US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently criticized the growing exclusion of women from public life in Israel. Her timing couldn't be better given news reports of segregated public transportation, 'Mea She'arim' streets, the defacing of ads that show female models and even bizarre concerns raised in some Orthodox quarters about female public singing.
Secretary Clinton said the segregation of women on Israeli buses reminds her of civil rights hero, Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give up her seat to white passengers in the 1950's.
In previous posts on this blog I covered stories from Israel that deal with gender discrimination. They include a story about a newspaper that photoshopped a picture of the Israeli cabinet in order to erase women members and replace them with men. The story of a rabbi who tried to prevent women from running in local elections. Also the refusal by the Orthodox to publish photos of female Israeli politician Tzipi Livni in their publications.
Recent reports suggest matters are deteriorating on the Israeli gender front.
Although segregation occurs on Israel's bus service Egged, when it does occur it is in most instances a voluntary arrangement. This isn't good enough for a group of ultra-Orthodox millionaires who are looking at funding a private bus line that would enforce strict segregation. The service would be provided in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, notably Beit Shemesh and Ashdod.
Some Orthodox males seem to think they can impose their beliefs on women at will. Last week in Ashdod a woman named Tanya Rosenblit was ordered by a Haredi male passenger to sit at the back of the bus. The man refused to allow the driver to close the doors until Ms Rosenblit complied with his command. A policeman who got involved asked Ms Rosenblit to accommodate the man's request. When she refused to do so, the Haredi chauvinist got off the bus.
Segregation isn't just happening on the buses. The UK Independent reports that during a recent festival in a Jerusalem neighborhood, Haredim erected a screen to force the separation of men and women on the street. The Independent article also said that during a local election last week Orthodox men attempted to prevent women from voting by screaming at them.
Haaretz reported this week on segregation measures undertaken by a high school in Herzliya:
Students at a local Herzliya high school were startled by the large yellow sign hanging above their heads as they entered school on Tuesday morning. The sign called for the division between sexes in the classroom, forcing girls to sit on the right while boys sat on the left. Even a Mechitza – a Halakhic partition used to divide men and women in places of Jewish worship – was placed at the entrance to the school, in order to emphasize the notion of separation among the hundreds of students who attend the school.
School segregation in Herzliya
Some students and parents protested the move by the school with sarcastic signs and comments. One sign read "Women are inferior". A student asked the principal if girls would be permitted to sing any more.
In Israel female singing can set off the easily offended. In the military, religious soldiers have refused to attend ceremonies in which females were scheduled to sing. It has also been reported that they have refused commands from female officers.
Billboards bearing the female form aren't safe either from negative attention. Advertising companies have even opted to keep female images off billboard, bus and other venues in Jerusalem out of concern that they will be vandalized.
There have been reports of retailers being targeted by the so-called Mea She'arim 'mafia'. A Haredi group called Sikrikim have attacked businesses for not putting up signs requesting "modesty standards". The tactics have included window smashing, gluing of locks and the throwing of tar, fish oil and human excrement.
Discrimination against women is by no means a recent development in Israel. Nor can it simply be sidelined as a problem peculiar to those of more orthodox leanings. While its true that the Orthodox have been at the forefront of news reports dealing with discrimination against women, the state itself has been far too accommodating of religious values - often at the expense of human rights.
Frances Raday, a member of the UN human rights task force that deals with discrimination against women makes a number of very good points when addressing the issue of gender-based discrimination in Israel:
Since its establishment, the State of Israel has displayed an exaggerated degree of tolerance toward the phenomenon of religious values' overthrow of human rights values, and this includes trespass of the rights of women...
...there was nothing that stopped religious groups from believing that they are more powerful than the value of equality, and that they can apply patriarchal interpretations of Jewish sources holding that their views take precedence relative to the value of equality.
Ms Raday's analysis is borne out by the discrimination Rachel Azaria encountered. Ms Azaria is an Orthodox woman and a member of the Jerusalem city council. During the 2008 election campaign for Jerusalem city council, Ms Azaria as is customary, opted to post pictures of the electoral list she headed on Jerusalem buses. The bus company informed her that it was "forbidden" to show pictures of women on buses. She was told by the agency involved "No pictures of girls on buses in Jerusalem. Not a 3-year-old and not an 80-year-old."
Ms Azaria said in a Haaretz article that "This new phenomenon, and the system's willingness to capitulate to it, fills me with great fear for the position of women in the State of Israel."