The state of Israel claims to be a democracy and an outpost of freedom in the Middle East, a claim that isn't borne out by the facts on the ground. Aside from the crimes committed against the Palestinian people and the ongoing apartheid and oppression which the state employs in its drive for a Jewish "democracy" other forms of racism and discrimination are endemic.
When it comes to gender discrimination in Israel many point the finger at the religious beliefs of the Orthodox. Care needs to be taken in painting the Orthodox with a broad brush. There are many gradations of observance within the Orthodox community, going from the more moderate to ultra-Orthodox hardliners. Importantly it is the government and officialdom that too often fails when it comes to the rights of women, particularly in the public sphere.
Although segregation occurs on Israel's bus service Egged, it isn't officially enforced. This isn't good enough for a group of ultra-Orthodox millionaires who are looking to fund a private bus line that would enforce strict segregation. The service would be provided in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, notably Beit Shemesh and Ashdod.
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 Rosenblit complied with his orders. A policeman who got involved asked Rosenblit to accommodate the Haredi man's request. When she refused to do so, the Haredi man got off the bus in protest.
The UK Independent reports that during a recent festival in a Jerusalem neighborhood, Haredim erected a screen to force the segregation of men and women on the street. The Independent article also said that during a local election last week ultra-Orthodox men attempted to prevent women from voting by screaming at them.
Segregation is also an issue in some schools. Haaretz recently reported on measures undertaken by a high school in Herzliya to segregate students by gender.
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. In an ironic comment one sign read "women are inferior." A student asked the principal if girls would be permitted to sing any more... a concern that isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. In the military, religious soldiers have gone so far as to refuse to attend ceremonies in which female soldiers were scheduled to sing.
Billboards bearing the female form aren't safe either. Some advertising companies have opted to keep female images off billboards, buses and other venues in Jerusalem out of concern that they will be vandalized.
While the ultra-Orthodox have been at the forefront of news reports dealing with discrimination against women, the state itself has been far too accommodating - 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 good points when addressing 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 encountered by Rachel Azaria - an Orthodox woman who is 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."