Showing posts with label Gender Equality in Israel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gender Equality in Israel. Show all posts

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Latest Arrests of Women at the Kotel

Israel continues to serve as a crucible for the multi-layered clash between freedom of religion, gender equality and freedom of expression.  As a liberal democracy with a Jewish religious character, Israel is constantly wrestling with the boundary between state-sanctioned Judaism and the liberal democratic values of gender equality, freedom of expression and tolerance.

In the most recent instance, Jerusalem police once again arrested Anat Hoffman, leader of the group Women of the WallShe was arrested for "disturbing the peace."  Her crime was reciting the Shema, out loud, while wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) at the Kotel (the Western Wall).  In other words, she committed the offence of praying out loud, while being a woman.

 Tuesday night was the start of the new month of Cheshvan (or perhaps, more aptly "Mar Cheshvan" - the bitter month of Cheshvan - since it does not feature any Jewish holy days).  But it also coincided with the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which was celebrating the occasion with a convention in Israel.

Ms Hoffman was arrested for the sixth time over the course of her twenty years of advocating for women's equality at Judaism's holiest prayer site.  On this occasion, she was treated in a much more brutal fashion than in the past, she claims.  She was handcuffed, strip searched and detained overnight.  She was eventually released by a judge on condition that she stay away from the Kotel for 30 days.

I have previously written blogs about this topic - (See Women Arrested for Wearing Tallith At Western Wall) but the issue continues to percolate and  to attract a great deal of publicity.  How is it that a free country like Israel can prohibit women from praying out loud at the Kotel

Essentially, the State of Israel has ceded authority over the Kotel to the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.  In doing so, it has excluded all non-Orthodox forms of Jewish workshop, which comprise quite a significant proportion of world Jewry (other than at the Southern Wall -the Davidson Centre).  The creep of this gender-exclusive Orthodoxy has found its way into other public spheres in Israel, some of which I have also written about previously.  (See:  Jerusalem Not Tehran and Gender Equality In Israel).  This is all under the guise of protecting and promoting religious rights in Israel - indeed minority religious rights - since the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox are still in the minority.  But unlike other western countries grappling with these tensions, Israel's pendulum has swung over to the side of religion at the expense of other liberal democratic rights.

Though the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox characterize the issue as one of respect for their Orthodox practises, at what they see as an Orthodox worship site, the flip side is significant disrespect for everyone else and particularly for women.  The Kotel  is a holy site that belongs to all of Israel and should not be viewed as an exclusively Orthodox Synagogue, even though that is the status that it currently has.

The issue is not about a group of women trying to disrupt Orthodox men by praying at the Kotel  provocatively, though that is how it has been characterized by supporters of the status quo.  Rather, it is about a the rights of women to pray and sing out loud, in public.  It is about the rights of women to be heard in Israel and to be treated as equals, religiously and otherwise.  It has implications far beyond what occurs at the Kotel itself, as we have seen in Israel over the past few years.

It remains to be seen whether anything will change as a result of Israel's upcoming elections, though that appears unlikely at this point.  The Orthodox parties are likely to continue on as an integral part of any new government and the status quo at the Kotel is likely to remain in place.  This battle for gender equality and religious freedom is likely to continue on for some time - just as other battles between religion and gender equality are  likely to be played out in liberal democracies around the world. 



Thursday, October 11, 2012

International Day of the Girl: Israel and Gender Equality

According the Global Gender Gap Report, 2011, published by the World Economic Forum, Israel was ranked 55th in the world in gender gap issues.  This was more than 50 places higher than any other country in the Middle East/North Africa region, though the report notes that this is the worst performing region in the world in these issues.  So Israel was quite far ahead of an otherwise ignomious group.

Since today is the "International Day of the Girl," I thought I would add a few comments about this issue.

According to the report, the gender gap in Israel has widened over the past few years with respect to pay differential (for equal or comparable work), political participation and even educational achievement. 

