While Hillary Makes History, Israeli Women Are Stuck in the Dark Ages

It should have been a triumphant week for Israeli feminists. But between a crumbling Western Wall deal and a bike-ban for girls, there was little cause for celebration.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton celebrates on stage during her primary night event at the Duggal Greenhouse, Brooklyn, New York, U.S., June 7, 2016.
Timothy A. Clary, AFP

It should have been an upbeat and triumphant week for Israeli feminists. On top of the exuberant woman-themed freedom-for all Pride parade, events in America have been infectious. Watching Hillary Clinton, the first viable female nominee for president in the United States, make history by clinching the Democratic nomination was inspiring, even in a country that has a female prime minister under its belt.

Unfortunately, for those paying attention to matters of religion and state at home — where the situation for women seems to be moving backwards instead of progressing — there has been little to celebrate.

As party heads Netanyahu, Bennett, Lieberman, and Herzog maneuver in a game of “who’s in and who’s out” of the government coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties are sitting pretty in a position of strength. Their leaders — and the state rabbinate that is firmly under their control — are maximizing their current grip on power by flexing those political muscles. The result is a depressing rollback for women. In the course of this single week, we saw these disturbing developments, large and small.

Cracks in the Western Wall deal 

For the first time in three years, police bowed to the will of the Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, detaining a leader of feminist prayer group Women of the Wall for the “crime” of reading from a Torah scroll. Lesley Sachs, the executive director of the group, may not have been dragged off in handcuffs and thrown in a jail cell on Tuesday. But as she was leaving the area at the conclusion of the group’s monthly prayer service, she was ominously escorted “for questioning” at the nearby police station in Jerusalem’s Old City for the crime of smuggling a Torah scroll into the holy site. In a Catch-22 situation, women are not allowed access to the site’s official Torah scrolls, and no “outside” Torahs are permitted to be brought in, essentially altogether banning women from them.

This was supposed to be a problem on its way to being solved, along with the issue of ultra-Orthodox objections to women’s group prayer and wearing of prayer shawls and phylacteries. But the Western Wall compromise, mediated by the government between Rabinowitz (presumably in consultation with the haredi parties) the non-Orthodox movements, and the Women of the Wall, however, has been stalled after the empowered ultra-Orthodox establishment backed out of the agreement. And so it seems the bad old days of angry confrontation at one of Judaism’s holiest places are back again.  

Mikve mess in the Knesset

It was shocking to see normally mild-mannered Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria being dragged out of a committee meeting in the Knesset. But that’s exactly what happened on Monday when the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee took up a controversial bill regulating public ritual baths. 

The intent of the proposed law is to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling which permitted Reform and Conservative converts to immerse in public ritual baths in the course of their conversion under their rabbi’s supervision. The bill, introduced by MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism supported unanimously by the haredi parties prevents that from happening by dictating that the state-funded facilities “will only be permitted for halakhic immersion, conforming with Jewish law and custom and “the rulings of the Chief Rabbinical Council in Israel.”

In order to police against “unapproved” use of the mikveh, the proposed law would essentially put every person who uses them under surveillance. The move is being battled not only by the Reform and Conservative movement, but by religious women who want to use the facilities undisturbed by attendants if they choose. Some already complain of overly-intrusive questioning by attendants at this intimate ritual, and the legislation would enshrine such behavior in law. Orthodox feminist activist Rachel Stomel wrote on Facebook that those behind the law “could not care less if women boycott the mikveh. This isn’t about upholding halacha or family purity or tradition. This is a political battle for power fought on the (naked) backs of women.”

Battle against pre-nups 

Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a former member of the Great Rabbinical Court, it was reported, added his backing to a movement among extreme haredi rabbis opposing prenuptial agreements designed to lessen the crisis of “get” refusals — men who hold their wives' marital status prisoner by refusing to grant them a religious divorce. 

The haredi rabbis threaten that divorce that occurred in compliance with such a prenup will mean the divorce was taking place against the husband’s will, and therefore render it invalid.

Separating girls from their bikes

Another depressing story from the haredi world that went internationally viral this week, showing up on media outlets from Great Britain to Pakistan — an unnamed rabbi in Nahlaot reportedly issued a ban on girls over the age of five from riding bicycles on the grounds that it is immodest. Fliers distributed in neighborhood synagogues argued that the way girls sat in bicycle seats was “provocative” to men and that parents were therefore “obligated” to prevent such behavior. 

Granted, bicycle riding has never been endorsed as a pastime among adult ultra-Orthodox, male or female. But this edict’s specificity to female children points to the trend of increasing restrictions on the comfort and freedom of women and girls with the trend of “extreme modesty” and a disturbing sexualization of children. 

Where’s Shuli? 

One moment this week, captured on video, spotlights the crux of the problem for women in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was speaking at a large religious gathering in honor of Jerusalem Day. In his opening remarks, he greeted all of the high-level officials present, using their full names and titles. About to continue and begin his speech, he suddenly hesitated and asked “Shuli?” He was remembering that there was a Knesset member present he had forgotten to greet... because he couldn’t see her. He gazed up into a distant balcony, looking for Jewish Home MK Shuli Mualem. Squinting with a smile, he triumphantly found her and joked that she was hard to spot without his glasses on “at my age.” He then greeted her by calling out gaily, “Shuli, I’m happy to see you here!” 

The fact that Netanyahu found it amusing — not troubling — that a member of Knesset should be seated in a distant balcony and acknowledged her with a title-less first-name mention told the whole story. What is most disturbing isn’t the drift of many religious leaders in Israel and the rabbinate towards extremist ideology and practices that trample on women’s rights and exclude them. It’s the fact that powerful secular politicians like Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the name of political expediency, find it all trivial enough to ignore — and when they do catch sight of it — laugh it off.