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Israeli Politics and a Woman’s Womb

While the Israeli cabinet has been grappling with some of the most harrowing decisions it has ever faced — from the deliberations over the release of Gilad Shalit, to some particularly stringent conditions imposed by President Obama — the religious right wing community in Israel has been engaged in its own disputations about nothing other than the role of the women’s body in contemporary Israeli politics.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, rabbi of Har Bracha Yeshiva who is at the center of the current storm about religious troops refusing orders to evacuate Jewish homes, apparently believes that the real power of the religious right wing comes from women’s wombs. Two weeks ago, he wrote a column in the newspaper “Besheva” about the appropriate response to the settlement freeze: “By establishing large families, blessed with many sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters like the dust of the earth, inheriting the land.”

He went on to say that in order to have more children, people have to be willing to live “modesty” and to “give up permissiveness.” Finally, he suggested that if families in the West Bank would be willing to “crowd in the way they do in Meah Shearim, we could fit into our homes 900,000 people.”

Now there’s a vision to behold — imagine an entire landscape that looks like Meah Shearim.

This is hardly the first time that the female body has been recruited to fight the rhetorical battle for survival of the Jewish people. Prof. Nitza Berkovitch of Ben Gurion University, in a chapter in “Women’s Studies International Forum” entitled, “Motherhood as a national mission: The construction of womanhood in the legal discourse in Israel” (Vol 20 No 5/6, pp. 605-619, 1997), wrote that, as far back as 1949, Israeli society — secular and religious alike — viewed motherhood as the key to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The motherly role is underscored,” wrote Berkovitch, “through the definition of the Israeli political conflict vis-à-vis the Palestinians in terms of the Jewish-Arab ‘demographic balance.’…In this context, child bearing is celebrated as having a major national significance. Motherhood of non-Jewish women….also has a national meaning, but that of a threat to the ideological foundations of the Zionist State.”

That Berkovitch, a leading Israeli feminist scholar, takes issue with this rhetoric is not surprising. But this time around, dissent has come from a surprising source: religious women. Miriam Adler, a religious mother of six who was forcibly evacuated in 2005 from the Sha-Nur settlement in northern Samaria and was later violently arrested at her parents’ home in the Gush Etzion settlement of Neve Daniel and very publicly put on trial, has come out strongly against Melamed’s statements. “Don’t get me wrong,” she wrote in a provocative Ynet column this week. “I don’t disagree with Rabbi Melamed about the importance of the settlements.”

Rather, she said, she takes issue with his “use of the woman’s womb” as a political tool.

“From my experience as a mother of six,” she wrote in her column, tellingly entitled, “Rabbi Melamed, the womb is ours — not yours”, “I learned that having children is an ends in and of itself. It is forbidden (assur) for such an act to be done for any other goal, lofty as it may be. A child is an entire world that demands from parents responsibility, resources, and physical and emotional availability. We have to give birth out of a desire to love.” She adds that anyway the child is not “the mother’s” but both parents’ offspring.

This column is interesting from several perspectives. First of all, it’s quite a big deal that a woman with such “credentials” in the right wing world, is (finally) talking back to the rabbi — even using language of “forbidden”, thus informally breaking down the hierarchy of knowledge. That’s a formidable model of female empowerment. Second, Adler has taken a remarkably egalitarian — and, I daresay, levelheaded and loving — approach to family life. Finally, Adler has now perhaps unknowingly added herself to the growing list of women challenging the religious rhetoric in Israel.

This phenomenon of religious women challenging the male domination of thought and knowledge is fascinating. In this case, it’s not about women taking on formal leadership roles, but rather about taking ownership of their own bodies, thought processes and lives — without rejecting religious life. In fact, their commitment to religiousness is in some ways reinforced through this form of empowerment. Indeed, Adler’s “talking back to the rabbi” is arguably more significant than some of the formal changes going on with Orthodox women , such as women being halaklhic advisers on “family purity.” Women halakhic advisers often become just another mouthpiece for male rabbinic rhetoric on women’s bodies, supporting the system rather than deconstructing it. Female halakhic advisers may look like they embody female empowerment, but often do not. Here, however, for Adler to get up and tell the rabbi that he is actually wrong, that he should stop giving bad advice to women — that, to me, signals real change.

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