A number of events have taken place in Israel over the past year or so that have raised awareness of some of these issues.  I have written other blog articles about some of them.  Receiving the highest publicity, Israel's past President, Moshe Katzav, is now sitting in jail after having been convicted of sexual harassment/ assault offences.  Other politicians have been investigated and or charged with similar offences.  While it is very troubling that these kind of occurences would be taking place in the Israeli President's office and other high level offices, at least some Israelis will see the positive side of this for Israel as a country governed by the rule of law and will take some comfort in the fact that Katzav was convicted and sent to prison.

There have also been a number of protests in Israel relating to "the exclusion of women," something that has been implemented in certain areas of Israel, primarily by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their followers.  Whether in Meah She'arim  or in areas of Beit Shemesh, there have been efforts to keep women on a different side of the street, bar women's images from being used in public billboard advertising and bar women from singing or speaking publicly at certain events.  Although these  types of events are limited to certain sectors, primarily the ultra-religious, the number of incidents, as reported by various media, has been increasing and has reached other public spheres.  Organizations such as Be Free Israel and Women of the Wall have been fighting for gender equality in different ways, though it would be hard to say that Israel's current government has taken very many concrete steps to respond favourably.

In the religious sphere, most Israeli Conservative synagogues (called "Masorti" congregations in Israel) are fully egalitarian, providing equal opportunites for men and women to lead services and read from the Torah.  This is certainly the case for our shul, Hod v'Hadar in K'far Saba.  This is in marked contrast to the vast majority of traditionally Orthodox synagogues in Israel.  In the Orthodox Synagogues, women are seated behind a Mechitza (a barrier) and do not participate in leading services, reading from the Torah or playing any kind of active role in the religious services.  The nature of religious worship must play a role in how participants view gender equality issues more generally.  Masorti congregations are making active contributions towards reducing the gender equality gap.

In the military sphere, Israeli women are drafted to serve in the army just as men are.  Israeli women serve as pilots, officers and in many other capacities including some as combat soldiers.  I have not seen studies about this, but it seems likely that Israel's army is somewhat ahead of the armies of many other countries in the area of gender equality and participation even though the Israeli army, as with other armies around the world, tends naturally to be male dominated.

In the educational sphere, the Global Gender Gap Report, 2011 cites a significant gap between male and female educational achievements in Israel.  This was somewhat surprising and disappointing.  Certainly my experience to date in this regard is that my daughters, attending primarily secular schools, have been as actively encouraged to pursue studies in math, science and technology issues as has my son.   But this is only a limited experiential point, and I haven't had the chance to look at detailed gender educational statistics in Israel.

So as we mark the U.N's declared "International Day of Girl," the report card for Israel is somewhat mixed.  Hopefully, Israel will get back to its position in the top 35 countries in the world, a position that it held just a few years ago.  But this will require signfiicant progress in a number of these areas and it will need Israel to move towards a leadership position in addressing gender gap equality issues.  This will be a difficult challenge, particularly in light of the nature of the current Israeli government.   But with Israeli elections coming up shortly, there are a number of parties interested in pursuing these issues more vigorously.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Woman Arrested for Wearing Tallit at Kotel

 A woman was arrested yesterday at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem and questioned for wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) in the women's section of the Kotel.  According to a Jerusalem Post report, the woman was fingerprinted, photographed and detained for three hours for wearing a men's Tallit.

The incident occurred during a monthly Rosh Hodesh (New Month) prayer service organized by the group Women of the Wall, an organization in Israel dedicated to fighting for religious equality of women and in particular, the right of women to conduct a Torah service at the Kotel.

According to an Israeli law from 2001, it is illegal for women to perform practices at the Kotel that are normally performed by Orthodox men.  This is includes wearing a men's style Tallit or putting Tefillin (phylacteries) and it also includes a ban on women reading from the Torah.

As part of a "compromise" the Israeli government has allowed mixed events including mixed prayer and Torah reading at the Davidson Centre - at the south wall of the Kotel.

But the actually Western Wall is overseen by  Orthodox religious authorities.  This means that the Kotel is divided so that it has a women's section and a men's section.  Women are not allowed to bring  a Torah scroll into the women's section or to pray or sing out loud.  Effectively, in a society in which only a minority of the population are Orthodox Jews, the Israeli government has ceded control of a site that is holy to all Jews to a minority Orthodox population exclusively.

