The Exclusion of Women and Control of the Public Sphere

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In recent weeks, the issue of the marginalization of women in Israeli society and their exclusion from the public sphere has dominated the media. Why is this phenomenon on the rise in Israeli society? In this op-ed, which was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on January 10, 2012, IDI Vice President of Research Prof. Yedidia Stern focuses on the religious Zionist community and explains why the exclusion of women is an expression of a power struggle to determine who will control the public sphere and the particular space of the religious community.

The marginalization of women is a phenomenon that is found everywhere, from liberal academia to the capitalist labor market. However, whereas people who exclude women usually are not proud of their actions and often try to deny what they have done, people who exclude women on religious grounds see the exclusion as desirable from the outset. Religious excluders see women as a stumbling block, as potential sources of temptation to sin, and accordingly believe that the presence of women in the public domain should be minimized.

Recently, these false claims have become very aggressive. What explains this phenomenon? Some attribute it to the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population. The increase in the ranks of Haredi Jews has strengthened the ultra-Orthodox community's self-confidence and enables its members to exert new force. While aggressive exclusion of women has always existed in that community, now it has become audacious. Others attribute the change to the weakening of the hierarchical leadership in the ultra-Orthodox community, which has allowed extremist groups to rear their heads and impose extreme positions on the Haredi majority. Ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves explain that the increased exclusion of women is a response to changing behavior in Israeli society, which is becoming increasingly permissive in a way that forces their community to adopt an aggressive defense policy.

I would like to offer an additional explanation, which sheds light on why the exclusion of women is intensifying within the national religious community as well. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the Haredi community and the national religious community when it comes to the marginalization of women. The exclusion that is practiced by some ultra-Orthodox Jews is stronger than in the national religious camp in terms of its content, but it is generally only imposed in public spaces in which the ultra-Orthodox have a clear majority. As far as this community is concerned, they are simply protecting their own ghetto. Conversely, the exclusion that is practiced by some members of the national religious community is milder in terms of its content, but its aspirations are higher, as this community seeks to apply the exclusionary practices to the entire public sphere (an example of this can be found in the attempt to marginalize women in the army).

The current struggle over the exclusion of women draws its strength from the question of sovereignty and control of the public domain, even if this struggle is taking place on the private and communal level. Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel are not trying to eliminate women from the general public sphere or from their particular communal space, because they do not have any aspirations to control these spaces. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in England do not see London as a source of their identity, but rather as a living space, in which they move about as citizens or visitors. Even Brooklyn, as Jewish as it may be, is a Diaspora; it may be comfortable and welcoming, but it is not "ours." In contrast, in the Land of Israel (a term that is used by the ultra-Orthodox community), ultra-Orthodox Jews assume that they will have mastery and control over the areas in which they live.

Paradoxically, it is actually the ultra-Orthodox extremists—who see the Jewish state as a forbidden rebellion against God and a violation of the Biblical oath not to use force to conquer the land—who draw religious energy and authority to act from the existence of the State of Israel, and seek to implement changes in the public space. As they see it, in the Land of Israel, it is the Jews who are in control; they may be sinners, but they are our brothers. Sovereignty has thus empowered the ultra-Orthodox to strive to realize their values in a way that is not found in the Diaspora. Since ultra-Orthodox extremists do not see the State of Israel itself as having worth, however, and since they desire isolation, their demands focus primarily on space within their own sector.

Members of the national religious community, in contrast, advocate integration into general society and aspire to lead the country. While in the past, members of this group saw themselves as a special interest group, and their efforts were largely aimed at preserving their ability to survive, today they see themselves as a central force in Israeli public life and see themselves as able to fulfill leadership roles in all the systems of the state-the military, the media, the legal system, culture, and politics. Within this camp, the "Hardal" community—"haredi leumi" or "nationalist ultra-Orthodox" Jews whose religious practice is more stringent than that of other religious Zionists—stand out, with their desire to incorporate their unique worldviews in the various systems of the state. In the eyes of this community, the goal of integration is to change Israeli society and bring about comprehensive ideological reform. Attitudes toward women, whether in the army or elsewhere, do not merely stem from a question of how to interpret a certain ruling in the Code of Jewish Law, but are an expression of a deep desire to reshape the nature of Israel. The voice may be the voice of "modesty discourse," but the hands are the hands of an ideological revolution.

Focusing on the issue of sovereignty and the public sphere when considering the struggle over the exclusion of women makes it clear that this dispute does not "only" concern questions of equality, human dignity, and the rights of women. It is also an expression of a power struggle to determine who will control the general Israeli public sphere and the particular space of the community. 

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on January 10, 2012.