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Roundtable: Giving Voice to Women – The Place of Women in Israel 2012

The Israel Democracy Institute | 4 Pinsker Street, Jerusalem

In recent months, there has been increasing concern about the exclusion of women from the public sphere in Israel - an issue that was recently discussed by the Ministerial Committee on the Status of Women.  Controversy has emerged both in the Israeli army - where women were relegated to a separate area during Simchat Torah celebrations and some religious soldiers have found themselves in conflict when confronted with women singing at IDF ceremonies - and in civil society, where women are sometimes relegated to the back of public buses on routes frequented by ultra-Orthodox passengers, have been purged from Jerusalem billboard ads seeking organ donors, and may even encounter requests to walk on separate sidewalks in ultra-Orthodox communities.

Against this backdrop, on Tuesday, January 10, 2012, IDI convened the George Shultz Roundtable Forum for a discussion on the exclusion of women from Israeli civil society and the military.

This event was built around the discussion of the following four topics:

  1. Women in the Military
  2. Women in Jerusalem
  3. Gender Issues in Religious Education
  4. The Place of Women in Israeli Public Life

Moderator: Ms. Sivan Rahav Meir, television journalist

  • Ms. Rachel Azaria, Member of the Jerusalem City Council
  • Dr. Arye Carmon, President, IDI
  • Ms. Ayelet Wieder Cohen, Clinical Psychologist and Chairwoman of the Board of Kolech, The Religious Women's Forum
  • Mr. Yossi Deutsch, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, United Torah Judaism
  • Rabbi Yona Goodman, Former Secretary General of the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement
  • Prof. Tamar Hermann, Senior Fellow, IDI
  • Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Vice President, IDI
  • Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau, Ramban Synagogue, Jerusalem
  • Rabbanit Shulamit Melamed, Founder of Arutz Sheva (Israel National News)
  • Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, Former Chief Rabbi of the IDF
  • Ms. Tamar Rotem, Journalist, Haaretz
  • Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Bar-Ilan University
  • Major General (Res.) Yehuda Segev, head of a the military committee that issued recommendations for the service of women in the IDF
  • Ms. Bambi Sheleg, Editor of Eretz Acheret Magazine and Columnist for Maariv
  • Mr. Yair Sheleg, Senior Researcher, IDI
  • Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President of Research, IDI

Moderated by well-known television journalist Ms. Sivan Rahav Meir, a religious woman, the roundtable focused on various aspects of the phenomenon that has become known in Hebrew as "hadarat nashim" - the exclusion or marginalization of women.  The event, which brought together religious and secular public figures, revealed extreme differences in perceptions of the current status of women in Israel and of the desired nature of the public sphere.  Following is a brief summary with some of the main points made by each of the speakers in the four sessions.

Opening Remarks

IDI President Dr. Arye Carmon opened by explaining that there is a conflict between two sources of authority in Israel.  Democracy sees the source of authority as inclusive: it focuses on us, the people.  In contrast, religion sees the source of authority as exclusive: God.  Dr. Carmon asserted that Israeli society must strive for complete separation between issues that are religious and those that are not, while preventing rabbinic and halakhic interference in political and military decisions.  He also expressed his belief that that the distinction made by the IDF Chief of Staff between official ceremonies, where attendance is compulsory and soldiers are forbidden to leave if women are singing, and leisure activities, which religious soldiers may chose to avoid if women are scheduled to sing, was a mistake.  He compared this decision to a crack in the "Great Wall" of the Israeli public space.

1. Women in the Haredi Public Space

Haaretz Journalist Tamar Rotem: Fundamentalist extremism is taking over the entire ultra-Orthodox street, because the community's spiritual leadership is weak.  The voice of the moderate ultra-Orthodox majority, which opposes extremism, is silent.  Haredi journalists say, in private conversations, that the extremists are causing a great deal of damage to ultra-Orthodox society as a whole, but they are not prepared to say so publically because you cannot express no-confidence during wartime and there is a feeling that a war is currently being waged against the ultra-Orthodox.

Jerusalem City Council Member Rachel Azaria: There is a huge gap between what the law says and what actually happens in the field.  [The law, for example, asserts that women may sit anyplace in a bus and should not be forced to move.]  Many prefer not to have confrontations and not to stand up for their rights for two reasons: 1) because they would rather be smart than be right and 2) because of multiculturalism.  The understanding of what multiculturalism should be in Israel society has become confused.  In the name of multiculturalism, the majority is currently required to let all minorities live however they want, without any interference; there is no dialogue between cultures.  The age of multiculturalism is nearing its end, and the next stage will be one of solidarity and responsibility, when the rules of the game will be set again.

