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Israel’s Precarious Gender Balance

Women harassed when they refuse to go to the back of a public bus. Women forced to sit in segregated areas at public health clinics and at burials in cemeteries. Women berated for wearing clothes deemed to be immodest. Women’s voices banned from a radio station. Women excluded from participating in municipal programs and state celebrations.

A woman attacked in a Jerusalem square for wearing jeans.

A woman soldier, in uniform, called a “whore.”

These incidents and many more instigated by ultra-Orthodox Jews were becoming so endemic to Israel that the attorney general issued guidelines in May 2013 ordering the government to immediately end gender segregation in public spaces. “Protection of the constitutional right to freedom of religion should not be considered to oblige the public authority to permit the presence of segregation arrangements or other arrangements distinguishing between women and men on religious grounds,” the AG’s report said.

But given the growing political power of Haredi Jews, and the extent to which gender segregation has become entwined with their religious identity, many wondered whether the government could and would enforce change.

Two years later comes an assessment surprising in its praise, especially considering the source: the Israel Religious Action Center, the public advocacy arm of the Reform movement, which has persistently challenged, petitioned and sued the government to protest segregation and exclusion. In a lengthy report shared exclusively with the Forward before publication, IRAC concludes that “great progress has been made in the struggle against exclusion of women and segregation between men and women in the public sphere.”

But while the government’s dedication to eradicating this discrimination is commendable, the IRAC report also illuminates a deeper, ongoing struggle — the tension between two essential, value-driven goals in Israel: protection of women’s rights, and the integration of the Haredim in economic, social and military life. Women, IRAC warns, “continue to pay the price for the integration of the Haredim.”

How Israel can balance these two goals will determine not only its own success as a pluralistic democracy, but also its ability to act as a moral center for Jews around the world.

To begin, let’s eschew simplistic characterizations and acknowledge the facts. The list of injustices against women is long enough to be stunning. The official response to many of these injustices is definitive and heartening.

The Haredi attempts to segregate public buses, so stirringly reminiscent of the racial divisions imposed on much of the American South, became an obvious rallying cry for activists who challenged the practice with their own version of “Freedom Rides.” Now, IRAC reports, there’s been a “dramatic reduction in the number of cases involving the harassment of women who sit in the front of buses.” In most cases, bus drivers will now intervene to assist women who are being harassed. As they should have done all along. Still, progress.

The segregation at many Israeli cemeteries garnered less angry attention but must have been heartbreaking for those women denied the right to eulogize a loved one, forced to remain behind barriers, walk on separate paths, and in the case of a cemetery in Kiryat Gat, drink from a separate water fountain. IRAC reports that segregation signs have been removed from many cemeteries but that burial societies need to acknowledge, disseminate and obey the government’s rules more widely.

In some cases, there’s been a pushback against progress. For instance, the well-documented segregated entrances and waiting areas at HMO clinics, and requirements that patients and staff dress “modestly,” were supposed to disappear. Instead, the Ministry of Health is allowing the segregation to continue as long as there are also waiting areas with mixed seating. Not good enough. As IRAC noted: “As long as a segregated area exists, choosing the mixed area will be seen as provocative or as implying a lower level of religious zeal.”

IRAC had some clever suggestions for the outrageous discrimination that occurs beyond the government’s direct control — like on airplanes when a Haredi passenger won’t sit next to a woman. Haredim should organize group purchases so they can reserve seats, IRAC said. Or fly business class, with more spacious accommodations (and less chance of touching.)

There should be no exceptions made to the A.G.’s edict prohibiting the exclusion of women — or their voices — in public programs and ceremonies. But in areas such as higher education, the two competing values conflict. In 2011, in order to encourage Haredi men and women to go to university, the government established separate academic tracks in some classrooms. But how widespread should they be? Should libraries and lunchrooms also be segregated? How are the rights of women lecturers protected in such a system?

The same dilemma exists within the military, where Haredim are requesting segregated facilities as they face increased pressure to serve.

Whether efforts to extend the Haredi draft and other anti-discrimination moves will survive the fundamentalist tilt of the latest Netanyahu government is not at all assured. A society as diverse as Israel’s must make room for authentic religious freedom. But unfortunately, the exercise of such freedom is often an excuse to harass, exclude, demean, control, injure and in some cases endanger women in public. Our praise for the government’s efforts so far is tempered by the fear that Haredi integration will continue to unfairly burden women and tarnish Israel’s true egalitarian aspirations.


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