Israel Must Break Down the Walls of the ultra-Orthodox Ghetto

Sex segregation in the city of Afula in the north, August 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The Israel Women’s Network’s battle against holding a sex-segregated concert in Afula has caused great harm to ultra-Orthodox feminism while bolstering the reactionary male forces in ultra-Orthodox society. And this isn’t the first time.

The most damaging battle was the one against sex segregation at universities, which blocked the expansion of higher education among ultra-Orthodox women. Unfortunately, the Israel Women’s Network is more concerned with itself than with liberating ultra-Orthodox women, so it undermines the trend toward integration among Israeli ultra-Orthodox women – at work, in education and in cultural life.

In her Haaretz op-ed last Sunday, Iris Leal exemplifies how hard a liberal woman finds it to fully support an independent path for ultra-Orthodox women. Leal teaches ultra-Orthodox women in single-sex classes, with the goal of encouraging independent thinking and liberation (in contrast to the Israel Women’s Network’s stance). But she objects to holding cultural events with sex segregation. In her view, consciousness will develop through education, not through separate-sex cultural activities.

As someone who has taught women for many years at the Haredi College of Jerusalem, I think there’s confusion about the processes ultra-Orthodox society is undergoing and a misunderstanding about the right way to help it escape the ghetto it has been forced into. Because the issue of integrating ultra-Orthodox society is important and could also have a decisive impact on the makeup of the next government, I’d like to offer a different way of understanding these processes and how to encourage them.

In ultra-Orthodox society, women are the driving force for both acquiring higher education and holding cultural events. They’re the ones who participate in the work force, who are involved in Israeli society and who seek equal rights – in education, pay and cultural events. Their initial demand isn’t for equality with men, but for equality with secular women.

Both in education and at the event in Afula, women have been prominently present. The ultra-Orthodox parties and conservative rabbis have been trying to stop the trend, but they're sometimes forced to give in. Unfortunately, the ones who are helping them stop the trend are liberal women – both in higher education and in Afula.

In the classes I taught for ultra-Orthodox women, I learned about their worldview. They identify mainly with black feminism in America, where black women are fighting not only oppressed black men, but also white women who exploit and discriminate against black women. Often, they also stand shoulder to shoulder with black men in the battle against racist white oppression.

This is how I recommend understanding the demand for sex segregation at cultural events or in higher education. It’s meant to enable ultra-Orthodox women to enjoy education and culture without leaving their communities.

The fundamental problem isn’t separation but exclusion, and that’s what must be fought. There’s no reason for a female faculty member not to teach ultra-Orthodox men. This is a principle whose violation would harm all women.

But single-sex classes can be liberating for women and very important in encouraging change. To liberate itself, every oppressed group sometimes needs a setting where the oppressor is absent.

When is segregation genuinely problematic? When there’s an effort to implement it in places where it didn’t previously exist – for instance, on buses. But when it comes to activities that until now haven’t taken place at all, and when women are requesting separation for them to take place, this should be allowed.

If the concert in Afula hadn’t been allowed to take place with sex segregation, women would simply have been excluded. In other words, only men would have attended.

And now we come to the political issue that’s likely to arise after the election – equality among men in bearing the burden of military service. It’s well known that the army isn’t enthusiastic about drafting the ultra-Orthodox, and there are reactionary circles in the ultra-Orthodox community that are waging all-out war against serving.

The exemption from military service enables the ultra-Orthodox parties and rabbis to control ultra-Orthodox society, because a young ultra-Orthodox man must study at a yeshiva to obtain the exemption. In this way, secular people have once again served conservatives and ultra-Orthodox separatism and helped strengthen the ultra-Orthodox ghetto.

My proposal is very simple: Abolish the exemption from military service that has historically been given to yeshiva students, and instead pass a law exempting everyone from military service. Every Israeli should be able to exempt himself from military service by declaring that he has a conscientious objection and be required to do civilian community service instead. Most of the objectors would presumably be women, ultra-Orthodox men and Arabs, but there would also be some who refuse to serve in the territories.

This exemption would create an egalitarian baseline, bolster ultra-Orthodox civil society and liberate ultra-Orthodox men from their obligation to “serve” in yeshivas. It would also let the state reduce subsidies for yeshiva studies and let the army draft people who truly want to serve in it. We may yet discover that more ultra-Orthodox men seek to serve voluntarily than under duress.

I began this op-ed by discussing an issue of principle – whether we should encourage the aspirations of ultra-Orthodox women – and I ended with an urgent political question that relates to equality among men. What these issues have in common is my desire to contribute to freeing ultra-Orthodox society from the ghetto it has been forced into by the unholy cooperation between conservative rabbis and parties and secular liberals, who are willing to preserve this ghetto on the grounds that they’re concerned about universal equality. That isn’t how you break down walls.