Are 'Nurse-ins' Around the Corner? Israeli Women Fight to Breastfeed in Public

It all began in the post office branch in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph on August 29 when Navon’s hungry infant began to cry.

It was a Rosa Parks moment for Dalit Navon when a clerk at her local branch of the post office told her that she couldn’t breastfeed her 11-day-old infant daughter there. “I told her that she could call the police if she wanted to force me to move. I wasn’t moving while my baby was being fed,” said Navon, a 32-year-old mother of three, who lives outside Beit Shemesh, where the incident occurred.

Navon was “stunned and humiliated” by her treatment, so much so that she complained to the Postal Authority. But rather than calming her down, the Israel Postal Authority’s response has only made her angrier. Instead of apologizing or reprimanding the clerk in question, the Postal Authority defended the actions of the clerk in their response letter sent to Navon.

It all began in the post office branch in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph on August 29 when Navon’s hungry infant began to cry. She behaved as she did - she took out a cloth, discreetly covered herself with a cloth diaper in what she describes as ‘complete modesty’, and fed her baby. It was nothing unusual for her. Normally, she does this undisturbed, and had no expectation there would be trouble, especially in a government setting like the post office.

Instead, she was told by the worker- repeatedly - to leave.

In a complaint letter she sent to the Postal Authority on September 2, Navon recalled being told to leave repeatedly by the worker, in front of the other customers. “Ms. Revach then continued to discuss (my situation) with another customer who was standing there, speaking in both Hebrew and French as they took turns giving me piercing looks. Imagine what it was like for me, sitting there with an infant only days old, screaming from hunger, with Ms. Revach finding it proper to continue to talk about me in front of my face with the customer regarding my “chutzpah for nursing in a public place.” When I finished nursing, I collected my things and left - angry, shocked and humiliated."

A Postal Authority public officer named Erez Sirma replied to Navon in a letter stating that the authority had ‘investigated’ the incident, and that:

“The Israel Postal Authority serves in an egalitarian manner and without discrimination all of Israel’s citizens with all of their diverse beliefs and world views. In this case, the clerk had to display equal sensitivity to a religious citizen who complained and to you and find the appropriate balance. According to the employee, she behaved with sensitivity and politeness in trying to find the balance between your feelings and rights, and the feelings of the complaining customer. The worker has been ordered to protect the honor of all of the customers that come to the post office branch. The Postal Authority will continue to serve the public equally and without discrimination.”

Navon calls the response “utterly unacceptable.” If the sight of her discreetly feeding her child disturbed someone, she said, they could turn away or leave. She and her infant should not have been punished, and her child's right to be fed should not be 'balanced' with that of someone who didn't want to see it.

The issue of public nursing hit the Hebrew press earlier this month when a woman was asked to leave a restaurant in the Sharonit mall in Hod Hasharon when she was trying to nurse her four-month old baby. That incident had a very different outcome than Navon's - the worker was reprimanded and the restaurant chain apologized for his behavior to the nursing mother. Much of the noise and pressure came from a popular Facebook group called Mamazone which boasts more than 20,000 Israeli mothers.

Navon feels she, too, deserved an apology. “I breastfeed modestly in all kinds of surroundings - secular, religious. I do it with no problems in the religious sector. And here was a government worker in a government setting telling me that I can’t? I wasn’t breaking any law. I am afraid this is the beginning of a new norm in Israel.”

Hannah Katsman, a lactation consultant who keeps a close eye on breastfeeding issues on her blog A Mother in Israel says Navon’s incident is more disturbing than women who are told to leave restaurants or other private businesses, because of the government’s involvement in the matter.

Katsman pointed out that the Health Ministry advises women to breastfeed for at least a year, and the Postal Authority condoning the behavior of the worker who tried to throw Navon out of the post office runs directly contrary to its stated goal of encouraging mothers to breastfeed.

“Caring for a baby is a hard job, and mothers who have to think ten times before running an errand, they are less likely to nurse and put their babies at risk. In the US, mothers may breastfeed wherever they and their babies are allowed to be. Once you say that bottlefeeding mothers can go out and about, but breastfeeding mothers have to hide away, you put the health of babies at risk. Breastfeeding is not only a private matter between mothers and babies--it's a public health issue.”

With a growing organization of nursing mothers on groups like “Mamazone,” business owners and government officials should tread carefully before kicking them out. Push these moms too hard and they may resort to a popular American protest tactic - the breastfeeding flash mob popularly known as a ‘nurse-in.

Then we’ll see who is made to feel uncomfortable.