Ultra-Orthodox Bullies Must Be Fought, Not Ignored - on El Al Planes and Elsewhere

For too long Israeli society has kowtowed to the ultra-Orthodox abuse and violations of women’s rights. We must stop tolerating the chauvinist bullies and blaming women who speak out.

Secular women sit on a bus with ultra-orthodox men in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

Is there really an appropriate ‘solution’ to the issue of ultra-Orthodox Jews who insult women and inconvenience all travelers by delaying the take-off of flights, due to their refusal to sit next to women on El Al planes?

Anshel Pfeffer has proposed one: For offenses inflicted upon women by ultra-Orthodox men, he suggests that we women should all just ignore the problem – which will bother us less once we get to know and understand our Haredi neighbors better.

Besides the obvious practical difficulties of fraternizing with somebody who refuses to sit next to you, look at you, address you, acknowledge your existence, and avoid you at all costs, this tack has some other fundamental flaws.

Pfeffer regularly writes about Haredi politics. Therefore, he must be well aware that violations against women aren't confined to air travel, but that they are pervasive over a growing number of public institutions in Israel. We aren’t talking about one aberrant soccer fan, but an ideologically driven group with extensive political and economic influence that both rejects and cynically exploits our democratic system.

The suggestion to advise women to ignore misogyny is off target. Although the airline episodes may inconvenience some men, they invalidate women, sexually objectifying us against our will. It's no one's place to tell us how to react. It's no one's place to tell us not to take offense. In fact, that further invalidates us, and is just as insulting as the original offense. Women have struggled too hard for too long to improve our, as yet, still unequal status. It isn't anyone's place to tell us to submit to violations that threaten to take us backwards.

Years ago when ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were first built on the periphery of my home town of Beit Shemesh, I would regularly venture into these 'ghettos' to run errands. Back then, I had the privilege of meeting some wonderful, decent Haredi business owners, just as Pfeffer recommends. Unfortunately, I was forced to stop going. It wasn’t because I didn't want to meet my good neighbors. I stopped going because of abusive behavior directed towards me by an increasingly influential group of fanatics which was taking control of these neighborhoods and did not want non-Haredi women among them, even if they were Orthodox Jews – and that caused a considerable amount of vexation to the local business owners who felt they were powerless to resist the growing extremism.

As a woman living in Beit Shemesh, I've been exposed to a fair share of this abuse.  At first I ignored the spitting and cursing, but then the abuse turned to physical violence such as rock-throwing and even assault. In 2011, it turned into abuse against young schoolgirls - including my own, because that's what happens when you ignore bullies. They don't go away, they get bolder and intensify the abuse.

Exempting the perpetrators from taking responsibility for abusive behavior because they're under the control of corrupt leaders, as Pfeffer suggests, contradicts a fundamental principle of Judaism: That we are agents exercising free will and are required to take responsible for our actions, hence the most Jewish obligation for personal repentance. Moreover the offenders claim to be acting in the name of Judaism! They must be held accountable for their behavior.

But they are not the only people who are to blame. For too long Israeli society has kowtowed to Haredi abuse. Often this disregard to violations primarily against women, stems from political and economic convenience, backed by ingrained chauvinism. We didn't arrive where we are today out of a vacuum. Years of complacency and tolerance towards despicable behavior brought us here. Those who ignore abuse, or admonish those who don't ignore abuse – in or out of an airplane - are equally to blame.  

Nili Philipp lives in Beit Shemesh with her husband and five children. She currently works in patent law.