“Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right,” by Lihi Ben Shitrit, Princeton University Press, 304 pp., $22.95
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In late January, Israeli settlers tussled with Israel Defense Forces soldiers charged with evicting them from two homes in Hebron. In a familiar sight on the Israeli news, settler women balanced small children on their hips as they berated and harangued the soldiers. The very next day, a 13-year-old Palestinian girl attempted to stab a security guard in the West Bank and was shot dead – joining numerous Palestinian women and youngsters who have participated in such attacks since October.
Israelis tend to seek personal explanations for female Palestinian violence, as if political extremism is understood when it comes to men, but contradicts typically “feminine” qualities. Activism among women in conservative Jewish religious movements may seem counterintuitive as well, since traditional “feminine” behavior is not thought to include political activism or leadership.
In “Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right,” Lihi Ben Shitrit, an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia in Athens, probes women’s activism in four conservative religious or religious-nationalist movements in Israel and its environs – Jewish settlers, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli political party Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel and Hamas – in a search for shared ways of thinking. It’s unlikely that her research subjects would appreciate being categorized together, but social scientists who question gender, religious extremism, nationalism or social movements will.
While Ben Shitrit’s academic discourse of contestation, intentionality, performatives, diagnostic and prognostic frames will at times alienate the average reader, it would be unfortunate to forgo the book by this Israeli-born author for that reason. Interested observers could learn much from the rare, up-close look at hugely influential political movements, beyond the subject of women’s roles within them.
The political scientist and women’s studies expert conducted a formidable amount of research and displayed substantial tenacity in reaching her subjects. She spent several years winning the personal trust of leaders and members of the first three groups, who represent tight-knit and often highly suspicious social communities. She built relationships, attended events, transcribed extensive conversations and pored over media sources – especially in the case of Hamas where, as an Israeli, she could not forge personal ties. She read both Hebrew and Arabic texts, and when researching Shas, her Moroccan background prompted openness among some of the party's figures.
Ben Shitrit observes that gender and feminist researchers typically presume that women naturally seek greater empowerment and liberation. That leads such academics to puzzle over why some women work to advance conservative political movements that constrain them within gender roles. She believes these questions reflect a Western liberal feminist bias and mislead the inquiry.
Instead, Ben Shitrit accepts as a given that women take part prominently and often enthusiastically in religiously conservative or religious-nationalist movements. In all four movements she examines, women have become active as participants, organizers or sometimes leaders. The question for the author is: How do these women justify activism and participation sometimes in front-line struggles that contradict traditional gender norms of Orthodox Judaism or conservative Islam? And could these justifications ultimately, or unwittingly, aid in shifting traditional roles?
Thus, Jewish women settlers sometimes physically struggle with male IDF soldiers, although Orthodox Jewish law strictly proscribes touching a male stranger. On the Palestinian side, a woman suicide bomber abandons her role as mother (or future mother) and becomes a supporter of male fighters to advance a political-religious goal.
‘Frames of exception’
Ben Shitrit posits a theory for how women carve an ideological space for their activity, which becomes the filter for her analysis: They develop what she calls “frames of exception” – theological interpretations and justifications for transgressing “righteous” behavioral norms for the sake of the cause.
“Frames of exception” represent an extraordinary need of the collective that transcends normal gender roles — including, for example, the redemption of the land of Israel through settlement, or defense of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. But the author emphasizes that the allowance given to the women is temporary; each movement seeks to move society in a direction that will ultimately preserve their traditional place, not erode it. The “framing process explicitly suspends, rather than challenges, their movement’s gender ideology for the sake of its nationalist goals,” Ben Shitrit writes.
The author distinguishes between nationalist-religious movements (settlers and Hamas) and movements that she sees as primarily proselytizing (Shas and the Islamic Movement – specifically the latter’s southern branch, since the northern branch is more nationalist in character). Movements that are both religious and nationalist, she finds, are more broadly conducive to disruptive gender roles.
The proselytizing movements welcome women’s active engagement, but they are more prone to what Ben Shitrit calls “complementarian activism,” meaning that women and men hold distinct roles intended to complement one another’s essential (gender-related) skills. However, in both types of movements the behavior reflects the fact that women’s roles are built on traditional ideas as caregivers, supporters, pillars of strength and stability, family anchors.
A woman settler journalist tells Ben Shitrit: “my mother gave my father this space to run ahead with [his settlement activism] When he made it happen, she was there. If the technical details had to be attended to, he wasn’t alone, he had an entire family. She took care of that. If he brought guests home, she took care of the guests.”
The Islamic Movement has expanded the more traditional female role as caregivers and family providers to include religious proselytizing by women, for women. One such activist tells the author, “When I see women in the street talking or laughing loudly or not following the correct way, I approach them. I don’t say right away ‘come to Islam,’ I find a way to reach that woman gently. If she is responsive, I invite her to class.”
