Women Noticeably Absent From Jerusalem Ads

Municipality officials deny change in policy, refer to several campaigns that featured images of women. Yet figures in city's public relations industry say women have been entirely removed from public billboards and advertisements.

It appears that graphic artists and public relations professionals in Jerusalem have recently developed a fetish for shoes.

A glance at billboards and posters pasted around the city shows that Jerusalem is draped in shoes. For instance, announcements for the annual Jerusalem March picture two men's shoes against the backdrop of the city. Dance events also make use of shoe images.

Jerusalem bus-stop ad - Tomer Appelbaum - October 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

"In Jerusalem, a shoe is not just a shoe," says Uri Ayalon, a Conservative rabbi who promotes religious pluralism, and who recently established an "uncensored" Facebook group that protests against the elimination of women from public spaces. Shoe images, he says, are used to obscure the fact that in Jerusalem women are rarely pictured on public posters and billboards.

It takes time to grasp that something is missing in public spaces in Israel's capital. But once you notice it, it's hard to fathom how you didn't pay attention to this fact earlier. It appears that in recent years, and in an escalated fashion in the past several months, women have disappeared from advertisements in Jerusalem.

This fact does not refer to scantily clad models, who were purged from signs and posters in the city several years ago as a result of campaigns waged by the ultra-Orthodox - struggles that sometimes included the burning and destruction of billboards and bus stops. The purging of women from publicly displayed pictures in Jerusalem applies to images of females in regular dress and daily situations. Pictures of women in family settings and advertisements of women using face cream or being connected to food or fashion products are hard to come by in this city.

Jerusalem municipality officials adamantly deny that there has been a change in the city's advertising policy, and they refer to several advertising campaigns that featured images of women. However, figures in the city's public relations industry admit that women have been entirely removed from public billboards and pictorial advertisements.

There are many examples of this trend. For instance, the safety advertisements for Jerusalem's new light-rail system have featured images of twins, to reinforce the idea of being "doubly safe." Children, teenagers and Haredim have been pictured in this safety campaign, all of them males. Also, the municipality built a lavish sukkah in Safra Square; the colorful, traditional holiday structure featured pictures of males only.

It seems that this trend is being led by private advertisers who prefer to conceal women rather than deal with ultra-Orthodox anger. For instance, a hamburger company that promoted its product around the country with a picture of happy family members choose in Jerusalem to show only images of its burgers. In Jerusalem, a campaign for regional radio stations dropped the image of radio presenter Ofira Asayag, which was featured everywhere else in the country.

According to Vered Levin-Yerushalmi, the owner of a media consulting agency in Jerusalem, this trend is also conspicuous in local Jerusalem newspapers.

"The problem isn't the municipality's," she explains. "This is a trend that has gripped private advertisers. In places where you would have expected to see women or families, advertisers chose to use texts rather than pictures. You don't even see women in housing listings, which have always relied on family motifs - a mother, father and children. In Jerusalem, what you see is a photo of the apartment."

"This becomes a process of self-censorship," explains Rabbi Ayalon. "You decide in advance not to use a photograph of a female dancer, so that nobody sprays it. You decide not to confront anything, and that's the position adopted by the advertisement agencies.

"This is no longer creeping erosion, but rather a trend that's up and running," he adds.

"Everyone is guilty of this sin," says Levin-Yerushalmi. "You say to yourself, 'Who needs this headache?' There are all sorts of simple graphic solutions, so why get yourself stuck in this bind? It's very easy to post an advertisement without women. We, secular people, are guilty: We know that this isn't right, but we've gotten used to it. There's nobody to blame.

"But the bottom line is that women are being ousted, and the impact isn't just visual, because the moment you see fewer women, they become subordinate," she adds. "Think about children who do not see women: Subconsciously, the message is that if you don't see them, they aren't important."

The Jerusalem municipality says that allegations about the elimination of women's images from the city's public spaces are "deluded and unfounded," adding that it "uses women's images in poster announcements in public, and in announcements published in newspapers, and in publications sent to residents."