Where Have All the Women Gone in Jerusalem?

Advertisers fold to ultra-Orthodox pressure against 'obscene' poster campaigns.

At the end of the 1990s, during the time of the suicide attacks on the buses in Jerusalem, Haredi activist Rabbi Moshe Razhminsky telephoned Zeev Abramson, CEO of the Poster Media Israel advertising firm. "Moishe, how are you doing?" Abramson greeted the man known in ultra-Orthodox circles as "chairman of the national council for the prevention of obscene and abominable advertising in the Holy Land."

Abramson had had a long and complex relationship with the man who waged a relentless war on advertisements featuring women he deemed to be underdressed, and he knew that the telephone call did not herald good tidings. The country was reeling from the number of victims of the latest bombing, and Abramson thought that maybe the rabbi was showing good will.

Women praying - Alex Levac - 14112011
Alex Levac

"Absolutely horrific," said Razhminsky; and Abramson agreed: "It was a terrible attack."

"No," Razhminsky corrected his mistake. "What is absolutely horrific is the poster with the exposed shoulder."

"The struggle over the ads in Jerusalem always became a personal issue," Abramson recalled this week.

Abramson, who held the franchise for advertising on Jerusalem bus stops at the time, added: "Dealing with the Haredim took up a great deal of my time. The dynamic went like this: They would demand that we take down posters that seemed obscene to them - generally women who revealed a shoulder or cleavage, and we would think that was chutzpah. In most cases, we and the clients insisted on leaving the original poster in place." But matters got worse from year to year. In one case, Abramson said, the Haredim complained about a poster announcing the opening of the season at Habimah Theater. "What bothered them was that Shlomo Bar-Abba was touching Gila Almagor's shoulder with two fingers," he says.

The Haredim would not give up; they blackened the fingers on the poster and Habimah was forced to capitulate.

The struggle also took a personal toll on Abramson. In 1997, after receiving threats from Razhminsky that the Haredim would burn down all the bus stations and harm him personally if he did not remove all the posters, Abramson complained to the police. That year, the matter went to the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, and Razhminsky was found guilty of extortion, fined and given a suspended sentence.

But the threats continued to come from other Haredi quarters, Abramson says.

This week, Abramson was amazed to see the ease with which private advertising company Canaan, which has the franchise for advertising on the buses, demanded of the ADI national transplant center to remove pictures of women from their posters encouraging people to sign organ-donor cards. He was equally surprised to see how easily ADI agreed to the demand, without putting up an argument. "Times have changed and the companies have lowered their standards," he said.

The advertisers cooperate

In recent years, attempts to exclude women from the public sphere in Jerusalem have worsened and become an infuriating norm. It is no longer a matter of covering up immodest women, but of hiding any mention of the female gender on posters. This is a continuation of other phenomena that undermine women, such as instituting "kosher lemehadrin" buses on which women are forced to sit in the back seats, or demanding that women walk on a separate side of the main road on religious holidays in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood. The demand has also spilled over to other spheres such as the refusal to listen to women soldiers singing in the Israel Defense Forces.

Unlike what happened in the past, it seems that the commercial companies are now willing to cooperate with this phenomenon. Indeed, Jerusalem residents and veteran public relations people say that there has been a growing process of capitulation to the Haredi extremists with their patently illogical demands.

"During my days, the struggle was over modesty and the degree of exposure of the women," Abramson says. "We advertised everything - swimsuits for Gottex, Pipel and all the brands. The Haredim didn't even dream they could demand there wouldn't be any women."

The pressure increased over the years, he says, and was not always direct. "In any event, the Haredim did not shop at Gottex or Castro in those days. They employed a consumer boycott. They told the manager of Tnuva: 'You advertise on Poster Media. We will throw you off our shelves if you don't stop.'"

Veteran Jerusalemite and journalist Shahar Ilan, vice-president for information at Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality, says that the exclusion of women began already in the 1980s, when the posters showed women in swimsuits.

"After a few years, there was a wave of vandalization of these ads and the companies realized they would not go across in Jerusalem," Ilan says.

