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Israelis should self-reflect before criticizing Haredi segregation

Before I begin, I would like to preface with a few points. First, I do not support the extremist religious elements in Beit Shemesh, as they have been recently discussed in the Israeli and international media.  And yes, I would call those engaging in the behavior as covered by Israeli Channel 2 (and translated by +972’s Ami Kaufman) as “extremist.”  They do not represent all of Beit Shemesh’s inhabitants, nor of course all who follow Orthodox Judaism, ultra or non-ultra. Second, I wholeheartedly object to the treatment of women in a manner that is any less than equal to that of men.  “Separate but equal” — a phrase used to justify the segregation of blacks from whites in the southern United States in the 1960s — has already proven to be an ineffective means of public life and policy.  Third, I am not a religiously observant Jew, though I do have a small handful of friends who became “ba’alei tschuva,” or “masters of repentance,” the Jewish equivalent (if you will) of “born again.”  Some are actually American Jews who grew up in Conservative-movement homes, then sought out “more” and got it from the Orthodox world.  One now lives in Beit Shemesh.   Fourth, I am a proud contributor to +972, a forum for wide-ranging perspectives on wide-ranging issues.  That said, rather than regurgitating what most of our readers would expect, I’d like to present a perspective that is different, both for the sake of argument and for reflection.

Engagement, not disengagement
It is very easy and rather convenient for those of us living outside of “that” world to condemn what is happening in it.  We see men who “dress funny” and “look strange” and we dismiss their values as unenlightened.  And we do so even without trying to understand them, without actually speaking their language.    I don’t mean the actual language (usually Yiddish and sometimes Hebrew), but rather the context in which their world is based, the framework in which they educating their youth, the vocabulary with which they raise their children, the religious customs that shape their days.  We approach our criticisms of their ways from the comfort of our own seats, from the confines of our own discourse.  And what is the result?  “They” — those who come from within that world — reject all of our criticisms because they are condemnations that come from the outside.  “They can’t possibly understand us,” they fight back.  The net gain of such confrontation is usually zero, proving this an ineffective means of engagement, or perhaps intentional, non-constructive antagonism.  For many in Israel (and many readers on +972), this approach is absolutely fine and quite convenient.   The ultra-Orthodox are an easy target.  But what are we really achieving?  Do we really think they will suddenly wake up and change their ways?  It’s naive at minimum and condescending at most.  If we are ever to get these people on board with our causes, we have to engage them in an actively product manner.

Disengagement can be both off-putting, and can eventually backfire.  In 2000, when I ran for student government at university, I was part of a coalition of students that believed in an all-inclusive approach to school governance.  We branched out to a number of people who held perspectives different than ours.  It was a liberal arts university, and each of us in this coalition could be described as politically-left, just like the slate we ran against.  But there was one big difference:  the other slate was considered “militant.”  Many students dismissed their ways as “radical,” as their approach often rejected anyone that didn’t confirm to their views.  And they were painted as the party that rejected engagement.  While in office, this political group organized a rally called “Take Back the Night.” Its aim was to raise awareness of rape and the general insecurity felt by women on campus.  Naturally, the university’s largest women’s organization — the Panhellenic Association (essentially, the umbrella body representing all of the sororities) — tried to participate.  Its request was rejected and its leaders were blamed for the problems.  They were told sorority girls were the reason there is rape in the first place.  Finally, after days of negotiations, the young women from the sororities were allowed to join the event.  But upon arrival, they were forced to march in the back, and effectively humiliated.  Yes, I understand those organizing the event — the people my coalition was running against — were fueled by anger, many of them victims of social injustices.  But in trying to change the world, they chose to confront it instead of engage with it, and their efforts repeatedly proved ineffective.  I’m not suggesting one should pander to others, nor lower his or her values.  I’m simply reiterating something my friend Alan taught me years ago: if you are ever going to convince someone you are right, you have to convince them you are right from where they are sitting, not from where are you sitting.  Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox behavior is more significant and relevant when it comes from within.  And if one understands the subtle nuance of that world, one will see that discourse is now happening.  It is a conservation that, in my opinion, is much more relevant to change than the disengaged attacks from the outside.

