Showing posts with label Women's voices in Israel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Women's voices 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. 



Monday, May 21, 2012

Jerusalem Day 2012 - In Jerusalem and Ra'anana

April and May are filled with various holidays and days of commemoration in Israel. Yesterday, Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), marking the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

In many ways, Jerusalem is really the heart and centre of Israel and of the Zionist enterprise. The historical link of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is visible for all to see at the archaeological ruins at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. The epicentre of the story is the tunnels that have been excavated next to the Kotel (the Western Wall) where visitors can travel underground through history to see the multiple layers that have been built and rebuilt on the site where the two great temples once stood and the surrounding plaza area.

Today, the Dome of the Rock, the large golden domed mosque, which was built in 691 CE, some 620 years after the destruction of the second Temple, sits on exactly the spot where the Temple once stood. It is little wonder then that the Old City of Jerusalem is so hotly contested.

According the original U.N. partition plan in 1947, Jerusalem was to be an "International City" with full access to all to the religious sites that are holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. During Israel's Independence War in 1948, Jordan gained control of much of Jerusalem and the Old City in particular, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and other sites that are holy to three of the world's major religions. Israel held the western half of Jerusalem, where the Israeli parliament (the "Knesset") was established. Jerusalem was named the capital of Israel though, to this day, only a few countries have recognized it as such. Most others have insisted in putting their embassies and consulates in Tel-Aviv.

Between 1948 and 1967, Jews were denied access to Jerusalem's Old City. Many of the religious sites were destroyed and desecrated. Ruins were removed. The city was divided with part held by Jordan and the other part held by Israel.

In June 1967, during the six-day war, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli government later declared that it had annexed Jerusalem, reunited it and “liberated” the City. Jerusalem's holy sites are now open and accessible to all. The Dome of the Rock is managed by Muslim religious authorities and is fully accessible to Muslims. Similarly the Christian religious sites are open and accessible to all. Since 1967, Israel has excavated, restored and rebuilt much of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Old synagogues have been reopened. The plaza area of the Kotel has been expanded and is clearly the religious heart of the country. Jews from all over Israel (and all over the world) visit the Kotel for holiday celebrations, bar mitzvahs and, in the case of tourists, as one of the most important highlights of a trip to Israel.

Jerusalem is also at the centre of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides lay claims to the very same piece of land on which the Dome of the Rock now stands and on which two Temples once stood. The Old City of Jerusalem and East Jerusalem have significant Arab populations and the Palestinians would like to make Jerusalem the capital of their eventual state. While some Israeli negotiators have been willing to make some concessions with respect to Jerusalem, none of these concessions were viewed as sufficient by the Palestinians. The Bill Clinton brokered peace talks apparently collapsed over this very issue. Now the political climate in Israel has shifted somewhat and there is little appetite for any deal that might give up control over East Jerusalem and certainly not the walled Old City, which includes Judaism’s holiest site.

It might be fair to say that Jerusalem Day is marked most fervently by Orthodox Jews and in particular by those on the right of political spectrum. Yesterday, for example, a group of observant Jews went to conduct prayer services on the grounds of the Dome of the Rock, since this was the exact spot on which the Temple once stood. Though this is somewhat provocative, it is a site that is holy to different groups and ought to be accessible as such.

Jerusalem celebrations took place across the country. Here in Ra’anana, at the centre of the city, Yad L’Banim, a communal sing-a-long was organized where participants were invited to join in singing songs about Jerusalem.

I decided to wander over to the festivities which were about ten minutes walking distance from my place. The evening featured well known counter-tenor David D’Or along with a group of symphony musicians. It also featured a group of singers known as “Kolot Min Hashamayim” – “Voices from the Heavens” from the Melachim School. The Mayor of Ra’anana, Nahum Hofri, was invited to the stage and led the singing of one of Israel’s most iconic songs, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”).

But after watching the performances for a little while, I couldn’t help but notice that there were no women singers. Kolot Min Hashamayim is a religious choir which uses prepubescent boys to sing the female parts. I was standing and listening to some well- known pieces of music that feature some wonderful female vocal parts which were all being sung by young boys. While this is common in Orthodox Synagogues, singing liturgical pieces, it has certainly never been a major part of public Israeli national celebrations. In fact, one of the great things that Israel has produced has been music, sung by men and women together. Here, from looking at the program, there were no "mixed" performances scheduled and no women vocalists. Standing and watching these performances, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of "Sharia creep" – the idea that the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox were expanding their influence beyond synagogues to include public celebrations. As I have written in other blogs, the issue of public performances by female vocalists has been attracting a great deal of attention as ultra-orthodox groups have been trying to limit or eliminate these performances. Feeling that I was participating in something that was edging closer to Iran, I couldn’t help but leave before the evening ended.

Is there a tie in between the fervent celebration of Jerusalem Day and the issue of Sharia creep, barring women from singing publicly? Perhaps not, though it is probably fair to say that those on the political and religious left are much less inclined to celebrate Jerusalem Day as fervently. For many on that end of the spectrum, Jerusalem Day is a reminder that there is a still a great deal of unfinished business – that the need to reach a peace deal or an arrangement with the Palestinians is urgent and that Jerusalem is still at the heart of the dispute. Even so, there is probably still a broad national consensus supporting the current Israeli political position that the Old City of Jerusalem can never again be divided, which is at least some cause for commemoration and celebration by all those who support that view.

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.