Opinion

Israel's New Iron Lady Wants Women to Sit in the Back of the Bus. She Should Be the First

Yamina's leader Ayelet Shaked at the launch of her party in Ramat Gan, August 2019.
Moti Milrod

Ayelet Shaked is currently the only woman heading an Israeli party. Shaked fought for the position. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, moral beacon that he is, said that “women shouldn’t be in politics,” and Shaked was forced to explain that “a woman can do anything ... even lead the country.”

Now the job of party leader is hers, and she’s already kowtowing to those who didn’t want her, undermining the women who fought so that a women could be where Shaked is today, and the women who will follow.

“Segregation is not exclusion,” she said, bringing to mind the South African explanation that apartheid meant “separate development.” Does she want women to sit in the back? That’s fine, but she should be the first.

“The arrogance of secular Jews regarding the ultra-Orthodox community and their attempt to impose on it a different lifestyle is inappropriate,” Shaked said, as if quoting from the talking points of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank. First they cooperated in legislating the nation-state law, which at its simplest boils down to “Arabs, sit in the back.” Now they’re free to deal with women. This bait and switch, which still brings in customers, is worth our attention.

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First, segregation by sex is illegal at public events in Israel. No one can prevent the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, from holding fully segregated events; we simply aren’t willing to pay for it.

Yamina's leader Ayelet Shaked in Bnei Brak, April 2019.

Second, Shaked’s chutzpah in talking about secular coercion is unfathomable. In a country where the transportation minister fantasizes out loud about a state governed by religious law, where trains and buses don’t run on Shabbat and where nonobservant Jews may not marry, divorce or be buried in accordance with their beliefs, a woman who seeks to be prime minister says a refusal to pay for a sex-segregated concert out of state funds is coercion.

This argument wouldn’t be happening without the stance that women don’t have a legitimate right to be in the public space. Just last month the Justice Ministry interfered, correctly, against the refusal by Talmud Torah religious schools in Jerusalem to admit immigrants from Ethiopia. Naftali Bennett, one of the champions of sex segregation in academia, argued that it was “a disgrace that has no place in the education system.”

No one thought it was an attempt to impose secular values on the ultra-Orthodox. No one argued that secular Jews were trying to withhold education from the Haredim. But to send women to the back of the bus, to watch a performance through a curtain, to disappear from the classroom, to be silent when a man is speaking, there’s no problem with any of that. Some women will even applaud it.

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It’s very convenient for the propagandists of segregation to treat the gender-segregated concert in Afula as a singular event and make people forget that it’s part of a trend that has gained momentum since its beginnings a few years ago. The Haredi community and the Haredi-Zionist party that Shaked heads are fighting for sex segregation on public buses, at public events, in the army, in academia and on the radio. Once we fought for a woman’s right to be a fighter pilot, now we’re fighting so that soldiers won’t turn their backs on a female officer when she addresses them.

Haredim in the United States don’t ask the state to fund sex-segregated concerts or plays for them or establish male-only academic institutions. Haredim who want to study do so.

These demands escalated in Israel because completely secular Jews agreed rather than simply say no. We too have values, we’ve fought for them for years and we have no intention of putting them aside every time we’re threatened with a little Yiddishkeit. You want women to sit in the back? Stay home.