Take a look in the mirror
We must reflect and recognize the flaws in our own ways.  We criticize a culture that gawks at women walking down a gender-segregated sidewalk, yet ignore the objectification of women on our own sidewalks in Milan, Paris and New York.  We dismiss as restrictive the garments “their” women wear, and make no notice of the “liberating” fashion worn by “our” women.  Yes, this is a conflict of values, and we can’t deny the shortcomings of our own world approach.  It is repeatedly a criticism from “their” world, and one with a certain degree of validity.  So their strict adherence comes from a mainstream religion, while ours comes from capitalism.  Are both not coercive belief systems?  And while “their” ways have lasted — and been tested — for thousands of years, can we say the same about “ours?”  Before you dismiss the analogies, there is a point: we must look at ourselves, in our own language, before we look at others.

One more note about language
Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks in Afghanistan.  I was working with a young cameraman who was ethnically Uzbek and Muslim.  Somehow the issues of women’s rights came up and he told me that in Islam, women have more rights than men.  Intrigued by his logic, I asked him to explain.  He said that in Islamic culture, women have the right not to work, whereas men must work.  The more I argued back, the more I realized that our languages to broach the subject were totally different.   He wouldn’t be able to convince me,  just as much as I wouldn’t be able to convince him.

The blame game
For years, Israelis have united behind external threats.  They repeatedly cast their votes for security hawks who have promoted a military culture, both domestically and internationally, and  have exploited that image – that sense of fear – for their own gains.  Even if all of the Israel’s perceived threats are valid and based on truth, that doesn’t give the government carte blanche to delay the inevitable.  And as the general public allows them to go on and on, for too long, without demanding that successive governments provide immediate (even if one-sided solutions, the victim is domestic, social issues.  The tail is wagged by using a key word – “Iran” or “Hezbollah” or “Gaza” – and every other issue becomes secondary or ignored.

Promoting external threats is a tool utilized by governments to unite and placate their populations.   You may recall that before the “Second Intifada” began in September 2000, there were talks in Israel about a civil war, a split between the religious and secular over one hot, sticking point: whether or not El Al, the national carrier, should be allowed to operate on the Jewish Sabbath.  (It was not and is still not permitted to do so.)  So the Palestinian uprising begins, and voila, domestic tensions disappear.  The people are united.

But as these conflicts persist, internal strife continues to simmer beneath the surface.  We blame the politicians, but forget to blame the people who repeatedly put those politicians in office.  I’m reminded of last summer’s housing demonstrations across the country, and my conversations with some of the protesters.  They seemed surprised when I suggested that years of electing consecutive conservative politicians – based on security credentials – has resulted in those politicians bringing with them conservative fiscal policies.  Really?  People didn’t see that one coming?  The same can be said of this current situation.  The government is allowed to focus national attention on external matters, all the while allowing domestic priorities.   Only, one day, the water comes to a boil, as we’ve seen recently in Beit Shemesh.   No doubt this domestic crisis will go away, likely unresolved.  But only when an external crisis presents itself, or more realistically, is presented to us.

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    1. John Yorke

      That is an interesting analysis of the situation; one crisis overshadowing another, each seeking to dominate where the occasion demands and when the opportunity arises for it to do so.

      It seems, in its own limited fashion, to be a fairly successful technique, one that rapidly attains its immediate objective and allows those using it to retain great power and influence.

      What a pity that such a proven method has not been applied to the overall problems that daily confront Israelis, Palestinians and quite a few others in this world.


      If you really want to out-crisis all your problems, this might very well be the one way to go.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      My son is a Lubavitch chasid (I don’t think that there are many or even possibly any in the Beit Shemesh area).

      I sympathize with the sentiment of creating a community in which spiritual life is feasible, to be a noble effort, a very difficult effort.

      The behavior however of spitting or cursing at women, offends me. The defense of the behavior offends me.

      The theological implications of what that form of spiritual society entails, offends me.

      Someone could have said “We are trying to preserve our concentration. We appreciate the efforts at modesty that you have made. If you could do this as well, it would be even more helpful.”

      Rather than “you are a prostitute.”

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    3. Carl

      Your point about the external threat obscuring the internal one is spot on, but other than that, I find little to go along with. This line of argument is the embodiment of the post-modernist, ethical-relativism that plagues the left and cripples politics.

      Are women in the ‘West’ living with exactly equal rights to men? Categorically and obviously not. Is their situation in any way comparable to that of women in ultra-orthodox society? Again, categorically and obviously not. The fact that both experience inequality and are thus subject to oppression does not make their experiences comparable: not even remotely. When I see young girls aping models under the pressure to sexualise themselves it depresses me. But when I’ve encountered Pakistani girls who are not allowed to learn English, get a job, an education or socialise outside of their gender and family, it disgusts me. No amount of ‘engagement’, understanding, or self-reflection will make me more amenable to the men who do this to the Pakistani girls, and no amount of ethical-relativism will make me see the two examples as anything other than opposite ends of a long and dismal spectrum.

