Silencing Girl Scouts: Women’s Singing Controversy Erupts Again

The problem of women’s singing in Israel simply refuses to go away.

As the Israeli national-religious population continues to lurch rightward, the belief that for an Orthodox man, the sound of a woman’s singing voice is inappropriately erotic and therefore violates Jewish law has gone increasingly mainstream. This lies behind the ongoing dispute over whether IDF soldiers have the right to walk out when women sing in army ceremonies, and whether government ceremonies that include the religious public can legitimately eliminate female singers.

This time, the dispute involves school-aged children, and it’s not taking place in the usual flashpoints of Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh. The controversy erupted full force in the largely secular city of Kfar Sava, over the issue of the annual “Youth Movement Day”: a wholesome unity event held by all the city’s youth movements. At the event, various ideological stripes of scouts, boys and girls, participate in joint activities such as dancing and singing, all in the city’s main square.

The head of the Kfar Sava Women’s Council reacted with fury after it was revealed that a decision had been made by the city ‘youth council’ which organizes the event, to ban girls from singing solo, at the request of the national-religious youth movement B’nai Akiva, which said it would not participate in the event if female singing voices were part of it. The head of the council, Sheli Amrami-Buzaglo, released a statement condemning it, calling it “a clear-cut case of excluding women. Our girls must be allowed to sing, dance, and dress as they please. These are basic rights.”

As word spread quickly across the largely secular city that girls would not sing - a large demonstration was organized - on Facebook, naturally - that took place at the same time as the event and the issue became the talk of the town.

Shortly after the story broke, high-profile newbie politician Yair Lapid was sandbagged into speaking out on the controversy during a speech to Kfar Sava senior citizens, as described here:

One of the retirees asked him about his position on women's singing in public events. "I will not be present at any event where they bar women from singing," he replied.

A person in the crowd then rose to his feet and told Lapid, "You will be present at such an event here in Kfar Sava next Tuesday. There is a youth group conference, and because of Bnei Akiva they are not permitting women to sing." Lapid seemed uneasy, glanced in the direction of the activists from his party and explained that he was unaware of the situation and that he would reexamine the issue.

The interesting twist on the story is the ‘compromise’ devised by the youth council. Ophir Bakish, one of the young representatives of secular “Zofim” movement explained on the movement’s website that “while we would never forbid women singing solo in secular society, but we simply couldn’t allow ourselves as a movement which preaches tolerance and acceptance of differences to ignore the request, and prevent the second-largest youth movement in in the city to participate in the event! So there was a compromise, that passed by a majority of votes, that there would be no solos whatsoever at the event. Girls won’t sing solo and boys won’t sing solo either.”

He said it was the ideal compromise that would make everybody happy. “Girls and boys can both sing, as long as they sing in a group. Complete equality. Girls won’t be discriminated against and Bnai Akiva can participate in the ceremony.”

The compromise and the vote won the backing of Kfar Sava’s mayor Yehuda Ben Hemo, who said the “purely democratic” decision of the youth council should be respected. “Despite the fact that I don’t agree with the decision, I respect the process by which the decision was made….I believe that we must not impose our opinion on the decisions taken by the youth,” he said.

So what’s so bad about the policy if it was taken in a democratic fashion and if, in the end, neither male nor female singers will sing alone and the girls aren’t singled out?

I posed this question to Uri Ayalon, the Conservative rabbi in Jerusalem who has become the unofficial spokesman for what he calls the “pluralistic population” of Israel - religious and secular alike who are fighting against the phenomenon of excluding women.

He says it’s the oldest trick in the book. “It’s a classic technique. It’s just like the billboards in Jerusalem. The companies decide not to show any people, any faces at all, no men and no women. But we know that the reason they are doing it is in order to hide the women. It’s a tactic that hides the problem, it doesn’t address it.”

It should have been put upon the B’nai Akiva boys who had a problem with female voices to cope with the problem. “Let them wear earplugs, let them look away,” says Ayalon.

The fact that the teens were convinced to support the policy in the name of unity was merely cosmetic window-dressing for discrimination. “The fact that this was a democratic decision doesn’t mean that it’s a moral decision - and not speaking out against its immoral. There must be no negotiation or compromise when it comes to equality of the sexes. Teaching them to sacrifice the girls - and the boys' right to sing solo is education for degradation and humiliation. If you can’t have the event without doing so, then don’t have a joint event. But we can’t sacrifice our girls on the altar of fake coexistence.”