Controversy Rages Over Female Singers at Israeli Memorial Ceremonies

Women increasingly told they cannot sing at public events in order not to insult religious sensibilities.

Michal Fattal

Moving speeches, a lingering siren and haunting songs – these are the traditional hallmarks of the somber memorial ceremonies in schools and town squares which bring communities together across Israel each spring on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day.

But in recent years a new ritual that divides rather than unites has become a part of this season of ceremony – angry public confrontations over women singing in these public events.

The debate centers on whether forbidding women to sing is an insulting act of unacceptable discrimination, or a gesture of sensitivity and consideration to Orthodox Jewish men who believe that listening to a woman’s singing voice is, for them, a violation of religious law. Once again, this year the issue has galvanized feminists who believe such policies represent creeping religious fundamentalism aimed at hiding and silence women in the public sphere.

Last week,  a community center in the southern city of Sderot raised hackles when it barred women from singing solo at the municipal Memorial Day ceremony “out of consideration for the religious audience.” As a result, the company that had been hired to produce both the Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day ceremonies told the city it was withdrawing in protest of the discrimination. Frustrated young women who wanted to sing in the Sderot ceremony were told they could only do so as part of a group, and complained in the media that they had been told the same thing in other ceremonies in the past. The municipality shot back that various political groups had been intentionally “trying to create a provocation.”

Controversy erupted again when a student at Bar-Ilan University who leads an all-female rock band said her group had been told that it was welcome to perform at the public university’s official Holocaust memorial ceremony, but they could only play their instruments, not sing.

Arguments over whether public ceremonies should accommodate the belief of conservative Orthodox men in the Talmudic statement that “the voice of a woman is nakedness” (in Hebrew “kol isha erva”) and the larger question of excluding women in the public sphere emerged as a hot-button political issue in 2011- 2012. Those were the years that a rightward shift and increasing political assertiveness in the Orthodox community collided head-on with growing feminist awareness in mainstream Israeli culture. In the Israel Defense Forces, the issue was resolved  after several confrontations with a clear regulation that religious soldiers would not be excused from official army events that feature female soldiers singing, over the objections of some IDF rabbis, resulting in at least one resignation.

Since that time, in other forums policies are often put in place in an attempt to avoid offending religious sensibilities without appearing to blatantly discriminate against women.

In some cases, cities or educational institutions decide that neither men nor women will sing alone in these ceremonies, and all singing will be done by mixed-gender groups or choirs. Some take it a step further and have removed singing from their ceremonies altogether. At Bar-Ilan University, the campus rabbi Shlomo Shefer, responsible for organizing the Holocaust Day ceremony, told the website Nana10 that banning female singing was the “custom” of the university, but that the women musicians who wanted to participate were welcome to play instruments.

A university statement declared the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony “is designed for the entire community of faculty and students, religious and secular, those who won’t hear female singing and those who do. In order to avoid controversies related to the nature of this important ceremony it has been decided that it will not include singing at all. That is the way it has been throughout the years, and that is the way it will be this time.”

In one Jewish community outside Israel, the issue has gone to court after years of unsuccessful lobbying to allow women to sing in an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.

A South African organization called the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), along with two individual South African Jews, Gilad Stern and Sarah Goldstein, filed suit against the Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town for alleged discrimination over a ban on women singing at their annual Holocaust Memorial ceremony.

They are claiming that the ban is illegal under South Africa’s Equality Act. The ban has been in place since 2005 in order to accommodate Orthodox rabbis who will not attend events in which women sing and believe such activity is immodest, and have, in the past, left the stage during ceremonies in which women singers participated.

Last month Rabbi Julia Margolis, SACRED’s chairman, told the South African Jewish Report that the group believed it was their “right, moral obligation and duty, as concerned South African Jews, to challenge this unacceptable gender discrimination.”

James Lomberg, executive director of SACRED, called it an insult to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to have such a ban on a ceremony “which should stand for all time as a warning against the perils of discrimination.”

SACRED was formed several years ago to fight both the Holocaust ceremony ban and the policy in place for the Israel Independence Day ceremony, in which women are only permitted to sing in a mixed choir at the end of the ceremony.

In Israel, the issue of women singing, unlike other gender discrimination issues, has not yet reached the courts, although Orly Erez-Likhovski, who heads the legal department at the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said that her organization had sent a letter to the Sderot municipality stating that the policy in place banning women singing was “clear discrimination.”

“It is illegal to bar the singing of women in memorial services,” she said. “Municipalities often don’t believe that something is illegal if it’s connected to religion.”

The Bar-Ilan case, she said, in which a policy of no singing in ceremonies by members of either gender has been in place for several years, would be more difficult to challenge, even though the reasoning behind it is “problematic.”

In a way, it is an audio version of the case of billboards on public buses in Jerusalem: A had been in place in which all photographs of human beings of either gender were banned in order to avoid being forced to allow images of women on buses driving through religious neighborhoods, risking vandalism. After a long political and legal battle led by a Jerusalem political party, the High Court of Justice banned the bus companies from refusing to display pictures of women – or men.

Because of the Talmudic “Kol Isha” justification, Erez-Likhovski said that the singing issue can be trickier to argue than other forms of discrimination, like removing images of women on government publications, gender-segregated seating or banning women from speaking or appearing on stage. But, she says, it needs to be monitored and anti-discrimination advocates should stay vigilant, because the exclusion of women in the public sphere is a slippery slope.  

But even without a court ruling, the Israeli government's top legal officials have taken a clear stand against such incidents of discrimination when they occur. Activists like Erez-Likhovski were surely encouraged by two letters published on the matter Tuesday by deputy Attorney-General Dina Zilber, after the Sderot and Bar-Ilan stories hit the media. 

In the letters, which were sent to all of the relevant government offices and ministries, involved in the Sderot and Bar-Ilan incidents, Zilber took a strong stand on the issue, stating that denying women the right to participate in all public ceremonies in an “active, full, and equal manner” is “in addition to being infuriating, illegal.” 

She cites a ruling by the attorney general’s office in May of 2013 which stated that the exclusion and segregation of women in any official government ceremony is against the law, only allowing exceptions when the ceremony is clearly of a religious nature and the vast majority of the attendees are observant. She then emphasized that Holocaust Remembrance and Memorial Day ceremonies are clearly of a national nature and not a religious one, and therefore neither qualified for any dispensation on government policy regarding gender discrimination. 

“It is indisputable that forbidding or limiting women’s singing in a municipal memorial ceremony” Zilber wrote, “even if it is being done to accommodate the sensitivities of part of the public, is an act that discriminates against and harms another part of the public, deeply insulting women’s dignity and sending a humiliating and inappropriate message.”

Both letters conclude with a directive to the parties involved in organizing the ceremonies to “urgently take the necessary corrective action” to comply with the law.