      So the good news is that language wasn’t at fault with the Uzbek cameraman (it still works when employed properly). Either he is incapable of logical thought or his moral compass is long broken. You were arguing for equality, and he against it. No amount of linguistic and ethical relativism will change that.

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    4. Rachel

      I think it is possible to criticise the actions of **those Haredim doing such things** as spitting or sweating at women, demanding women move to the back of buses and inciting discrimination and racism against Israeli-Arabs while at the same time maintaining respectful use of language towards haredim in general and respecting their desire and right to live an orthodox life in a way we do not understand.

      The problem, as I see it, is NOT with the existence of Haredim per se, its with the extremist actions of certain Haredim and mainly with the political power the Rabbanut is granted by the state. Remove that and they will come to resemble the Haredi communities outside of Israel who rarely bother other citizens outside their communities. Also remove the derogatory language used by most secular Israelis to refer to Haredim, which is entirely counterproductive.

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    5. Mikesailor

      To ask such questions and call for self-reflection places you as a child of the Enlightenment which is often a difficult place to be. For it requires you to use your own human faculties, ie. reason, and question the actions of the herd which almost always seeks the easy answers. For the past two-hundred years, women have sought equal political and social rights First came suffrage, then the right to own property in their own name whether married or not, the right to education and career opportunities whether such right is used or not, and the right to divorce if a relationship is deemed unworkable by them. Add on to this list the right to reproductive freedom and control over their own bodies and you can see where the battle lines have been drawn. On one side, many males feel uncomfortable because they have ‘lost’ their control over this ‘weaker’ sex. And their religious beliefs, born of what was truly a misogynistic culture and philosophy, leads them to deny their sisters, daughters, wives and mothers the rights they take for granted. For religion is not tolerant nor compromising. But it is an easy and comprehensive set of mores. And thinking for yourself is both difficult and can lead to an ostracism within your ‘community’. A perfect ezample would be Spinoza.
      A truly enlightened philosohy would be one based on the old adage: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you:. Yet, although such an adage is within all religious traditions, it is more honored in its breach and rarely practiced although it is the only sane method of governing society. Instead, people continue to redefine the ‘other’ as somehow not worthy to be granted the respect and toleration commanded. Therefore, women, Arabs, gentiles, Africans, ‘leftists’, rightists, haredi, non-haredi, Jews, etc. are always redefined as somehow not ‘worthy’. With the worldwide advancement of reason over ‘tradition’ as the ‘coin of the realm’, I am hopeful of their being a time when such a simple adage will be the prime ethos of society. You friend in Uzbekistan is on the wrong side of this trend, the rioting and intolerant, whether prejudiced against women or Arabs or anyone other definable group or persons, are also on the wrong side of history. For history is a tool which allows our human faculty of reason to draw lessons from the past, rather than a strait jacket which we cannot escape and dooms us to make the same mistakes ad infinitum.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Respectfully, I have to disagree with your assessment that anyone outside finds it “easy and convenient” to condemn the people who harass and verbally attack school children for their way of dress in the name of God. I think one of the biggest problem is the soft peddling the criminal, yes nothing short of criminal, behaviour of people who choose to behave in this manner. You are claiming that we don’t understand them because they dress differently etc., but their condemnation of school girls is based on their notion of what they consider immodest.

      I don’t give a fig’s leaf how these people dress. It is their choice to dress how they wish. What I do care about is that the Police, along with the Israeli government have pandered to these people, turned a blind eye to their behaviour and hold their actions above the law. If I was out harrassing school girls, I would certainly be arrested in short order.

      How can anyone prove themselves right by doing so from where they are sitting. It doesn’t matter where anyone is sitting, somethings are just fundamentally wrong. Attacking school girls, I believe, is one of those occasions.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Richard Witty

      Another irony of the fighting is that the groups that are vehemently objecting to absurd definitions of immodesty (a shirt that an 8-year old wears just below the elbow is immodest), include the vehement anti-Zionist factions, that are often applauded by those that seek to rationalize the illegitimacy of Zionism.

      Reply to Comment
    8. aristeides

      Haredi segregation is only one aspect of Israeli segregation. Israel is an officially segregated state, with the exclusion committees set up to reject anyone different, with the official assignment of housing to specific sectors, most often haredi.

      You mention the rejected US slogan “separate but equal.” In the US, of course, segregation is anathema. There’s a heavy irony in the fact that so many Jews, who were once subject to housing discrimination in the US, have moved to Israel so they don’t have to live near other Jews.


