Israeli Liberals, Start Listening to Religious Feminists

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Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman holding a sign from Beit Shemesh that directed men and women to separate sidewalks, 2017
Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman, who chaired the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women at the time, holding a sign from Beit Shemesh directing men and women to separate sidewalks, 2017.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

How is it that after a series of victories in the struggle against women’s exclusion over the past decade, the past year finds us in regression? I believe the primary reason is that we have lost the support of various populations in Israel for the struggle against exclusion.

That’s because unlike the period of victories, in which the discourse about women’s exclusion was based mainly on what can be dubbed “real life,” recently the language of the struggle has changed and become much more focused on liberal concepts. And liberalism, it seems, doesn’t speak to the mainstream of Israeli society.

At the start of the battle against women’s exclusion, more than a decade ago, it was hard to put together a coalition to oppose it. The religious and traditional communities weren’t with us, nor were many secular liberals – either because their take on multiculturalism made such opposition seem paternalistic, or because the struggle focused on cities where there were relatively few secular residents, like Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, which many claimed were lost causes.

As a result, the ones who led many of the struggles against women’s exclusion were mainly religious feminists, who feared that the escalation of this issue in the ultra-Orthodox community and in the shared spaces would penetrate their own communities and influence their lives. Since this was the case, very few of the arguments made were liberal ones focused on “hard-core” rights.

Take for example the struggle against gender-separated buses, in which women were expected to sit in the back, one of the central struggles in its time. Several arguments were made, first and foremost that there were no bus lines that were really Haredi-only, since Jerusalem isn’t homogeneous.

We noted that many buses to the high-tech area of the city had gone gender-separate because these buses continued to adjacent Haredi areas. As religious-Zionist women we also argued that every step toward extremism in the Haredi community affects us quickly, as we saw when our children’s textbooks were suddenly devoid of women’s pictures.

As the bus struggle continued, Haredi women began to call us to offer moral support. I asked them why they objected to separate buses, and they explained how difficult it was for them to sit with all the children in the back, and that the nausea associated with pregnancy was worse there. One woman told of how her 10-year-old son sat his five-year-old sister in the back, while he sat in the front, and she cried for the entire ride. In other words – real life.

I would tell these real-life stories during every interview. We also spoke about rights, but in language that was relevant to those groups that don’t necessarily agree that men and women are always equal, and those who believe that it’s legitimate to demand “consideration.”

The liberal discourse about rights and freedoms is relevant to only certain groups in our country, not to all of Israeli society. It’s harder for supporters of gender separation to contend with real-life arguments. That’s how we won over public opinion.

Nowadays Israeli secular liberals generally oppose the exclusion of women, but the language of the struggle has become completely liberal, dealing with rights, equality and freedom. As a result, we are losing the support of large groups, since those who support exclusion are now also talking about “rights,” like “the right not to see or hear women.”

At the same time, they’ve also learned to use real-life language. The story repeatedly told over with regard to the performance by singer Motty Steinmetz in Afula was of a boy who had waited all summer for the only concert he’d be able to enjoy, and how those feminists wanted to take even that away from him. It was an argument that played well; who wouldn’t want to give an upset little boy a hug and tell him not to cry? Suddenly the demands to be “considerate” sounded legitimate.

To once again score achievements in the struggle against women’s exclusion we must go back and stick to arguments that generate empathy, and there are plenty of those.

For example, when there was a demand for separate hours for boys and girls at municipal libraries, Haredi women argued that such separate hours would do harm to children of divorced women and orphans, since little girls would have to give up going to the library if they had no mother to take them, and boys, if they had no father. Like the story of the Haredi boy who wanted to go to the concert but couldn’t, separation opponents can tell about the children of the divorced or widowed who are unable to attend separate-gender events, or of the Haredi girl who watches as only her brothers get to go to things because in her city these events are for boys only; or about the heavily pregnant Haredi woman who hasn’t the strength to take her girls to the separate playground facilities, so they’ll just have to forget it.

These are arguments that every parent can identify with. The larger struggle is getting all Israeli citizens to identify with them, and to win it we have to return to the language that’s relevant to broad groups, not just to the secular liberal public. If we won a decade ago when the struggle was for Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, now, when the struggle is for the Israeli mainstream, it’s clear that victory is achievable.

Rachel Azaria was a Jerusalem deputy mayor and Knesset member and a leader in the struggle against exclusion of women.

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