Copyright Ingrid Muller
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is a leading writer and thinker on topics of feminism, Judaism, Israel and orthodoxy. Her first book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in the area of Women’s Studies. Her second book, Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (co-authored with Dr Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman), won the 2013 National Jewish Book Council award in the area of education and identity.
Next month, her latest book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Ravaging of Freedom, will be released by Sourcebooks. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, “Gaza: It’s a Man’s War,”, Sztokman, who lives in Modi’in, Israel, looks closely at the impact of sexism in Israeli society, particularly in the context of the current Gaza war.
Chanel Dubofsky caught up with Sztokman, who said that her book was born on this blog, The Sisterhood, where she started posting stories about gender segregation in 2009, via Google’s instant messaging service gchat.
Chanel Dubofsky: Set the scene for us regarding feminist activism in Israel.
Elana Sztokman: There is a lot of entrenched macho in Israeli culture. The challenge is the way in which that macho intersects with religion and the (secular) business and political establishment’s support of religious radicalism for their own needs and interests. It’s easy for men across the spectrum to throw women under the bus for the sake of coalition, business or money. Women are fighting this reality, to raise awareness that protecting women’s rights is a basic part of democracy, and to introduce different thinking about the role of religion in Israeli society and politics. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel, which means that religious groups have had tremendous political influence over the years. Religious (male) Elana’s wordsleaders have gotten away with lots of very anti-democratic stances and policies vis a vis women. It’s an uphill battle, but there is definitely a growing consciousness that we are witnessing now, and there is something exciting on some level in watching a real feminist movement grow from the ground up.
Talk about the presence of rape culture in Israeli society.
“Rape culture” has not significantly entered the public discourse in Israel, but there have been some fascinating discussions of sexual abuse and violence among religious women, and in some ways the religious feminists are leading the way.
During the 2012 election, after Yair Lapid commented on how feminists have no sense of humor, women started a [Hebrew] Facebook group called “I’m a feminist and I have no sense of humor.” A group of religious feminists started a group called “I’m a religious feminist and I ALSO don’t have a sense of humor.” When it was discovered that Emanuel Rosen, a famous television anchor, had apparently molested many female journalists, a woman wrote a column in which where she called for other women to come out of the closet regarding sexual abuse. Women all thought that they were alone, and that was protecting the abusers. As a result, a religious woman went onto the religious feminist Facebook page and told her own story about her experience with sexual violence at the hands of her husband. Hundreds of stories, one after another, of sexual abuse in the religious community came out. The group now has over 7,000 members, and is the largest online feminist group in Israel today.
What can be done about the fact that issues of gender get dismissed during war time?
Keep talking about it! In my book I try to unravel the “it’s our right” and “it’s our culture” as a justification for excluding women. I debunk the moral relativism argument: A culture that systematically harms 50% of the population is not meant to be protected by democracy. It’s even harder to get that point across during war: The men have their needs and it’s our job to step aside and let them be men. Protecting the soldiers justifies all kinds of sexual abuse.
In this book, you talk about becoming aware of the subtlety of radicalism in language. What does this look like?
There are signs that you are facing subtle sexism and misogyny; you can see it on social media: The whole “debate team” rhetoric, where it becomes about proving that you’re wrong, rather than listen to what you’re saying; a twisting of your words. The biggest clue is when you start hearing: “What about the men?”
What can US women learn from the war on women in Israel and from Israeli feminists?
I think feminists everywhere are struggling today to unpack this argument that men are entitled to have their world a certain way, like the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling –the company has a “right” to avoid providing women certain coverage because it “offends” them. This whole rhetoric can have a stultifying affect on women’s activism. One of the biggest contributions of the Israeli case study is to help formulate a tool for dealing with that awful argument. I really hope that this will be a contribution of my book, beyond just Israel.