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Photoshop Attack on Israeli Women Cabinet Ministers

April 20, 2009
N.J. Lukanovich

Two weeks ago, two ultra-orthodox Israeli newspapers removed the images of Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver from the recent photograph of Binyamin Netanyahu's new 30 member cabinet. The Tel Aviv based daily Yated Neeman moved two of the male ministers to cover up the women and Shaa Tova, a weekly paper, simply blackened them out. It would be screamingly funny if it weren't for the reality of limitations on women's roles in ultra-orthodox Judaism.

Mainstream Israeli papers had great fun mocking the incident, one headline from the Yedioth Ahronoth reading "Find the Lady." The reason for the removal of these female cabinet ministers is a thoroughly serious one from the ultra-orthodox point of view: images of women are a violation of female modesty. So immodest that campaign posters of Tzipi Livni, who nearly won the election running for the Kadima centrist party, were vandalized and defaced in areas near ultra-orthodox neighborhoods during the February election. The mere notion of a woman being in such a high ranking position in the public sphere is most definitely crossing the boundaries of decency, which is why the ultra-orthodox papers never mention Tzipi Livni's first name.

Luckily, for secular Israelis, the proportion of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel is small, a mere 8-15 percent. The views of the ultra-orthodox are nothing close to representative of Israeli society, but unfortunately, due to the system of proportional representation, this faction has more power in government than many would like when a coalition is formed by a right-wing party, like the one Binyamin Netanyahu recently cobbled together to form his government.

Tensions between the ultra-orthodox and secular segments of Israel's society have grown to the point that some neighborhoods are becoming pockets of conflict between those who cry foul at "anti-semitism" and those who fear "ultra-orthodox takeover." Many secular residents of Kiryat Hayovel, in southwest Jerusalem, are so fearful about the influx of Haredim into their neighborhood that a month ago several residents interrupted a prayer service of a few dozen Haredim in an apartment on Hankte Street. The Haredi tenant has permission from the American owner of the apartment, but the secular residents are upset with the makeshift synagogue and say they will interrupt services even if they are moved to another apartment. They fear the imposition of new rules for the neighborhood that would affect their freedoms and secular lifestyle, such as the ban of vehicular traffic on the Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

The dispute has gone to court and there is currently a temporary injunction against using the residence as a synagogue. The chairman of the Meretz city council list, Pepe Allalo, referred to Ramat Eshkol, a neighborhood that shifted from a secular character to ultra-orthodox. According to Allalo, all of the secular residents have moved from the neighborhood and he is concerned the same thing could happen in Kiryat Hayovel. One of the organizers of the prayer service, Haim Waldman, says they have been holding services for two years in various apartments and feels that it is a mere handful of secular residents that are trying to inflame the tensions in Kiryat Hayovel, stating the Haredim will continue the struggle to conduct prayer services in the neighborhood no matter what the decision of the court.

In Jeruselem there are 30 "mehadrin" buses which are not theoretically sex-segregated, but in practice women must sit in the back and enter and exit through the back doors. These thirty buses are not enough to please the Haredim and the rule is expected to be followed on many other buses. On November 24, 2008, a 50 year old American-Jewish woman, Miriam Shear, was attcked by Haredim for refusing to sit in the back section of the bus. She was visiting Israel for five weeks and traveled the same Egged No.2 bus every morning to pray at the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The bus is not one of the mehadrin buses, but nonetheless, it was segregated. Thinking perhaps of Rosa Parks, Ms. Shear sat in the front every time she rode the bus. She was admonished every couple of days, sometimes politely, sometimes not, until the day a Haredi man spat in her face. Like every good American woman who believes she should stand up for herself, she spat back. He then attacked her and other Haredi men joined in the fray. She was punched and kicked by 4-5 men until the bus stopped and she disembarked with the help of someone who escorted her to the police station.

The driver claims nothing happened, but she has a witness, Yehoshua Meyer, who says her account is entirely accurate and Ms. Shear has no intention of letting the incident blow over. She has been contacted by Shatil, the New Israel Fund's Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change; Kolech, a religious women's forum; the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy arm of the local Reform movement; and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). Her case may become part of a petition over the legality of sex-segregated buses that will be submitted by IRAC to the High Court of Justice against the Transportation Ministry.

Jews, Muslims, and Christians, like most religious groups or sects within the religions, have suffered oppression and persecution at different times in history and yet there are still adherents of all three religions that have no problem whatsoever denying women, persons within their communities, equal rights. All three religions (which are closely connected, Judaism being the first, Christianity the second, and Islam the third), were developed during times long before the belief that individuals have "human rights" came into existence. Men and women had duties and roles to observe and the roles of men placed them above women.

To varying degrees, followers of all three religions recognize the need for equal rights and reforms to give women equality have already occurred and are continuing to take place where needed (although it should be stated that this progress has tremendous opposition among fundamentalists). The biggest difference between Judaism and its offshoots, Christianity and Islam, is that it is not an evangelical religion, and so the resulting numbers of ultra-orthodox Jews compared to fundamentalist Christians or Muslims is miniscule, so small that the indignity toward women among this population is largely ignored.

But some in Israel are concerned about what Galia Golan-Gild, a professor of government at the Herzliva Interdisciplinary Centre, calls "the creeping religiosity" in Israeli society. According to Golan-Gild, "This sector simply does not believe that women should have a public life, or even vote." There are currently 21 women politicians in the 120 seat Knesset - the highest number of women to date.

In June, 2008, a girl from Beitar Illite was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem for burns after having acid thrown on her by an unknown man. The "modesty guard," a group formed to police modesty in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, was suspected of being behind the attack on the 14 year old, as both she and her 18 year old sister had been suffering harassment from the group for some months prior. On the day of the attack she was wearing loose fitting long pants and a short sleeved shirt, which is apparently not modest enough for some.

A secular woman living in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem was attacked in August, 2008, by a man police suspect was hired by the modesty guard. To view a video of an interview with the woman click on the Haaretz TV web page.

These are just a few examples of violent crimes triggered by misogynist beliefs of the ultra-orthodox communities in Israel - this issue is not one that should be dismissed simply because the number of incidents is not high enough to make it to the front page of widely read media.