He describes this as a typically Haredi reaction to something new in the area, whereas the separation on the buses and in the streets are an expression of increasing extremism.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who was the operations officer of the extremist ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit at the time, talks nostalgically about the men sent to burn the bus stations. He says the Haredim were not merely concerned about the appearance of their own neighborhoods. "We did not agree to Jerusalem becoming a city like other cities. This is the holy city. And that is why when they began obscene advertising, it was clear we would act against it," he says.

But even someone with extremist views like Meshi-Zahav did not dream matters would reach a point of such fanaticism as now. He describes the separation of women and the ban on their pictures as being "the acts of bored people who have nothing else to do."

All for pragmatic reasons

Ehud Gibli, marketing manager for Canaan, has been the target of heavy flak ever since it was learned that the ADI advertisements show only men. Gibli, 33, was a mere child when the wars of the Haredim against the posters began. He says that the rule that women cannot appear was handed down to him when he took over the position. The considerations, he says, are "purely commercial and pragmatic."

According to Gibli, "There is no official ban, but it stems from the knowledge that the extremist Haredi public will take the law into their own hands and destroy anything they don't like. No media company has the ability to deal with the vandalization of buses. We know that if we insist, the campaign won't achieve its aim and the money invested will go to waste."

At present, the ban on publicizing women's pictures is still in effect and even involves young girls and also illustrations of women and girls, he says. In some cases, the company learned "the hard way" what was and what was not permitted, he says.

In a campaign for a drug that had an illustration of a little girl on it, and worse still, in the previous ADI campaign three years ago, which showed a mother with her baby boy who needed an organ transplant, the posters were vandalized. "We thought this was a quintessentially humane subject and it would go across okay," Gibli says. "But we saw the vandalization and we understood that they don't differentiate between an emergency case of a baby who needs a transplant and commercial campaigns."

The advertisers don't expect the police to prevent the attacks. "There is no police presence in Haredi areas," Gibli says. "We are realistic. The Haredi public takes the law into its own hands and even if we send a few inspectors, we won't be able to prevent the vandalization."

Gibli admits he senses the Haredim are getting more fanatic over time, but says: "We have to behave in accordance with that. That's the way it is. The moment we try to oppose them, we will be harmed in the long run."

Once upon a time, everything was normal

Long-serving publicist Uri Pridan, who has the Castro account, also remembers different times. "Once upon a time, everything was normal," he says. "We advertised all the brands, even the fashion brands. But that is already history."

However, he explains that in other cities, too, there is censorship. "In Tel Aviv, the ads are also restricted, but by the municipality. An ad in which a man and a woman are seen holding hands and eating cheese will probably not be acceptable because they are touching each other," he says.

It was fashion designer Gideon Oberson who apparently made a large contribution to the disappearance of women from street posters. In 1987, model Pazit Cohen was seen prostrating herself on the beach in an Oberson swimsuit that had a long slit up the legs. Three days later, the Haredim vandalized the billboard featuring the picture on the Geha highway near Bnei Brak. "From the start, we didn't show it in Jerusalem because we knew they were more limited there," Oberson says. "And in addition, there were no large street posters there and we wanted big ads."

Following the scandal, a national by-law was instituted forbidding pictures of women in swimsuits in the streets. Oberson says that the Israeli public space is "too puritanical" and so he has stopped advertising there. Under the law, the advertiser must declare in advance in the tender that his poster will not hurt the feelings of the public.

In Jerusalem, the interpretation of this law is far-reaching: In effect, every advertiser has to first send his poster to the municipality for approval. "The tender does not say that it is the feelings of the Haredi population that must not be harmed, but this is mostly what it refers to," says Uri Netzer of Rapid Vision, which holds the franchise for street advertising in Jerusalem.

Pridan is of the opinion that excluding women from advertising in Jerusalem is the symbol of Jerusalem's destruction as a city in Israel. "It is not surprising that the middle class and young secular people are abandoning Jerusalem. What remains of this charming city that should have been a magnificent city is injustice and dreariness and the repression of women," he says.

Like Gibli, Pridan believes it is a social problem that goes beyond the mere restrictions of Jerusalem. He warns that if the breach is not stopped, the exclusion of women will get as far as the secular city of Tel Aviv.