Did Ben-Gurion University Really Ban Women From Blessing Hanukkah Candles?

How a festival of lights flamed into a burning media controversy over the exclusion of women in an Israeli academic institution.

Rivka Carmi has had to defend Ben-Gurion University against charges from many sides over her years in the institution’s top job, but the last accusation she thought she’d ever have to confront was that the university has an official policy of supporting discrimination against women.

Eight years ago Carmi was appointed as president of the university, located in the southern city of Be'er Sheva. As the first woman to ever serve as university president in the State of Israel, it’s more than a little ironic that she should have to deal with headlines like: Ben-Gurion University Forbids Women To Light Chanukah Candles in Official Ceremony.

But that’s how she spent a good part of the week, after a group of female students protested what they said was a policy of excluding women from blessing the Hanukkah candles and singing holiday songs at the official university ceremony, and the incident blew up in the media.

For the past eight years, Carmi said in a phone interview, she was utterly unaware that anything was amiss with the candle lighting held in the lobby of the student center. Each night, a member of the university administration would be invited to light a candle in front of a group of faculty and students. The blessing was made, songs were sung, Hanukkah doughnuts, sufganiyot, were free to all, and everyone was happy.

“Every year, I just put it on my calendar, lit the candles, enjoyed myself, and went back to the office.” she said. She was never asked to say the blessing over the candles, Carmi added, but had no idea it was because of her gender. “If I was excluded, I didn’t have a clue.”

Late last week, however, a group of female students came to her and protested that at the university candle-lighting, as scheduled this year, no women were being given the opportunity to light and bless the candles and that it was not fair.

“For the first time in eight years, someone enlightened me on the subject," she said. "As soon as they raised it, I told them ‘you don’t have to go on, it is not acceptable.’ I said I would do everything to change this."

After clarifications and consultations, Carmi made an executive decision: this year, every night, a man and a woman would light and bless the candles together. So close to the eve of the holiday, she didn’t want to cancel the participation of any of the men. Next year, men and women would alternate lighting the candles on different nights - both light the candles and bless them.

She thought the problem was solved. But then Rabbi Gil Blizovski, the orthodox campus rabbi, objected - and she agreed to compromise with him, in acknowledging the fact that he had already worked hard to organize the imminent event and he said the women’s prayers would offend his sensibilities. This year, “out of respect,” she agreed that the women would light and the men would bless the candles; but “I made it clear that next year it will be my way or the highway,” she said.

The female students who had raised the protest, however, objected to the compromise and stood their ground; they wanted women to both light candles and bless them, this year. Wishing to honor her agreement with Blizovski, Carmi said it wasn’t possible, but agreed to their request for an alternative event for women. “They asked for a space, sufganiyot - everything, and we agreed to it all.”

Once again, she thought it had been worked out. But it was only then that the real trouble began. In the interim, the protesting female students had met with the dean of students, Professor Moshe Kaspi, and recorded him siding with Blizovski, saying, “It’s not a coincidence that the candle-lighter is a man. There’s a conflict here between two values. There’s the issue of the exclusion of women, and there’s the value of tradition as it’s accepted here.” When asked if the person lighting and blessing the candles should be a man, he responded: “yes.”

The story, featuring the remarks by the dean and footage of the alternative all-women’s candle-lighting, hit the evening news on Monday and the barrage of unflattering headlines followed.

Carmi said that Kaspi’s personal opinion was “totally unacceptable” and an official statement by the university declared that “any opinion that does not support full gender equality does not reflect the official stand of the university.”

Still, she couldn’t understand why the students had angrily brought the story to the media after she had expressed full support for their position. In her view, they had been “breaking down an open door.”

“I am not going to stand for any kind of discrimination whatsoever. To portray BGU as the university where women are excluded? That is absurd.”

In order to send the message as clearly as possible, the official university candle-lighting on Tuesday night featured a woman - Merav Yosef-Solomon, Head of the BGU Students Services Division - both lighting and blessing the Hanukkah candles and a choir of four women singing holiday songs. The female protest group said afterwards that they would cancel Wednesday night’s scheduled alternative event and join the official one.

Leading the ceremony was Kaspi himself. Absent from the ceremony: the university rabbi, signaling he may not accept the new Hanukkah order on campus.

“I don’t care if he accepts it or not. He has to accept it or draw his own conclusions,” declared Carmi.

If the options are indeed her way or the highway, it looks like the rabbi might very well be hitting the road.  

Dani Machlis
Dani Machlis
Dani Machlis