Keeping women out of the public eye is nothing new in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world.
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In the Israeli political parties that represent the ultra-Orthodox sector, women are explicitly banned from running for Knesset. In publications and advertisements that serve the sector, female images are completely absent, painting a visual picture of a world that contains only men and boys – and very occasionally, a prepubescent girl. Sometimes, astonishingly, they even refrain from printing women’s names, not just their photographs.
As depressing as that can be for those of us looking at the community from the outside, on a certain level we accept it as part of a multicultural and tolerant world view. It’s not our job to fight for equality in a sector we don’t belong to, we figure: All we can do is support the women from within that community who are fighting against it – and it is being fought, albeit unsuccessfully thus far.
But then, every so often, there is an incident that is so infuriating and shocking it deserves to be called out – like denying the fact that in the wider world, beyond the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, women do stand on the world stage and shape events.
That’s the message sent by a carefully photoshopped and edited picture of Sunday’s solidarity march by world leaders in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher market.
The photograph appeared in the ultra-Orthodox paper “HaMevaser” (The Announcer) – founded by United Torah Judaism's Meir Porush, a member of Knesset, no less – and transformed the line of world leaders, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel was front and center, into a line of men.
The manipulation was first spotted by a religion reporter on the Hebrew-language Walla! Website, who noted that “the paper didn’t blur out Merkel’s image or white it out, but completely re-edited the photograph and moved the images of the participants around so that you could never tell that Merkel was ever there.”
The story was picked up by Tina Nguyen on the U.S. website Mediaite, who then helpfully offered a close analysis of the weird photoshop giveaways by “HaMevaser,” including discolored faces, stray female hands or weird replacement men added in the effort to cover up the missing front-row women.
In addition to the missing Merkel (“let us know if you find her”), Nguyen identified the other female victims of photoshop elimination as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, who “rallied the city to respond to the egregious attacks, but is totally a woman and therefore not important enough to be in these images.”
She also pointed to one “terrifying image” which, she suspected, “might be the blurred-out face of Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga.”
Sure, we Israelis can say this is par for the course with parts of the ultra-Orthodox community – but it is rather embarrassing when at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage take the stage – and in a newspaper owned by a Knesset member, no less.
My fellow Haaretz blogger Rabbi Eliyahu Fink wrote on Facebook that the “very sad and disturbing” offense went beyond the usual excuse of protecting female modesty.
If that was actually the motivation, he asked “why go through the trouble” of such extensive photoshopping and editing.
“If they don't want to see women, just blur or cover her face. Why make it seem like a woman was not even there? ... It's not about 'gawking at women' or sexual arousal. Rather, it is an attempt to excise women from the public sphere completely. They are not protecting women from leering men or men from illicit thoughts. They are telling their community that women have no place in society outside the home.”
Some of Fink's commenters joked that President Obama should have requested that he be photoshopped into the picture in place of Merkel or one of the other women. Others observed that it was interested that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was deemed worthy of being shown while the European women weren't.
Back in 2011, a similar incident occurred in the United States when the Brooklyn weekly Di Tzeitung, which also had a “no-female-image” policy digitally deleted then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton from a photo of President Barack Obama and his staff monitoring the raid by Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden.
Comedian Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with it at the time, rounding up the substantial media coverage of the incident.
In the case of the Hillary photo, the publicity – and political pressure – became so overwhelming that Di Tzeitung ended up issuing a statement saying its photo editor hadn't read the fine print accompanying the White House photo that forbade any changes and sent regrets and apologies to the White House and the Department of State. What’s more, they wrote that they appreciated Clinton’s “unique abilities, talents and compassion for all.”
Will HaMevaser offer up a similar apology to the high-ranking European female leaders they eliminated and the photo they distorted?