It is time that the Israeli government reviewed the way it oversees religious affairs in Israel.  Perhaps this new governing coalition (with the addition of the centrist Kadima party led by Shaul Mofaz) will try to address some of these issues.  After announcing last month that it would begin funding Conservative and Reform Rabbis (to a limited extent and with limited roles - while still not recognizing their rights to perform weddings or funerals), the time has come for the Israeli government to review the rules pertaining to the Kotel along with a range of other rules and laws relating to religious affairs in the country..

For starters, the government should implement a three section solution at the main wall instead of the current two section division  - the Kotel should have men's, women's and mixed sections;   The government should also overturn all of the laws relating to women's prayer at the Kotel - in the mixed or women's sections - whether out loud, in groups, while wearing a Tallith or Tefillin.  As a compromise, the Orthdox and ultra-Orthodox should be able to continue to control part of the Western Wall area and to conduct prayer as they see fit in that area.

Some Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox have argued that this is a holy place and that, as the most rigorous adherents of Orthodox Judaism, they should be able to oversee the Kotel and should have the right to bar practices that they view as inappropriate and otherwise dictate the site rules.  They argue that the Women of the Wall are simply being "provocative" by wearing their prayer shawls in public and that women should not be able to pray out loud anywhere near the Kotel.  But the Kotel does not and should not  belong to the Ultra-Orthodox or even the Orthodox.  It belongs to Jews of all denominations and of both genders. And all of these Jewish people should have the right to access the Kotel even without following ultra-Orthodox practices.

The public observance by the Women of the Wall of Rosh Chodesh is not something that should attract police attention, arrests or other forms of public humiliation.  Rather it is those who would prevent women from praying in public who should be monitored.  A Kotel divided into three sections would be the best way of dealing with this as it would be a compromise that all sides could complain about equally.  A pluralistic approach to Judaism at this important symbolic and holy location would be a key message for a more pluralistic approach to Judaism throughout Israel.  This would be a significant step towards improving gender equality in Israel generally.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The God Who Hates Lies by David Hartman - A Discussion

I spent Shabbat appropriately by reading David Hartman’s latest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition. Hartman, who recently turned 80, is an Orthodox Rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971 and founded the Shalom Hartman Institute. He moved from Montreal where he had been serving as the Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation. The Shalom Hartman Institute is self-described as a “center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.” One of Hartman’s sons, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the current president of the Institute. Hartman’s daughter, Tova, is one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.

The God Who Hates Lies is partly an autobiographical spiritual journey tracing the time that Hartman spent in Orthodox Yeshivas growing up to his experiences as a pulpit Rabbi. But the book then turns to Hartman’s development of his own theological outlook. Exposed to a range of ideas at Fordham University and Yeshiva University, Hartman began to contemplate how to reconcile the traditional view of revelatory halakha (Jewish law) with the realities of a modern world, while still within an Orthodox Jewish framework. Three particular issues seem to have caught his attention.

The first is the issue of gender equality in Judaism, brought to his consciousness most dramatically by his daughter. “A persistent, committed and sharply insightful evaluation of how these issues were treated by much of the halakhic and Orthodox theological world revealed to me how inadequate the tradition had been in dealing with such a fundamental challenge.” Hartman concludes that he could not justify the continued Orthodox exclusion of women from a minyan (from being counted as part of the 10 person quorum required for Jewish prayer). How can a woman, for example, who is trusted in the courtroom or the hospital, or any other profession or occupation in society at large, be treated with the same status limitations as a child or a slave in the synagogue?

Hartman’s second area of concern relates to the interaction with the non-Jewish world and with traditional Orthodox views of non-observant and secular Jews, non-Jews and would be converts. As in the case with gender equality issues, Hartman challenges the traditional Orthodox notions of interaction in these areas.

