The Israel Museum vs. the Sons of Darkness

The Israel Museum must take a stand against Haredi attempts to limit artistic expression.

Meitar Schleider
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Meitar Schleider

Let's start with the bottom line: The Israel Museum in Jerusalem doesn't intend to separate men and women during visiting hours. Anyway, that was the message posted on the museum's Facebook page on Monday afternoon following a media hullabaloo over the idea of gender-separated museum tours.

This news is a huge relief. I was starting to worry I wouldn't be able to use my favorite pick-up line at the museum any more. I like to approach a young man, or even one who isn’t so young, and while he is gazing at a painting, whisper in his ear, "You know, it's really very interesting that the feminine figure in Reuven Rubin's paintings exudes an exotic and feral sexuality, which stands in stark contrast with the European sense of propriety that characterizes the woman of the first waves of aliyah to Israel."

It's possible that – just as the announcement says – the museum never intended to separate men and women. It's also possible that it originally did intend to separate the genders but was deterred by the public outcry. Or maybe someone over there just came to his senses and realized it was a wrong-headed and ignorant idea.

Still, the language of the announcement conveys that the museum is ready to provide gender-segregated tours for specially arranged after-hour visits to its exhibit, "A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews."

On one hand, it's nice that an institution like the national museum is trying to make itself accessible to one of the many sub-groups of Israeli society. On the other hand, where should institutional accommodation end? Let's assume Haredi groups will contact the museum and request a gender-segregated tour of the exhibit outside of regular visiting hours. Let's also assume the groups will request that certain pictures, statues or displays of immodest women along the corridors to the exhibit be removed or covered during their visits. What then?

A museum must be a venue free from rules and constraints – a space where everything can be seen and everything is allowed. Children who come to a museum will see pictures of naked people, even if their parents wouldn't allow them to see nudity on television. An Israeli museum will show Israeli art glorifying the redemption of the Land of Israel and political art criticizing the Occupation. Marc Chagall paintings of Hasidim will hang alongside Renaissance paintings of Jesus' crucifixion. A museum will display things of ugliness and things of beauty. There will be objects made from metal, stone and fabric. And museum-goers of all types will be there.

Haredim appear firmly committed to segregating themselves from all aspects of life in Israel. They won't serve with us in the army. They won't join us at work. They refuse to sit next to half of us on the bus and they refuse to visit the museum in our company.  

They want special visiting hours for gender-separated tours, gender-segregated buses, gender-separated advertisements and exemptions from both work and national service. For some time, this hasn't been a battle over the exclusion of women. It's a battle over equality and fairness, over respect and modesty, over liberty and culture and over education and economics.

In the museum's courtyard in Jerusalem stand a glittering white building, called the Shrine of the Book, and a black basalt wall. The sharply contrasting contours of these structures can be seen from afar and are highly visible part of the museum's identity. The inspiration for the two edifices, one next to the other, came from The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, a text from the Qumran Caves displayed in the Shrine of the Book. This scroll prophesies an apocalyptic clash between the forces of good and evil.

Since the days of yore, the arts and their practitioners have spearheaded the battle for enlightenment, equality and liberal values. This is how it used to be, and this is how it should continue to be – now and in the future.

Meitar Schleider is as an editor and content manager.