Women 'Furious' as Ikea Sticks With All-male Catalog in Israel: 'We're Turning Into Saudi Arabia'

The Swedish furniture chain apologized after it caused a storm by publishing catalog with no women in it, but Israelis say it's still being distributed.

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A page from the ultra-Orthodox version of the Ikea Israel catalogue.
A page from the ultra-Orthodox version of the Ikea Israel catalogue.Credit: Scrennshot

Ikea catalogs depicting a world populated only by men and boys, with no images of women, continued to be distributed widely in Israel even after the Swedish-based furniture and housewares chain apologized for their publication.

Ikea’s spokeswoman in Israel, Gali Zander, told Haaretz on Wednesday that the catalogues had already been given to private distributors before the controversy began, but that no additional copies would be sent out.

“The train had left the station,” she said. After the controversy and the company’s apology she said, no additional copies of the catalogue - which she clarified was not considered a full Ikea catalogue, but merely an advertising brochure - would be distributed.

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Elisheva Yuval, a resident of the northern city of Karmiel, said she was stunned on Monday night when she found white bags hanging on her door and those of her neighbors containing the controversial catalog that the company operating Israel’s three IKEA stores had published. The catalogs, aimed at ultra-Orthodox customers, contained photographs of bearded men and boys amid Ikea furniture.

The cover of the ultra-Orthodox version of the Ikea Israel catalogue.Credit: Screenshot

Yuval said she was outraged not just because the catalogs were still in circulation, but because her neighborhood is populated by secular and traditional Jews - not ultra-Orthodox - and had received them.

“This isn’t the place you would expect them to circulate such a catalog in the first place, let alone after they apologize and said it didn’t meet their standards,” she said.

Rena Hollander who found the catalogs at her homes on Tuesday morning in Beit Shemesh was equally upset. "I knew about the catalog and had been following the story online. I had assumed that when they apologized, they wouldn't have been distributing them. It made me furious."

The trend it reflected and catered to – the elimination of women's images from the public sphere - is an increasing problem in Israel.

In her neighborhood, which contains a mix of ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox residents, Hollander said, "It has been getting worse and worse, it's getting completely out of hand. We are turning into Saudi Arabia."

The initial publication and distribution of the female-free catalog by the Israeli branch of the chain sparked anger in Israel and the ensuing controversy drew widespread international attention and criticism. On Thursday, Ikea spokeswoman for the company’s Swedish headquarters Josefin Thorell responded to the firestorm over the catalog, telling the Swedish news agency TT that it was "not something that has gone through us” and Ikea's Israeli franchise had made an "error" when it "had tried to reach a consumer group."

In a statement released to the international press, Thorell said “the Ikea brand stands for equal rights. It is very important for Inter Ikea Systems as the global franchisor of the Ikea concept, that the companies working under the Ikea Brand act in a way that reflects this. We find that the local publication from Ikea Israel does not live up to this. We appreciate that the franchisee in Israel takes this seriously and that they will address it and safeguard that future publications are in line with what our brand stands for.”

Ikea’s retail manager for Israel, Shuky Koblenz, said in an accompanying statement that “we realize that people are upset about this and that the publication does not live up to what Ikea stands for and we apologize for this. We will make sure that future publications will reflect what Ikea stands for and at the same time show respect for Haredi community.”

Koblenz did not, however, include in his statement any commitment that the company would refrain from distributing the company’s newly published self-described “alternative and special” catalogs designed to appeal to the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) market segment.

The fact that it continues to do so has triggered anger among many women.

“I’m upset about it as are many of my friends,” Yuval said. “It’s bad enough when the Haredi magazines blur or erase images out of pictures even when they are showing government leaders or the U.S. Supreme Court. Still I understand that they want to do it within their community. For a company outside the community chooses to do this to pander to that community is beyond my understanding.”

The ongoing distribution of the catalogs prove to Yuval that “these apologies are totally fake as far as I’m concerned. Where is the editorial oversight on the part of IKEA? If it doesn’t live up to your standards, you shouldn’t have published it in the first place.”

No women

The disappearance of women from the public sphere has become a hot-button political issue both within the ultra-Orthodox community and outside it, as increasing stringency on gender separation has made the disappearance of images of women increasingly common. The trend, which began in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods but increasingly spills over into city centers has manifested in the disappearance of mannequins in shop windows to spray-painted graffiti on billboards and buses. On a regular basis, photographs - and sometimes even the names - of women in ultra-Orthodox publications.

Hollander noted that their apology ultimately had a boomerang effect. "If they were planning to distribute the catalogs anyway, it would have been probably better if they hadn't apologized. What good did it do?"

In Yuval’s opinion, the Israeli branch’s decision to publish such a catalog ultimately didn’t make business sense. “I can't believe their business among haredim is so huge that they would risk the animosity of the rest of the population I may not be a huge IKEA customer, but there are things they make that I like and I would be interested in buying. Not anymore.”

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