Thirdly, Hartman seeks to reposition the centrality of the role of the State of Israel as a key aspect of the rebirth of the Jewish people and with a dynamic and changing role in the development of halakha in a vibrant way that is not stagnant and mired in the past. His book is particularly scornful of ultra-religious (Haredi) communities which are anti-Zionist, refuse to serve in the army, participate in the development of the State and contribute to the economic well-being of Israel. He views their interpretation of Jewish law as unchanging, divinely revealed and impervious to the outside world as fundamentally dangerous to the growth and development of the Jewish people over the long term.

The book addresses each of these areas in some detail. It canvasses many of Judaism’s great thinkers and their respective views of the nature of Jewish Law. It then moves to Hartman’s view of halakha as a “communally mediated religious system dedicated to seeking God’s presence in every aspect of life,” which is defined as having different ways in which it can function. Although it can be viewed in traditional fashion, as an obligatory legal system, Hartman proposes that it can also be viewed as an educational system. In either case, Hartman arrives at certain core problems where present-day normative halakha meets moral challenges that do not appear to be answered appropriately in the modern world.

Certainly, some questions come to mind when assessing Hartman’s approach. What is the source of the morality upon which he relies to question the morality of some current halakhic difficulties? It may be tautological. Or it may be that the exposure to present day values of equality and other aspects of liberalism trump, in Hartman’s mind, some halakhic ideas that hearken back to a time of many hundreds of years earlier.

The most problematic issues that Hartman addresses relate to the role of women. Whether Hartman is discussing the plight of the aguna (a divorced Jewish woman whose ex-husband has not agreed to grant her a divorce certificate and therefore cannot remarry under Jewish law) or the halakhic failings of Jewish legal approaches to women in family life, ritual life and even public life, Hartman is not content to accept traditional Orthodox views in these areas. He discusses the historically accepted concept of gender inequality in Judaism and takes issue with various apologetic rabbis and authors who have sought to justify this inequality. He calls on the need for women to be “initiators, conquerors and builders – even of themselves” starting with their own direct access to the mechanisms of culture, the sacred tradition.

In a concluding chapter entitled “The God Who Hates Lies: Choosing Life in the Midst of Uncertainty,” Hartman speaks about the need to continue to develop the authentic Israeli public that is dealing with halakhic issues in a relevant and modern way. A quintessential Zionist, Hartman devotes much of the final chapter to a discussion of the way in which the State of Israel can and does play a central role in defining the face of the Jewish world. Hartman’s quest, as embodied by the goals of his institute is to embrace of vision of Jewish law which responds to the “shifting cultural landscapes of our ever-emerging historical drama.”

Though the book falls short in presenting concrete proposals for dealing with many of these vexing issues in a way that might be considered acceptable in Orthodox circles (that may not be possible today), it is quite an interesting read. Theologically, as some critics have maintained, it probably positions Hartman very close to Conservative Judaism but Hartman does not make that leap. For example, he does not expressly call for fully egalitarian, mixed seating prayer services in his book, which would be the logical response to the questions he poses. However, he does offer a level of respect to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations that is all too often sorely absent.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jerusalem Not Tehran: Another Rally to Oppose the Silencing of Women's Voices

According to Israeli on-line news site, in a recent poll, some 49% of Israelis agreed with the statement that religiously observant soldiers should not be forced to remain at ceremonies at which women are singing. As I discussed in my previous blog post on November 17, 2011, this issue has been getting increased publicity over the past few months as a result of a number of incidents in which women were publicly shunned by Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox groups.

Last night, hundreds of women and men attended a performance and demonstration in the centre of Jerusalem in support of the right of women to sing publicly and, more broadly, the need for Israel to continue as a society of equality, democracy and freedom rather than creeping towards a society with greater theocratic influence and control.

A number of well-known Israeli singers performed at the concert including international recording artist Achinoam Nini. One of the musical groups, Tarentina, began its set wearing full black, mock burkas. After playing a song in these outfits, they peeled off the head coverings and commented on the oppressive requirement of having to wear such cumbersome clothing in some societies. Echoing the sentiments of other speakers at the rally, they noted that “Israel is not Iran and Jerusalem is not and should not become Tehran.”