      Of course the US doesn’t have to be a model for Israel. If Israel wants to be a segregated society, and it thinks it can do this justly, who is to tell it No? I think of it as an interesting social experiment.

      But the real segregation problem in Israel isn’t discrimination against haredim, or non-haredim. It’s discrimination against Arabs. And in the case of Arabs, “separate but equal” has never even been attempted. There lies the problem with Israeli segregation. There is no commitment to justice or equality. There is only a commitment to the sectors with the most clout.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Yes and isn’t it funny the Israeli politicians who claim to be Zionists actually are the ones to pander to these nutbars.

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    10. “We criticize a culture that gawks at women walking down a gender-segregated sidewalk, yet ignore the objectification of women on our own sidewalks in Milan, Paris and New York.”

      Roee – your ‘we’ is in itself condescending. There are plenty of ‘us’ (I think you mean those not of the Haredi world) who do not ignore the objectification of women, who are concerned, affected and offended by it in whatever context; who are themselves subject to it on a daily basis and engaged in working against such objectification with whatever means they have.

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    11. alessandra

      actually i was thinking to what we call “the slavery of size 6”, and… yes, I still prefer that (in Milan, Rome, NY or elsewhere) than that of burqa or chador . just want to point out that I completely dislike the Berlusconi model of woman (almost naked, preferably silent and silly… and possibly prostitute), but we still have a way to choose. somewhere else, I’m afraid, not so sure.

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    12. don mac namara

      The allusion to women being subjected to conflicting fashion trends or sensible comfortable clothing is interesting . But it really has little to do with the vitriolic attacks of vehement sectarianism .( children being attacked , spat upon , being called prostitutes )
      The allusion concerning women being asked to sit at the back of a bus is more repugnant .
      But these occurrences are part of a binary system- – where one star is trying to pull itself away from the gravitational attraction of the other . This is not possible; yet the forces of detraction persist despite never being able to overcome the greater gravitational force .
      This is a story which I believe people with any sense of social justice anywhere would be quite revolted by.Nonetheless as so many things in the Middle East pivot on the political temperature and pulse ( and blood pressure ) in Israel this story has been syndicated internationally . I read it yesterday in Ireland’s Times
      There seems to me to be no condition whatever which could sanitise the development at the children’s school where it is alleged that the ultra orthodox Jews spat and insulted their more moderate cousins .
      But the fact that it is also suggested that this was viewed by the police with a benign eye because of Netyenyahu’s reliance of his smaller coalition party makes it all the more venal .
      By not speaking out clearly condemning this blatant offense by one group seeking to demonstrate their superior piety against a more laid back group of Judaism , Mr Netenyahu ‘s beheivour is tendentious at best
      We in Ireland too have felt the crushing blows to a brutalized society on the Northern side of our border especially ,though we have also witnesses some equally heinous acts in the South; We too went through a long incubation
      period before we established Statehood .
      Israel is unique in the Middle East. It is regarded as an open free society , with forbearance for the less committed religiously .When I first visited Israel in 1980 I found the people to be open and engaging ; as I was then serving as a medical officer with the Irish Contingent in Lebanon (UNIFIL) .
      They struck me as a people proud of their democracy and their struggle to get their Statehood .Over the years I made many friends among the medical community particularity in Rambam Hopfital ,Haifa , to whom we all in UNIFIL owe an immense debt .
      This story saddens me on a number of levels but most especially as it is reminiscent which occurred here in the North between the Unionists and Nationalists on the Island of Ireland .
      I appreciate that I’m only addressing one aspect of your argument . But I hope you can see my side from my place ; that religious or any form of sectarian partition foments more division and rancor in the end , and only defers the day of reconciliation

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    13. crowepps

      One thing you may have missed in the coverage (which is extensive since these issues have actually been coming up for over a decade now) is that many of the Haredi themselves feel bullied and oppressed by the ultra extremist Sikrikim sect whose vigilantes feel entitled to physically attack anyone in Israel whno fails to do things to their level of scrupulosity. The latest claim is that baby strollers offend ‘modesty’ if they are attractive or bright colors.

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    14. aristeides

      Crowepps – yes, a very interesting article. It reinforces the point that these zealots regard women as essentially unclean beings who should be eliminated to preserve the ritual purity of men. If only they weren’t necessary to serve as a respository of seed, a breeding vessel for a new generation of Jews, and keeping the kosher house.

      What the haredim need are monks.

      Reply to Comment