Mr. Yossi Deutsch, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and a representative of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party: There are extremists in the ultra-Orthodox community, but there are also extremists in the secular community.  I do not generalize about the entire secular community based on the behavior of individuals.  One must look at the individual as an individual and not generalize about the community.  Israeli society has lost its sense of proportion. The former IDF chief of staff, Dan Halutz, recently said that Israel's existential problem is not Iran, but the ultra-Orthodox.  A distinction should be made between extreme acts that cause harm to people (especially to ultra-Orthodox people), which should be condemned and pulled out from the root with every relevant means, and the fact that my wife and I prefer to enter buses from separate entrances and to sit separately.  We both feel comfortable with that; we prefer when we do not have to be squeezed in with members of the opposite sex.  This is Israel's biggest problem?  As members of the ultra-Orthodox society, we want to manage our lives on our own, and there is no need to interfere with that patronizingly.

Ms. Bambi Sheleg, Editor of the Eretz Aheret magazine: Within the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a large population that opposes segregation on buses, but they are being held captive at knifepoint, under the extremist ultra-Orthodox sword.  That's why most Israelis feel that they have had enough and we must do something about the situation.  It is time to say that if you and your wife prefer to sit separately, you should hire a private bus.

Rabbanit Shulamit Melamed, Founder of Arutz Sheva (Israel National News):  I personally do not have a problem sitting in the back of a bus or entering a bus through the back entrance.  I don't find it degrading.  The hostility surrounding this issue is difficult for me to understand.

2. Gender Issues in National Religious Education

Ms. Ayelet Wieder Cohen, Clinical Psychologist and Chairwoman of the Board of Kolech - The Religious Women's Forum: In religious education there is a great deal of emphasis on modesty.  This is a phenomenon that affects awareness, femininity, and sexuality, and it harms both sexes equally.  The extreme concern with modesty that focuses on the sleeve length of 11-year old girls is harmful.  The discourse surrounding modesty is discourse of hypocrisy (tzvi-ut) rather than discourse of modesty (tzni-ut).  There is a slippery slope that begins with separation, continues with exclusion, and ends with total silencing.

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau, Rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem: We are involved in a spiritual struggle within religious Zionism, between the "Hardal" (national Haredi) stream, which is more religiously stringent, and the liberal stream, which is more pluralistic.  They each have different concepts of the role of women.  Within the Hardal community, men and women are seen as different.  The women in that community-the women who sang during the evacuation of Gush Katif-have a different agenda.  They don't want to say Kaddish and don't want to learn Talmud.  It's wrong to refer to it as the exclusion of women; it's a different model of the role of women.  One of the hallmarks of this conflict between the two streams is the question of gender segregation in schools.  This controversy should not split the religious Zionist society.  The question of separate or coeducational classes is the kind of diversity found in families.  The family should not be separated because of this; the overall framework should be maintained.

Rabbi Yona Goodman, lecturer at Orot College and former Secretary General of the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement: Within the religious Zionist community, the discussion is not about exclusion (hadara) but about separation (hafrada).  These are two different things.  There is an educational approach that believes that it easier to teach children to have sensitivity and respect when they are in gender-segregated classrooms and schools.  There has been discussion of this matter for twenty years or more; it hasn't started now.  Another issue is how to behave in a public space that is shared.  Launching a violent assault on the ultra-Orthodox community because of a handful of extremists results in a war that involves the entire public.  It is necessary to identify what the communities have in common and to strengthen those things, rather than focusing on the ways in which the communities are different and on the elements that push them further apart.

Prof. Yedidia Stern, IDI Vice President of Research: The State of Israel is not a multicultural country, and it will not be.  This is because there are several groups that are involved in the question of what Israel's public sphere should look like, and in a multi-cultural society, the minority wants to maintain its distinct identity as a minority rather than to impose its opinion on the majority.  It is difficult for me to identify with Yossi Deitch's statement.  We're not talking about one's private space because the type of separation that we're talking about is projected upon the public sphere.  It is impossible to prevent the flow from one to the other.  For example, the ultra-Orthodox Puah Institute convened a conference on significant gynecological issues and women doctors were not allowed to speak.  This is a reality that affects the public sphere.

IDI Senior Researcher Yair Sheleg: With regard to the content, there is no conflict between the melting pot and multiculturalism. The correct code to be following is that of human dignity.  There is a need to balance the various manifestations of human dignity.  With regard to the style, there is a problem in that each camp is substantiating its views as a response to the opposing camp, rather than addressing the issues themselves.  Society must base its positions on what is right for it, not based on how to respond more strongly to its opponents.

