Opinion |

Secular Coercion Under the Guise of Liberalism

This patronizing attitude by secular people, reflected in the assumption that women’s organizations and female MKs know better than any average ultra-Orthodox woman what’s good for her, is both arrogant and insulting

Israel Cohen
Israel Cohen
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A 'modesty sign' in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem on October 3, 2017
A 'modesty sign' in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem on October 3, 2017Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Israel Cohen
Israel Cohen

A clear line connects Haaretz’s editorial last week, which called for the High Court of Justice to overturn a provision of Agudath Israel’s bylaws that prevents women from running on the party’s Knesset ticket, and a tour of Beit Shemesh that the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women organized for Knesset members this week. The MKs went to Beit Shemesh to ensure that signs demanding gender separation had been removed from the streets in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

But by saying that a clear line connects these two events, I don’t mean that in both, the banner of liberalism was raised high in a battle for equal rights for women, the value of equality and an end to all discrimination. Quite the contrary. Both the demand that women be put on the party’s Knesset ticket and the well-publicized tour revealed a hidden desire to impose secular coercion and prevent the existence of religious autonomy, which seeks to defend its basic right to be governed by halakha, or Jewish law.

Both the attempt to intervene in the ultra-Orthodox party’s bylaws and the demand for removal of the signs in Beit Shemesh are patently anti-democratic acts, crude infringements on individual liberty and real violations of the rights of the religious minority. Jews in Beit Shemesh seek to uphold a halakhic stringency, i.e. “segregation,” in their own neighborhoods. Why is that a problem? Ultra-Orthodox Jews get together and form a party that will represent their worldview. Why intervene in their decisions? By what right?

Will they demand tomorrow that secular people or religious Zionists be integrated into Agudat Yisrael? Perhaps they’ll demand that Sephardim be placed in the Ashkenazi Degel Hatorah party and Ashkenazim in the Sephardi Shas party? Where do you draw the line?

As an ultra-Orthodox man, I could identify with MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) when he said the Knesset tour of Beit Shemesh was like “a tour of Umm al-Fahm by members of a far-right group.” With considerable justice, Eichler wondered how the chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women, MK Aida Touma-Suliman, would have reacted if a Knesset committee had invited Kahanists to an Arab city to check the noise level of the muezzins’ calls from the mosques.

I regret that Touma-Suliman, an Arab woman, chose – due to populism and headline-chasing – to prioritize one value she represents over another that’s no less important. Just as she seeks to protect women’s rights, she should strive equally to protect the rights of religious minorities.

It must be noted that most of the ultra-Orthodox community doesn’t like – and that’s an understatement – the gender separation signs in extremist neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh. Go to Bnei Brak or Jerusalem and you’ll see that things are very different there. Nevertheless, we must respect the right of even this extremist minority to preserve its unique way of life, its cultural character and its halakhic stringency.

The photo that accompanied Haaretz’s report of the Knesset tour showed ultra-Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh arguing with the MKs and representatives of women’s organizations. The ultra-Orthodox women said they themselves are interested in separating men from women, that this is comfortable for them.

This patronizing attitude by secular people, reflected in the assumption that women’s organizations and female MKs know better than any average ultra-Orthodox woman what’s good for her, is both arrogant and insulting. With holy wrath, ostensibly as part of a battle over principle, each of these feminist women is erasing the values of multiculturalism, which include respecting minorities’ rights to act in accordance with their own cultural definitions.

The High Court petition against Agudath Israel is just an attempt to coerce women’s integration, and like the obsession over gender-separation signs, it’s an unnecessary provocation and an attempt to forcibly control the ultra-Orthodox public square. If that minority of women truly wants to effect change, they should run as a separate party and see if they really get significant support. The real test is in the polling booth.

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