In Israel, Even the Religious Aren’t Religious Enough for Some

Observant Israelis all over the country are being forced to adopt more stringent rules, including gender separation

Men and women are separated at a Simhat Torah celebration in a southern community in Israel.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When ultra-Orthodox extremists blacked out the pictures of poets Lea Goldberg and Rachel Bluwstein (aka Rachel the Poetess) on new Israeli banknotes, it was merely the latest example of their efforts to minimize the presence — both symbolic and real — of women.

But the growing demand for the exclusion of women isn’t limited to Haredi extremists. It has also crept into the ultra-Orthodox wing of the religious-Zionist community (known by its Hebrew acronym, Hardal), and from there to other communities.

In Israel today, aggressive attempts at making people more religious are being directed not only at those who are secular, but also at religious moderates. And once gender separation has received institutional legitimacy, it’s hard to satisfy the hunger for it – in schools, youth movements and the public sphere.

The memorial ceremony for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that took place at a state religious elementary school in Holon a few weeks ago began as usual. But suddenly, the boys were told to return to their classrooms. Why? “Immodest content” – namely, a song sung by a fifth-grade girl.

The ceremony continued only after all the boys, even the first-graders, had left.

“Our school is becoming more ultra-Orthodox, and the emphasis on ‘modesty’ has reached new heights,” one mother told Haaretz. “One argument being made is that we need to accustom the children to these prohibitions from a young age, so they’ll observe them as adults.”

This growing religious strictness is connected to a group of young religious activists, known as Garin Torani, who are active in the school and push for greater gender separation. All complaints have been rejected virtually out of hand.

Parents and educational activists said a similar process can be seen throughout the state religious school system.

This doesn’t only entail separate classrooms – starting in first grade in the Holon school – but even explicit bans on fathers attending their daughters’ school events. The Education Ministry directive that permits fathers to attend “family ceremonies” isn’t widely known and is even less widely enforced. Often, school events are for mothers and daughters only.

“The inspectors try not to hear complaints about ‘the bounds of modesty,’ which have gradually turned rigid,” one teacher from central Israel said. “They try to avoid dealing with the problem. Afterward, the heads of the religious school system claim they didn’t get any complaints. It’s very frustrating.”

Two years ago, the religious school in the southern Israeli town of Bnei Dekalim asked fathers not to attend the year-end performance by their first-grade daughters. Parents were told the event was for mothers and daughters only.

Tzachi Jacobson decided to attend anyway and sat in the back row. “It’s my right as a parent to attend my daughter’s school events,” he said.

Sivan Leib-Jacobson, spokeswoman for the religious feminist organization Kolech.
Offer Gedanken

“They didn’t give us any explanation, except that ‘the girls will be dancing,’” added his wife, Sivan Leib-Jacobson, spokeswoman for the religious feminist organization Kolech. “Fathers were forbidden to come, but the [male] principal actually did attend the party.”

In Bnei Dekalim, boys and girls learn in separate schools from first grade onward. Leib-Jacobson said the parents were never asked about this, but they have no choice. Sending their children to a mixed school would involve a 40-minute drive.

“No one likes to be the one who complains and thus potentially to be in conflict with the schools,” she added. “The few fathers who want to attend the events are considered exceptions.”

Fathers kept away

Leib-Jacobson said she sought help from the heads of the religious education system – Rabbi Avi Gisser, the chairman of the state religious education council; and Dr. Avraham Lifshitz, head of the state religious education administration. “They responded courteously and agreed with me, but it was already too late,” she says. “Nothing changed on the ground. A year later, we had to ask them again, for the very same reason,” she added.

“The state religious schools like to say they’re one big family that embraces everyone,” added a mother from central Israel whose children’s school has been gradually changing. “In reality, the embrace is mainly for Hardal parents, while the liberal [Jewish] stream is pushed aside.

“The principle is simple: The schools fall in line with the most extreme and stringent elements,” she continued. “And when we complain, the response is often surprise over why we’re being so stubborn. The message they’re constantly sending us is that we ought to give in, because the other side, the extremist one, is liable to get angry and leave.”

The complaints are varied, but include gender separation at ceremonies and sometimes even during recess; bans on girls dancing at bat-mitzvah parties; and long-sleeved school uniforms for girls.

The mother from central Israel said that in response to complaints about the gradual changes at her children’s school, the principal cited ultra-Orthodox rabbis rather than religious-Zionist ones.

“Parents who agree with us do so quietly, while the other side is much more vocal – including complaints to my father at the synagogue on Shabbat over the fact that I’m making trouble. I don’t buy the stringent halakhic excuses,” she added, referring to Jewish religious law. “You can find many other rulings. It’s impossible to ignore the clear process of reducing girls’ ability to appear in public.”

The parents themselves remember a different approach. “We performed with the boys at the eighth-grade graduation party,” recalled one mother. “Today, it’s hard to imagine this, even at a school that’s considered moderate.”

Some parents do have the self-confidence to fight the growing Hardal influence on state religious schools. If necessary, they’ll complain to the people above the principal or the local supervisor, hoping that senior officials will listen, dispel the smoke screen and enforce the rules which they themselves issued.

But as one parent said, “There’s no reason why the chance for my daughter to appear in an end-of-year ceremony should require parental mobilization. We didn’t register her for an ultra-Orthodox or Hardal school, but for an ordinary [state] religious school. The responsibility rests with the system. It’s too easy to make the parents wage this battle, a kind of exercise in ‘divide and conquer.’ When the parents are fighting with each other, the chances of achieving anything are very small.”