3. Women in the Israel Defense Forces

Major General (Res.) Yehuda Segev, head of a the military committee that issued recommendations for the service of women in the IDF: Israel is the only country in which there is compulsory military service for women, and the rate in which women are integrated in the IDF is declining steadily....  The reason why it was difficult to establish the Nahal Haredi army battalion, in which ultra-Orthodox soldiers serve in their own units, was because the IDF was reluctant to establish a battalion that was segregated on the basis of gender.  In the end, the battalion was established and consensus was reached about the rules of the game.  When such rules are set, it is possible to effect change.

Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, member of the faculty of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University: Following the Supreme Court ruling on the Alice Miller case [a 1995 ruling in which a 23-year-old female officer was given the right to join the Air Force flight training course], the IDF Chief of Staff announced that a revolution of human dignity had begun in the IDF.  Over the years many steps have been taken to integrate women in the IDF.  Although the admissions procedures for women have been improved, there are still differences between the procedures for men and women that are irrelevant, and there is still a glass ceiling for women officers.  In the past, religious men who wanted to serve separately from women did so within the framework of the hesder yeshivot [national religious programs that combine yeshiva studies with army service], while graduates of the pre-military academies served in all units of the army.  However, then they discovered that women were serving alongside them, and at times female shooting instructors touched their shoulders.  There is a desire to bring the rules of the synagogue to the army; women can be there, but they will be separate.  Separation, by definition, is not egalitarian.  The issue of women's singing in the army is symbolic.  The problem is the slippery slope.

Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, former Chief Rabbi of the IDF: I was in the army for years and never encountered a clash between the army and Jewish law.  Religious soldiers who had trouble with singing used to sit in the back and slip away.  No one made an issue of it and no one said there could be no women's singing in the army.  Commanders used to be able to see the needs of their soldiers and find a way of accommodating them.  A middle way should be found that will enable religious soldiers to continue serving while still following Jewish law.  The cadets who asked to leave the ceremony when women were singing were acting in accordance with Jewish law.  It is not possible to tell people who are careful to follow Jewish law that they are being extremists.

IDI Senior Fellow Prof. Tamar Hermann: The status of women in the military has a great impact on civilian life.  It is not appropriate to pay the price of damaging the status of women in the army in order to allow the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox to serve.  This is not the position of IDI, but if the army continues to isolate women, I think women should refuse to enlist in the army.  Tomorrow the same thing will happen in the workplace: the cafeteria will be segregated and there will be separate work rooms, like the situation that is happening today in some Arab countries.

Prof. Yedidia Stern: The Army cannot be multicultural.  If we start separating the army on the basis of different groups, it will not be able to fulfill its missions.  In addition, the Military Rabbinate must issue a rabbinic ruling on the value of unity in the revival of the State of Israel.  That ruling could serve as a counterweight to balance the Code of Jewish Law's ruling that men are prohibited to hear women sing.

Ms. Ayelet Wieder Cohen: We have moved from a trend of integration (hishtalvut) to at trend of domination (hishtaltut). Religious people, who used to seek to be integrated, now wish to control others.  State religious schools now prohibit girls to dance at bat mitzvah parties if there is no mechitza separating the men from the women.  This is domination.

Ms. Bambi Sheleg: There is a great reluctance among the secular to volunteer for command positions.  This void is filled by the religious community.  The Israeli public must do some soul searching for having abandoned Zionist positions.

Rabbi Yonah Goodman: A terrible paradox has been created.  When Haredim do not enlist in the army, people come to them with complaints and ask them why not.  When the national religious enlist and are prepared to do their share without compromising their religious positions and abiding by Jewish law, they also get complaints.  The result may be that there will be less army service among religious Zionists.

4. The Place of Women in Israeli Society

Ms. Bambi Sheleg: Modernity has changed the status of women and has raised big questions.  Historically men have been the measure of reality, not women.  Today women are demanding to be the measure of reality.  Clearly, there are forces trying to stop this development.

Prof. Tamar Hermann: In my professional life, I never focused on gender because I believed it wasn't necessary.  In the past I used to think that enlightenment was always linear and moving forward, but now I am not sure.  There seems to be a regression.  The conflict that seemed to have been resolved, apparently still remains.  There is great danger here that women are going to be the victims of the fear of modernity.  Since secular Jews do not have a "Code of Jewish Law" with clear cut rulings, it is difficult for them to define their identity and they are in danger of losing their lifestyle.  This is a difficult existential situation in which the deep secular consciousness has to pave its way.  This discourse threatens Israeli secularism.

Rabbanit Shulamit Melamed: Society has created a series of laws to prevent gender discrimination, which attempt to change fundamental concepts, and in the end, they damage both men and women.  It is important to return to the traditional understanding that sees men and women as having different roles, with each working in accordance with their strengths.  These laws harm the functioning of the house, and also hurt women themselves, since employers are reluctant to employ women because of the special laws, such as shortened work hours for new mothers, which are intended to protect women.