Ultra-Orthodox Jewish misogyny on the rise in Israel

Concerns are rising that gender segregation is on the increase inIsrael, especially in Jerusalem where ultra-Orthodox Jews are growing in numbers and strength.

In recent months, women’s faces have disappeared from billboards across the city amid mounting pressure applied by the powerful ultra-orthodox lobby, who find the female image offensive. Following an increase in vandalism on the borders of Jerusalem’s closed ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods, several advertisers have erased female models from their posters.

Jerusalem’s secular mayor, Nir Barkat, has stood up to the city’s growing number of ultra-orthodox extremists by demanding that local police enable women to reclaim their position in the public domain.

In September, nine religious soldiers walked out of a military event because women were singing – devout Jews claim women’s voices are seductive and conjure up lustful thoughts. The military expelled four of these soldiers from an officers’ course because they refused to apologise for disobeying orders to stay. A Rabbi, Elyakim Levanon, head of the Elon Moreh hesder yeshiva (a religious school that combines military training with Torah studies), told an Orthodox Radio station that soldiers must “give their life for this issue”. This week,Israel’s military chief of staff slammed the rabbi’s claim that religious soldiers would rather face a firing squad than attend a ceremony in which women sing.

In response, secular activist Hila Benyovich-Hoffman organised a series of demonstrations last week in which hundreds of women gathered for “singalongs” in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheva to demand their right to a public presence. She said “This was the final straw for me, that these cadets could humiliate female soldiers because some rabbi has told them that a woman’s voice is indecent. The army used to be a source of pride because women served alongside men as equals. But more and more, rabbis are influencing army behaviour.”

In a separate case, the army notified four female combat soldiers that they might have to leave their artillery battalion to make way for religious male soldiers who object to the mixing of the sexes.

Hannah Kehat, the founder of the religious women’s forum Kolech said, “The stronger the ultra-Orthodox and religious community grows, the greater its attempt to impose its norms”. Their norms, she said, are “segregation of women and discrimination against them.”

Despite being successfully challenged in Israel’s Supreme Court, the so-called voluntary segregation of women on buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods still persists. During a recent Jewish holiday attempts were made to establish gender-specific sidewalks in Mea She’arim. In state religious schools, where boys and girls once studied together as a matter of course, they are now being segregated form first grade. In an act of blatant disregard for Israeli law which ensures equal opportunity in the workplace, the Orthodox haredi Kol Berama radio station has banned women broadcasters. The station has also prohibited the broadcast of songs by female vocalists and interviews with women.

Jerusalem’s deputy mayor has called the situation “deplorable”. He said: “We are talking about a very extreme group of people who don’t recognise the authority of the city, the police, the government or the high court. It is critically important that we don’t let this minority dominate.”

It is estimated that about one-quarter ofIsrael’s 6 million Jews are modern Orthodox, another quarter are traditional and the rest secular.