In a chapter on more revolutionary “protest” activity, the book gets to the heart of extremist actions: those of the women settlers and suicidal attackers mentioned earlier. Ben Shitrit observes that even their temporary transgressions rest on essential – read, stereotypical – women’s qualities. These include having an emotional basis for their acts, justifying sacrifice for the sake of their children, and insisting that they are not competing with men or vying for equal status:
“We are not here to prove that women can compete with men,” says one member of a Hamas women’s military brigade. “[The men] are the ones who have been fighting and sacrificing, but we are trying to lift from them some of this load.’” As such, even the grim silver lining that extremism might prompt a break with gender constraints seems unlikely.
Ben Shitrit then examines women’s formal leadership in the movements, which ranges from low to growing, and presents some helpful quantitative data on the rate of women’s political participation. The activity of these women, she argues, is essential for growing the constituencies of each movement. This chapter is also useful for understanding what the future of political leadership might look like, in this area: At least two of the movements she examines – settler parties in Israel and Hamas in Palestine – are steadily growing in political control, the latter in terms of controlling the Gaza Strip and receiving increasing support in surveys both there and in the West Bank.
Two parallel books
Throughout “Righteous Transgressions,” the women Ben Shitrit studies show authentic enthusiasm for their activism and involvement. “I felt that my home is on fire,” says Hanna, a settler. “I couldn’t sleep at night [I] could not afford not to leave a future for my children.”
With scenes like these, the academic language used in the book seems like a weighty add-on. It can feel like there are two parallel books here: one, the theoretical analysis; the other a stark picture of how minds, hearts, God, youth and gender are mobilized to generate feelings of existential threat, incitement against the perceived enemy, justifications for antagonism and violence.
The latter “book” gives readers a window into the wild eyes of the settlers wrestling with soldiers and obsessing over the land. We witness children, Palestinian citizens of Israel, playing martyrdom games, “shooting” mock soldiers and deepening the cult of Al-Aqsa – specifically, their narrative of its imminent destruction by Jewish villains who wish to destroy Islam. For their part, Shas women writhe in a mass religious frenzy to drive home women’s religious roles, values and duties, while Hamas encourages women to be the perfect supportive wives to men who will kill and die, or lead an ultra-theocratic movement.
It is hard to stifle a strong desire to drop the respectful academic inquiry altogether, and preach the virtues of secular humanism. But if one overcomes this instinct, Ben Shitrit’s detailed portrayal of both male and female activists offers a valuable lesson, including beyond gender issues.
For example, Ben Shitrit portrays religious orthodoxy as a sort of structured, role-defined life for both women and men, with loopholes like a “break glass in emergency” box that they can smash when the “nation” calls: that is, women can experience a breakthrough vis-a-vis their roles, and presumably men (the author does not address this) can break other norms, such as secular laws. But in reading this work, another interpretation seems possible: Religion may be more like a pliable hunk of challah dough. The extensive interpretations show theologies being kneaded and twisted into any shape that justifies West Bank settlement, or in the Islamic case, they can be seen as a plate of ful (fava beans) being mashed and flavored into any form that justifies Palestinian nationalist activity.
Then there is the “frame of exception” itself. It is not clear why this useful concept is applied exclusively to women in conservative religious movements, something even Ben Shitrit hints at: “[The] mechanism of frames of exception might have parallels in other nationalist contexts, including secular ones.” In fact, the suspension of normal social roles, morality and possibly law-abiding behavior seems to define extremism of any political bent, for men or women – anyone who wishes to justify disruption or even violence for a putatively higher cause.
Finally, the notion of sacrifice is a prominent theme in Ben Shitrit’s book. The disruption of gender norms women actually cherish is largely described in these terms. Thus the far-right Israeli politician and settler, Orit Strock is quoted as saying: “I told myself, ‘For your children you were willing to lose sleep but for Hebron you are unwilling to do so?’” A Hamas suicide bomber’s final text indicates that her action “does not stem from women’s choice but is rather imposed on them” – not by coercive men, but by “an exceptionally catastrophic situation in which choice is not available” – and one for which she purposely relinquishes her role as a mother, on behalf of God.
Legitimate or detestable, there is apparently a romantic power in personal suffering and sacrifice for a cause. Maybe this helps explain some of the attraction to these movements in general, among women or men.
Contrast this, for example, with the Israeli left. Although left-wingers cherish their values, there was until very recently little personal suffering involved in advocating an end to the occupation. The greatest punishment was indifference or derision. Only handfuls of soldiers, even on the left, have been willing to do a few weeks of unpleasant, but hardly Gulag-grade military prison time.
Yet times are changing. The social opprobrium of the left reached new heights following the first war in Gaza in 2009, followed by hostile legislation, job loss due to political views, and most recently, the arrest of some of its activists on murky charges, under gag order. With the noose tightening, one can only pray that any “personal price” to be paid involves only conceptual or psychological “frames of exception,” rather than the dire sacrifice of life or limb.
Dahlia Scheindlin holds a PhD in political science from Tel Aviv University. She is a public opinion researcher and a political strategist, and a regular writer at +972 Magazine.