukka, our collective reminder that in an era of darkness, Jews struggle to create more light. Do those of us unafraid of cucumbers or mixed buses, those of us who believe that women serving their country ought to be able to sing, those of us who are ashamed of a country that takes only the feeblest action against Jews who do to mosques what anti- Semites did to our synagogues not that long ago, possess the courage of which this holiday is a reminder? Will we, like the Maccabees, take our country back before it’s too late?
It’s hard to know. So far, it seems we are so desperately afraid of our external enemies that we’ll support at all costs a government that just watches as the country rots from within.

At moments like this, it’s hard not to think about the Altalena affair. Tragic though it was, it was the defining moment at which Ben-Gurion made it clear to all that there would be one central authority in the Jewish state. Those who sought to subvert it would be treated in accordance with what they were – threats to the state’s very existence. One prays that some progress can be made here without the use of force. But if it cannot, it’s worth remembering that we once had a prime minister who knew what had to be done.

But then, of course, it’s been a very long time since we’ve had a leader with that character, that confidence, those deeply held commitments. These days, with Hanukka reminding us of the enormous power of convictions, it would be nice to have some leadership with any principles at all.

Daniel Gordis is president of the Shalem Foundation and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His next book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, will be published this August.


George Jochnowitz said...

Blind faith is becoming more powerful all over the world. In the United States, religion has become a defining element in the Republican Party. In Iraq and some other Islamic countries, Shiites and Sunnis blow each other up regularly. In Israel, the laws of modesty have taken on new restrictive meanings. And in North Korea, the Marxist faith is at its peak, with citizens crying at the loss of one tyrant and looking with adoration upon his son, who will continue the dynasty. Years ago, Ionesco wrote his play RHINOCERITIS, about people who turn into rhinoceroses because it is the thing to do.

George Jochnowitz said...

Oops! The play is RHINOCEROS. The ailment is "rhinoceritis."