Nearly every month, it seems, there is troubling news relating to the status of women in Israel. Late last year it was women forced to sit at the back of public busses, and then Haredim attacking schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh for being insufficiently modest. In October the leader of Women of the Wall was arrested and allegedly mistreated by police for leading others in prayer at the Kotel. And recently, according to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Knesset candidate Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan declared that the agunah issue is caused by women’s groups trying to besmirch the rabbinical courts, rather than by husbands who refuse to divorce their estranged wives.
JOFA brought together some of the women involved in confronting these issues, both in the U.S. and Israel, for a roundtable discussion on November 28 in midtown Manhattan.
Israeli feminist leaders Hannah Kehat, founder and executive director of Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum and Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of The Center for Women’s Justice participated, along with Americans Nancy Kaufman, director of the National Council of Jewish Women; JOFA founder Blu Greenberg and Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner.
“The purpose was to facilitate a high-level discussion about the status of women in Israel, an issue of great importance to the American Jewish community in general and to the JOFA community in particular,” said Elana Sztokman, the organization’s executive director. “We wanted to bring together the women who are leading the public discourse about the implications of recent events in Israel around religious pressure on women.”
Israel, paradoxically, is ahead of the U.S. on some women’s issues. Working women in Israel earn 83 cents for every dollar earned by men, for instance, while in the U.S. it is just 77 cents on the dollar. But in other areas, like the visibility of women in Haredi-dominated spaces, there appears to be backsliding rather than progress. In Israel “a woman can be a fighter pilot but she can’t get a get,” or religious divorce, said Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice. “We’re very progressive except in those areas where the state has ceded to religious authorities,” like on matters of marriage and divorce. Israel is now, Weiss said, “a partial theocracy.” Much of the gathering’s discussion was focused on the October 16 arrest and subsequent mistreatment of Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall.
“Anat has become a stirring symbol,” said The Forward’s Eisner, “a symbol that may go beyond what just women want.”
But, while many American Jews are concerned about issues of religious pluralism in Israel, few Israelis seem to be as worried. “Our issues are not Israelis’ issues,” Eisner said. “There is a cultural disconnect. Sometimes my Israeli friends are baffled by our concerns. We have some bridges to build between us.”
When Greenberg was in Jerusalem for the First International Jewish Feminist Conference, in 1988, and went with other conference attendees to pray together at the Kotel (a moment which also gave birth to Women of the Wall), she became the first woman to be called to the Torah there, she recalled this week. “There was a lot of screaming from the other side and, even though it’s not really in character for me, I screamed the bracha back,” she said. At the same service, “we couldn’t sing Hallel. It felt like a hand clamped over my mouth.”
The real challenge is to break the Haredi monopoly at the Kotel, said several discussion participants. “They took over and want to make everyone Haredi,” said Kehat.
“They have turned the Wall into a shtiebel,” Weiss said. “It is not a synagogue, but a national religious symbol and should be returned to all of us.”
The speakers expressed frustration and anger about the current troublesome state of affairs for women in Israel, but the meeting did not focus much on constructive ways to move forward.
The NCJW’s Kaufman was the only one to broach that subject. “This is not a time to get mad,” she said, “but to get organized.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Assessing Problems of Women’s Status in Israel