Bracing for Hanukkah

In preparation for next week’s Hanukkah parties, and with an eye to other events later in the year, Kolech recently asked Gisser, the chairman of the council that dictates policy for the state religious schools, to issue an unequivocal statement in favor of fathers participating in these events. This week, Kolech’s Facebook page reported his response, which reiterates longstanding policy:

“Significant educational events are family events. End-of-year parties, bar- and bat-mitzvah parties, and siddur and Bible parties are family events,” the statement said, referring to parties where children receive their first prayer book and their first Bible.

Nevertheless, it continued, “A school may hold one event to which everyone is invited and another event or activity that, due to its nature and character, is suitable for daughters and mothers only.”

Gisser also promised that this directive “has been disseminated through the system.”

Leib-Jacobson says she turned to Gisser out of a desire to receive a clear statement to parents, many of whom are in a hopeless situation. “They don’t know that [Education Ministry] instructions exist, they don’t know who to turn to and on the ground there is a trend to extremism in [gender] separation. We must take preventative action: The instructions must be made known to the educational staff and be in front of them when they plan events in school. It seems to me that it is worthwhile for the clear instructions to appear in official documents too: So principals will know, and then the parents too. I think that as parents, we need to conduct a deeper discussion with the educational staff about the content, values and nature of the school events. This is the meaning of the ‘state religious schools as a family,’” she said.

In response, the Education Ministry said: “In the state religious educational system, fathers are full participants in end of the year ceremonies of their daughters, like in Bat Mitzvah ceremonies etc, too. There are no new instructions on the matter. The Ministry will conduct an examination to ensure this is the case on the ground.”

But it’s not only in schools that this pressure is felt, but also in other milieus such as youth movements.

Marching separately

Until about a decade ago, boys and girls in the religious youth movement Bnei Akiva were separated in the younger grades only in branches located in religious communities, or in places where such a request came from the children themselves. Now in recent years, this separation of the sexes has become routine even at all elementary school ages.

Two years ago, a storm erupted over the matter when the son of Rabbi Benny Lau wrote on Facebook about what he called excessive strictness in separating boys and girls during the movement’s summer camps. “People who bore the title ‘coordinator’ and like the Taliban police chased down every occurrence of encounters between boys and girls,” wrote then 15-year-old Eldar Lau.

One expression of this process can be seen in the Simhat Torah procession of Bnei Akiva in the older neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh. Only a few years ago, hundreds of teenage boys and girls would march together carrying Torah scrolls for a few kilometers. Over the years, a separation of a few dozen meters developed between the men’s group, which carried the Torah scrolls, and the women’s group – which followed behind the men.

Recently another innovation evolved: A large strip of fabric, tied to two poles and carried by two female members of the youth movement – walking on opposite sides of the road – between the boys and girls. This now prevents any eye contact (or any other form of contact too) between the boys and girls. And this march is held in the older part of the city where the traditional religious population is concentrated, and not in the newer Haredi neighborhoods.

Then there is the battleground of the swimming pools.

The lone pool in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, has only separate swimming hours for men and women. Last summer, after trying unsuccessfully to convince the local council to allocate “family hours” too, a group of settlers petitioned the High Court of Justice saying this was illegal discrimination against a diverse public, which includes non-religious, traditional and even religious residents, who want to allow a few hours a week of mixed gender – but modest and considerate – swimming.

This, for example, would allow a single-parent mother to overcome the ban on accompanying her 9-year-old son to the pool. Such a child is not allowed during women’s hours, but he is too old to go swimming without supervision, say the petitioners. The first hearing on the case is scheduled in a few weeks.

The High Court petition, filed by Prof. Aviad Hacohen, a lawyer and the president of the Academic Center for Law and Science, states that the petitioners believe that everyone who thinks a Halakhic problem exists with “mixed swimming” has the right to separate swimming times, “at the same time a similar right exists for those who are interested in ‘family swimming’ – and do not want stricter halakhic rules, which he does not observe, forced on him.”

The lack of “family hours” also “damages the family’s right to spend time together, and realize their freedom,” write the petitioners. The local council emphasizes in its various publications that it is supposed to serve all residents and provide an answer to all types of people in the town, states the petition. But in practice, the pool is limited only to those who are religious and want to swim separately, at all hours of the day and all days of the week, “while excluding the petitioners and their friends, who make up about 40 percent of the residents,” they wrote.

“There are those who support us, but are afraid to say so publicly, are afraid of the extremists,” says one person who supports the High Court petition, but requested to remain anonymous. “When we organized and began the fight, they started with posters and ads against us, they punctured tires and applied a great deal of pressure, he explained, noting that it is not only non-religious who back the petition, but also religious families where the father wants to spend time with his daughter.

“The pool is public property paid for with public funds,” noted another Kiryat Arba resident. “Nonetheless, not all the public can use it the way they want. We live here too and we too deserve to go to the pool together, men and women.”

Hacohen says that as a religiously observant person he thinks that those who uphold freedom of religion must enable residents to enjoy their right to swim with their families. This is especially true for many of the residents of Kiryat Arba, who have no alternative pool, he said.

The Kiryat Arba local council’s brief in defense of its position says that accepting the petition would lead to “polarization between council residents, friction and deep disputes.” The matter is complex and of the greatest importance and sensitivity, and the proportionate solution is a continuation of the status quo, that has existed for decades, said the local council. “Any other result could well lead to inequality and serious disputes, and it is doubtful whether they can be bridged in the future.”