The rally was organized by Micki Gitzin, chair of “Free Israel,” an organization that has planned a number of these rallies over past number of months. Gitzin told the audience that “we will continue to sing anywhere and anytime until there is an end to the movement to shun women.”

Ultra-Orthdox Jews and many other observant Orthodox Jews maintain that it is improper to listen to a woman singing in public. In Orthodox synagogues, only men are involved in leading prayer services and reading from the Torah and women are generally seated in a different section of the synagogue, behind a wall (a mechitza). It is therefore not surprising that these communities would apply or attempt to apply that separation and view of equality more broadly. It is more disturbing that so many other Israelis, even many secular Israelis, would agree that it should be their “right” as observant Orthodox Jews to implement such rules in public arenas outside of the synagogue environment.

Conservative Judaism has recognized the connection between what occurs in the synagogue and its effect on equality more generally. In a recent responsa for the Schechter Institute, Rabbi David Golinkin traces the development of this ultra-Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice publicly by examining Jewish law. He concludes that the first real authority to require a general legal prohibition against hearing women sing publicly was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the “Hatam Sofer”) in the early 19th Century. (Volume 6, Issue No. 2, November 2011). Citing author Emily Teitz, Rabbi Golinkin notes that this relatively recent prohibition was not consistent with Jewish religious practice throughout earlier periods during which women often sang publicly, including at synagogues throughout the middle ages. Moreover, he notes that there is also authority for the proposition that it would be a greater halachic (Jewish legal) problem for observant men to walk out while women were singing (and thereby insult them) than it would for such observant men to actually sit and listen to the women singing respectfully.

In Israel, Conservative Jews have played an active role in the struggle to ensure equality in the synagogue and in society, generally. At last night’s rally, a co-ed choir, “Shirat Machar” – “The Songs of Tomorrow” performed as one of the opening musical acts. Shirat Machar is a musical ensemble comprised of teenagers affiliated and supported by Noam, the Conservative youth movement in Israel. Most if not all of the Conservative synagogues in Israel are egalitarian which means full participation by men and women in leading services, reading from the Torah and participating in other ways in the religious services. This egalitarian outlook, which begins in the synagogue, affects attitudes of congregants in many other ways.

Sadly, in some circles, the flip side is true. Attitudes towards women and towards gender equality that begin in Orthodox synagogues are often carried forward to other areas of life including family law, the law of estates and inheritance and even views of appropriate conduct between men and women.

The difficulty in Israeli society is the historic “compromise” under which earlier Israeli governments ceded much of the authority over religious affairs to the monopolistic control of the Orthodox establishment. As this authority has expanded recently with the growth of religiously observant communities in Israel, issues of gender equality have begun to face new and greater challenges. Rallies of the type held last night are aimed not just at ensuring that women’s voices continue to be heard in public in Israel but that democracy and equality for all, regardless of gender, continue to be among the most significant values in Israel.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gender Equality in Israel - Some Recent Issues

Gender equality issues have been percolating through the media in Israel over the past few months. For Israel as a democratic country, the trend is somewhat disturbing. The impetus for some of these issues has been the increasing power of the religious right, and sometimes a confluence of interests between Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and other “mainstream” Orthodox groups. Israel is not alone in wrestling with these issues. Western democracies with any level of constitutional protection are finding that one of the major legal battlegrounds is the clash between minority religious rights and gender equality. These issues are being addressed in France, Canada, the U.S. and many other countries. The difference in Israel is that the Jewish character of the state often veils protection for religious rights and provides enhanced protection to the fundamentalist side of these disputes. Most recently, this has increasingly come at the expense of equality rights.

A few months ago, there was an incident that drew significant publicity in Israel. A number of religious male cadets left an Israeli Defence Forces event because the event included public singing by women, something that is viewed as prohibited under ultra-orthodox tradition. In another military event, a group of female soldiers were asked to leave a Simchat Torah celebration and go to a separate area, so as not to be with the male soldiers while they were dancing. These incidents have raised a great deal of concern in a country in which women have fought so hard to obtain and ensure greater equality of opportunity in the military. These issues led to major rallies across Israel on November 11, 2011 at which large groups of protesters, led by women’s organizations, rallied for the right to “hear the voices of women” in society.

