In a recent Haaretz piece, Prof. Rafi Walden attacks ultra-Orthodox education and that community’s attitude toward women. Walden cites Interior Minister Arye Dery’s call for lifting the ban on gender separation in the public sphere, and Dery’s argument that this ban amounts to mistreatment of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.
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“The question arising from this – another part of the exclusion of women – is: What is it about men and women in close proximity that drives the Haredim so crazy? What are they afraid of?” Walden asks.
Normally, Walden’s kind of article would simply make my blood boil, partly because of its patronizing attitude in purporting to know what’s best for the Haredi community and aiming to reeducate these benighted folks. (After all, truth and justice are obviously only found among secular and liberal people.) Also, there’s the ignorance in asserting that ultra-Orthodox men “feel compelled to reiterate and emphasize that they are at the center of existence, and to do this they must highlight the inferiority of women and exclude them.”
But in addition to my deep anger, I also feel deep pride in Haredi society’s traditional, respectful attitude toward women. At a time when more and more incidents of sexual harassment in various forms are coming to light, along with damning testimonies about men exploiting their positions of authority against women, the Haredi approach that insists on gender separation appears to make all the more sense.
I have no desire to allow the kind of harassment and hurtful behavior allegedly demonstrated by Alex Gilady, Haim Yavin and Tommy Lapid among others. The most efficient way to avoid a repeat of such grave occurrences is simply to prevent unnecessary mingling of the sexes. We can create gender-segregated workplaces, which can already be found in some of the country’s leading high-tech companies, where Haredi women can work without men present.
This is the courageous and right thing to do. It provides women with a work environment where they can feel safe and not have to fear any potential harassment or inappropriate behavior.
Contrary to the prevailing notion in the secular community, these aren’t ignorant or submissive women who “are forced” to live this way out of coercion and necessity. They’re intelligent, knowledgeable women with academic degrees who usually earn more than their husbands and support their families but prefer, from personal choice and outlook, a gender-segregated workplace.
Walden wonders: If the Haredim’s system works so well, why are they so afraid of temptations and the outside world? I believe the answer can be found in the question. The Sages say “ein apotropos la’erayot” – that is; no one is immune to the power of his sexual urges. Even the purest, most righteous person can “fall” and fail to overcome his impulses and end up committing a sin. The Sages also use another expression – “the greater the person, the stronger the inclination” – which explains why people at the top with lots of status, wealth, influence and power often fail to withstand temptation.
There’s good reason that the rabbis try to prevent such tests from the outset and don’t leave them for after the fact. To them, it would be better for men and women not to get into such trouble than to have to address it afterward (even if successfully). The Haredi approach has proved itself. There are fewer cases of harassment and thus fewer complaints arising from the mingling of the sexes, which is avoided from the start.
I am aware, of course, of the argument that this is gender discrimination and this conservative system is obsolete, unsuited to modern life and above all possibly harms women. But who’s to say which method is better – the one where the media gives us beauty pageants and sexist advertisements, or the one that conceals images of women?
Maybe it would be best to find the middle way, the “golden mean” that balances the two approaches. But as long as it has to be a zero-sum game – the permissive secular approach that ultimately leads to incidents of harassment or the Haredi approach that averts this possibility and sets clear boundaries – I proudly choose the latter.