Erasing Women's Names From This Israeli City's Streets Is a Threat to Democracy

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Haredi girls in Beit Shemesh, separated from men for a Sukkot holiday celebration, October 17, 2019.
Haredi girls in Beit Shemesh, separated from men for a Sukkot holiday celebration, October 17, 2019. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Without admitting it per se, the city of Beit Shemesh has been removing the first names of women from its street names. Why should we care about that at a time that the Israeli government is illegally waging war on the right to protest? Isn’t fretting about street names a thing for better times, not a period when the prime minister is undermining state institutions and dismantling the foundations of liberal democracy?

In fact, excluding women from street names is another triumph for the campaign against democracy in Israel. It’s another blow to the values at the heart of liberal democracy: human dignity, equality, and the freedom to know and to develop, together with the freedoms of expression and assembly.

In Neve Shamir, a new neighborhood designated for the general public, the Beit Shemesh names committee plans to name several streets after Israeli heroes and heroines, including Sarah Aaronsohn, a member of the pre-state underground, Anne Frank, and Hannah Szenes. But representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community balked at naming streets after women. The “compromise” was that only the women’s surnames would be used, so the streets will be called Aaronsohn, Frank and Szenes streets. To create the impression of equality, the first names of the men after whom streets were to be named were also dropped.

In her book, “The Invisible Women,” Estee Rieder-Indursky describes the increasing exclusion of women in Haredi society, which goes as far as totally erasing their images. This is a backlash of the ultra-Orthodox establishment against the rising power of ultra-Orthodox women, who are today far more educated and capable of earning a living than their yeshiva student husbands. Rieder-Indursky describes how women who work as journalists in Haredi newspapers have to publish their articles under men’s names. When she insisted on having her own name appear, she was fired.

Women’s names are increasingly being deleted in other realms too. Even in wedding invitations, the names of the bride and the mothers on both sides are often not specified, only the names of the groom and the fathers.

This erasure of female existence has no basis in Jewish law or tradition, Rieder-Indursky explains. Nor was it the policy of even the most extreme circles in Haredi society, until recently.

But with Haredi women working and earning more than ever and liable to demand recognition and status, they are being diminished and silenced by their symbolic exclusion from public discourse. Now even their names are being deleted. And now this insanity of exclusion has reached the names committee in Beit Shemesh, demanding that the people dwelling in Neve Shamir not be aware, God forbid, of the existence of such women as Anne Frank, Hannah Szenes and Sarah Aaronsohn. Recognizing the value of such women might encourage girls to adopt them as role models, and they might, God forfend, start thinking of themselves as bold, autonomous human beings who formulate their own worldviews and lifestyles.

That is exactly what the ultra-Orthodox representatives are achieving: preventing the existence of impressive woman from becoming common knowledge lest they serve as examples to future generations.

Up against the militant Haredi leadership is, as usual, a herd of stuttering and defeatist public representatives, who for the sake of quiet, accept every injustice and call it a “compromise.” But it is not a compromise. Deleting women’s first names from street names is a shameful surrender to the dictates of Haredi fundamentalism.

It is their first names that testify that they are women: the surnames are patriarchal. Aaronsohn Street gives no indication that a woman named Sarah bravely endured torture and took her own life lest she betray her comrades in the underground. Even people who recognize the historical significance of the name Aaronsohn might not immediately associate it with Sarah, but with the Zionist activist Aaron Aaronsohn, her older brother. Moreover, because most of the streets are named after men, albeit with no first name, the public will likely assume that the Aaronsohn, Szenes and Frank are also men.

The dissembling of the Beit Shemesh municipality makes a mockery of true equality.

The shameful “compromise” of the Beit Shemesh names committee is no different from the “compromise” in which the government raised its hand against the right to demonstrate, one of the core freedoms in a democracy.

In Beit Shemesh they yielded on women’s first names and as a fig leaf, also removed the men’s first names, but managed to undermine the effort to make women part of the collective consciousness.

Similarly, the Israeli government “balances” the restrictions on the number of participants in a demonstration and their location by imposing parallel restrictions on the freedom to worship. But as we know, one can pray anywhere as long as a quorum (of men, of course) can be assembled; no one would think of forbidding the assembly of 10 men. But as High Court of Justice rulings have stated, to demonstrate effectively against the government, one needs a large number of protesters, and the demonstration must take place in a properly symbolic place, like in front of the Knesset or the prime minister’s residence. And that’s precisely what the government has banned.

So the Beit Shemesh municipality’s shameful capitulation to the jihadi demand to exclude women from the public square isn’t a marginal issue at all; it is another surrender of liberal democracy’s core values at a time when it is under attack from all sides. The Movement for Quality Government did the right thing when it petitioned against the government’s and Knesset’s attack on the freedom to demonstrate. Now we must hope that the Israel Women’s Network or some other civic group will sue the municipality of Beit Shemesh.

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