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Bnei Akiva, and the Efforts To Silence Women

Women can solve the world’s problems by just being a little quieter. That is the message emerging from the resolution of a little fracas in the Religious Zionist world recently. The conflict revolved around the traditional IDF event memorializing the “Lamed-Heh,” the 35 men from the Haganah convoy who gave their lives to protect Gush Etzion in 1948. Bnei Akiva announced their withdrawal from the event because there are to be women singing in the choir. After some hemming and hawing and a few angry responses even from within the Bnei Akiva constituency — including condemnation of the boycott from Bnei Akiva World head Daniel Goldman, as well as Kibbutz Hadati youth, Kolech, and others —the groups reached a “compromise” in which women would not sing at the event, but would sing after the event (once all of the Bnei Akiva kids have left).

Actually, this event is just the latest in a series of national religious boycotts of women’s artistic expression — boycotts that, for the most part, have resulted in public capitulation to demands of religious men, amounting to victories for anti-woman rabbis at the expense of women’s well-being.

In 2008, for example, a leading dance troupe set to perform at the gala opening of the Jerusalem Bridge of Strings was forced cover up “Taliban-style” in order to placate haredi men (some of whom are on the city council). Similarly, a group of religious paratroopers walked out of an IDF event in which a woman was singing. According to Haaretz, there have been several similar incidences over the past two years: One army brigade canceled a female singer’s performance at a program for commanders after two religious commanders refused to attend. A year earlier, a group of men walked out in the middle of a woman’s singing, and there have been similar tensions at several other events.

It is important to note that these events are taking place in public spaces. We are not talking about a private party run by some religious group. We are talking about the IDF, the Jerusalem Municipality, and programs aimed at the entire population of Israel. For these groups to capitulate to religious demands sets a frightening precedent — and I don’t think that the Taliban analogy is unwarranted. This is how it starts.

There are a few issues here. One is the effect on women. I cannot help but wonder how the women singers feel about this. Yesterday, they were equal members of a mixed choir; today, they are the ones that are not meant to be heard. Their “leaders” basically offered the women as sacrifices in the name of peace between brothers. I would feel completely betrayed, with nobody covering my back.

Moreover, the decision turns women’s singing into a sexual act. Men can sing freely without ever being accused of being provocative. Yet women, singing the same songs and with the same passions and motivations, are told that their voices are a turn-on to religious men. Let’s talk about this for a minute: I want to know which men, sitting in a memorial service for the Lamed Heh, are going to be getting an erection because women are singing. I would like to know who educated those men to be able to ignore all serious content and turn everything into sex. Frankly, I think these men should all be kicked out of the army. I mean, how are they supposed to fight a war if they can’t keep it in their pants for a five-minute choir performance?

But of course, there’s a less visceral and more symbolic reason for this fanaticism. (Let’s face it: I doubt they’re all Don Juan.) It’s an attempt to appear more “religious”. As Assaf Wohl writes in Ynet:

For the time being I’ll skip the question of why the Bnei Akiva director has to be a rabbi, and why the last female director of the youth movement dates back to 1952. The abovementioned case is in my view merely an example of a much wider phenomenon taking place within the national-religious camp; a process that is mistakenly being referred to as “going haredi.”

Indeed, religious men are systematically taught that to be more religious means to look more haredi. And to “look” more haredi ultimately means to cover women up. The more silent and invisible women are, the more men can congratulate themselves for being increasingly religious. That is the narrative playing out here.

One can only wonder what God thinks about this religious flock supposedly representing His will. Divinely inspired? Spiritually uplifting? Living out His words? I don’t think so. It’s just men proving their manhood by demeaning women. It has nothing to do with being a good Jew.

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