Another battleground has been Jerusalem. Haredi groups have been defacing billboards that included pictures of women. Advertisers have yielded to some of this pressure and increasingly avoided using pictures of women in Jerusalem advertising. The Haredi community also attracted significant attention when it divided the streets of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot, with women only allowed on one (narrower) side of the street.

Although these might sound like isolated examples, there are many others. For example, I watched a televised national celebration of Israeli Independence Day last year. The celebration was set up as one that would be acceptable to religious audiences. In a musical evening that went for more than 2 hours, none of the performers were women. This was not the only televised national celebration – there were others that fully included women on different channels. But I still found this type of televised national celebration to be deeply offensive.

Israeli law has already, for years, provided a two track legal system in relation to family law. People with divorce or other domestic legal issues can go the rabbinical authorities to have their disputes adjudicated. Good luck getting a just resolution in a rabbinical court if you are a woman. After all, women are not even considered proper witnesses in many areas of Jewish law. Fortunately, parties have the option of bringing disputes to the general court system. However, it is a race - since the Court to which the dispute is brought initially is entitled to take jurisdiction generally.

Most recently, in an example that actually favoured women’s rights, the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction of former President Moshe Katsav for Rape and other instances of sexual assault. I have previously written about the lower court decision and won’t get into great detail here. But there are a few key points worth mentioning. Katsav took the position at trial that everything was fabricated and that he had no sexual relations of any kind with any of the victims. He provided various alibis, which were carefully examined by the three-judge lower court and were all found to be completely fabricated or otherwise unsupportable. On appeal, the main thrust of one of his key arguments was that the lower Court failed to take into account the possibility that he had consensual, romantic relationships with each of the victims. Is it surprising that the Supreme Court dismissed this out of hand?

Yet what have been truly amazing are the types of attacks that Katzav’s lawyers and supporters have launched in the media against the Court’s decision. It seems that what has upset them so greatly is that the Israeli Supreme Court was willing to say non-consensual sexual contact and assault is a crime, even if came as a result of abuse of authority, breach of fiduciary duty and unwarranted pressure rather than as a physically violent attack. This seems to have been yet another fault line between orthodox and non-orthodox views of gender equality.

In countries like Canada, with its Charter of rights that enshrines equality (gender and other types), courts are more likely to favour gender equality over the rights of religious minorities, at least that has been the trend to date. But in Israel, given the state supported “Jewish character” of the state, and the lack of a constitutional document that enshrines equality, the challenge is significant, particularly as the percentages of Orthodox and Ultra -Orthodox increase.

In part the problem in Israel goes to defining “Jewish character.” The State has provided a monopoly over religious affairs to the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. This applies to weddings, funerals, Kashrut (dietary laws), funding for synagogues and a host of other areas. As a result, the State directly and indirectly sanctions practices that dramatically discriminate against women. Orthodox synagogues have gender-separate seating and bar women from participating in services. Women are not called to read from the Torah, they are not permitted to lead services and, generally, their voices are not heard.

It is not too difficult to see a spill-over effect of these practices to views of gender equality in the rest of society. After all, how can men, who routinely justify the exclusion of women from a wide range of religious practice and participation, be expected to treat women equally as fellow professionals, work colleagues, teachers, bosses and employees?

It seems to me that this problem will only be addressed, not only in Israel but across the world, when synagogues, churches and mosques all enshrine equality and egalitarianism as crucial values. This has occurred in Reform and Conservative Judaism, in some Church denominations and some other religious groups. But these groups are generally still in the minority. For example, Reform and Conservative Jewish groups do not receive state funding in Israel, while Orthodox groups do.

To ensure equality in Israel, the State and the Courts will soon be called upon increasingly to make decisions that pit equality rights against religious rights. Will Israel continue to favour equality rights under growing demographic pressure? The State can begin now by eliminating the monopoly that it has provided to the Orthodox over many areas of Jewish law. If the political or legal will is not there, Israel risks increasing the Orthodox character of the State, which can only mean a slide closer to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and, of course, a disaster for gender equality.