Is Bnei Akiva on the Road to 'Radical Religious Misogyny?'

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Bnei Akiva.

If there is anything that encapsulates the modern Orthodox/religious Zionist experience, it is those two words.

It is the rare member of the so-called ‘knitted kippa’ community in Israel, male or female, who hasn’t attended a Bnei Akiva school, participated in its youth movement activities, or sent their children to one or the other.

That is why the grassroots reaction was so strong, particularly among Orthodox feminists, when it turned out that Rabbi Benny Nechtailer had taken a stance against the Women of the Wall.

Nechtailer, the head of the Bnei Akiva school network, had urged principals of the group’s high schools for girls, known as ulpanas, to send their students to the Western Wall to participate in a ‘traditional’ prayer service - designed to be a counterweight to the controversial ‘Women of the Wall,’ prayer.

It was the first time a mainstream religious Zionist organization officially joined with the Haredi community, and individual activists, who go to the Wall to voice opposition to WOW’s activities. Ultimately, Nechtailer’s effort was torpedoed. As reported in Haaretz, the effort was called off after Education Minister Shai Piron, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and several other members of the Habayit Hayehudi party pressed Nechtailer to rescind his call.

But the fact that it happened in the first place shook many to the core.

“It was like a knife in my stomach,” said Miriam Zussman of Beit Shemesh, whose 18-year-old daughter is both a member of Bnei Akiva and regularly prays with Women of the Wall - and who pointedly wore her Bnei Akiva shirt while taking part in Monday’s Women of the Wall festive 25th anniversary event. “I was horrified and upset that Bnei Akiva was willing to exploit their girls by shipping them out to protests that are actually against many of their parents’ core value system. That the head of the flagship religious Zionist school network in Israel is someone thinks that is an educationally appropriate thing to do is extremely worrisome.”

A dark moment, or simple truth?

Nechtailer’s call represented “a very dark moment in the history of modern Orthodoxy,” said Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman, Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and resident of Modi’in, who grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement. “The idea of a Bnei Akiva leader ordering the entire ulpana populace to adopt the most radical idea unquestioned -- that women praying in a group while reading Torah is wrong and that these women deserve to be abused and harassed in their prayers? How much more misogynistic can we get?”

Not every Bnei Akiva parent, however, felt the move was utterly inconsistent with the values of most of the students. Kira Sirote of Ra’anana, whose daughter attends a Tel Aviv Bnei Akiva high school, staked out a carefully nuanced position. “I really think it is a terrible idea to send schools to demonstrate on any topic. But it is part of the society here - and if it makes sense to take children out of school to protest anything, this is well within Bnei Akiva’s philosophical direction,” she said.

“I asked my daughter, how would one of your friends react, if a girl was davening at the Kotel and she were to see a group of women some of whom were wearing tallis and tefillin (prayer shawls and phylacteries) at the wall. Her reaction was instinctive and immediate - she would ask: why are they doing it here? If they are going to be rebel against tradition, to do so at the Kotel? Yes, she and her friends would find that upsetting and offensive. If the question is whether a step like this (countering Women of the Wall) represents what the vast majority of the ulpana girls actually feel, I would have to say yes, it does.”

Scraping raw nerves

This week’s Women of the Wall-related events touched two raw nerves. The first: whether Bnei Akiva should stick to a purely educational agenda or whether political activism is consistent with its values. Bnei Akiva is highly identified with the settler movement and there were impassioned debates when schools in the network took students to demonstrations against territorial withdrawal.

The second ultra-sensitive nerve is the role of Bnei Akiva in what is being perceived as the rightward religious shift of the religious Zionist camp when it comes to the question of women’s role in Judaism, modesty, and separation of the sexes.

Technically the triad of Bnei Akiva institutions - the Israeli youth movement, the international network of youth movement and the chain of Israeli schools - are separate entities. But there is a common understanding that Bnei Akiva is meant to represent the religious Zionist mainstream. And there is institutional cross-fertilization. Nechtailer, for example, is the former secretary of the Israeli youth movement, where his conservative stance on gender issues has sparked headlines in the past - most prominently when he has resisted allowing Bnei Akiva youth groups participate in ceremonies where women were singing.

The changes in attitudes in Bnei Akiva youth movement culture can be illustrated through the shift away from mixed dancing.

Touch me not

As a 50-something acquaintance explained to me once, when his parents were in Bnei Akiva, there was mixed-couples dancing at events. By the time he joined, that was forbidden, but boys and girls still danced in a circle holding hands. While he was there, the norm shifted moved to boys dancing in a circle and girls in an outer circle around them. Today, as anyone who has attended a Bnei Akiva event knows - the standard has evolved into separate circles of dancing, usually with a mechitza (separation barrier) between boys and girls so they can’t see each other, and in some communities - there are totally separate male and female chapters and separate activities.

In many Israeli communities today, girls who wear pants or unacceptably short skirts are regularly told that they cannot be Bnei Akiva counselors unless they change their style of dress - both during and outside official Bnei Akiva events. And in a sign of resistance to egalitarian practice, some girls who read from the Torah in all-women’s prayer groups have been told that this activity is inappropriate for Bnei Akiva leaders.

As Sztokman of JOFA sees it, slowly but surely, “The contours of Modern Orthodoxy are disappearing into a sea of radical religious misogyny. Bnei Akiva used to be the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy - religious Zionism. It was supposed to be the symbol of a religious life that values modern sensibilities, secular education, and women as equal partners.”

To her, the decision to call on the girls to protest “is like sealing the fate of Bnei Akiva, an arm of Modern Orthodoxy and watching it fall to religious radicalism.”
Beyond the issue of supporting or opposing Women of the Wall, she stresses, is what this incident says about the direction of Orthodox education.

“The whole idea of using students as bodies, as pawns to just show up in order to make a political statement -- that goes against the most basic premise of individual freedom and liberty," Sztokman says. "The idea that the schools don't actually care about helping students form ideas and individual positions on complex issues -- this really erases the entire concept of individuality.”

Instead, Bnei Akiva is left with the “top-down imposition of uniform, monolithic ideas that characterizes ultra-Orthodox culture in Israel. Modern Orthodoxy was supposed to be different. It was supposed to encourage the development of ideas, pluralism, democracy, not to impose groupthink.”
Daniel Goldman, co-chairman of World Bnei Akiva, says he understands the concerns of women - and men – but that he prefers to look on the bright side.

This week, the Bnei Akiva community pushed back against Nechtailer’s effort, and in the end, there was no identifiable presence of Bnei Akiva girls at the Wall on Monday.

“The good news is that nobody showed up - there was pressure from above and below that stopped it from happening," says Goldman. "In that sense I think it clarified that there are lines which are obvious to our wider public that simply shouldn’t be crossed. Ultimately, whatever the cause, the schools and the girls made the decision that this was not something they should be involved in and they stayed away.”

Teens take part in a Bnei Akiva event in Latrun, March 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Women of the Wall demonstrating their beliefs in public.Credit: Michal Fattal