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Israeli society, ultra-Orthodox torn over gender separation

The issue of gender separation is not only an area of disagreement between the ultra-Orthodox and secular society in Israel, it is also a raging debate within ultra-Orthodox society itself.

On the night of Aug. 14, by time the Israeli Supreme Court cited purely procedural grounds in overturning a district court ruling that allowed the separation of men and women at a musical event in Afula, the star of the evening, the popular Hasidic singer Motti Steinmetz, had already won over his audience and sung his last song. The men in attendance had sat in the center aisles and even danced, while the women sat quietly off to the side. It was just as everyone there had wanted it.

Apart from enjoying the singer’s voice, the concert-goers had also felt an air of victory. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri expressed this best when he took to the stage and announced, “I allow myself to recite the blessing, ‘Who has kept us alive and sustained us and caused us to reach this time.’ Common sense won out. The ones who tried to force their concepts on us have lost today.”

At the same time, it was obvious to everyone that the fight over gender segregation — not only at music events, but also on buses, at the post office, on campuses and on the street — is far from over. The evidence can be found in part in an opinion by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt asserting that voluntary gender separation is permissible and that there may even be certain circumstances in which local authorities can host an event for the ultra-Orthodox community and allow gender separation.

The debate over gender segregation itself is more than a disagreement between the ultra-Orthodox and secular society in Israel. It also rages within ultra-Orthodox society itself. The question is whether government intervention in issues that the ultra-Orthodox consider to be an internal matter will create a new reality or whether it will lead those advocating gender segregation to adopt even more extreme positions.

Avishai Ben Haim, a commentator on ultra-Orthodox affairs for Channel 13 News, believes that the minute something becomes a norm, there is no turning back. “Once it has become a custom, it can’t be changed,” he told Al-Monitor. “Separate concerts are already a reality. So are separate buses. Today, separation is being introduced in visits to the tombs of saints. That used to be something that the whole family could do together, but now there are barriers and separation by gender. There is less interest [by the media] in things like that.”

Ben Haim claims that the State of Israel is making concessions to the ultra-Orthodox elites in the name of liberalism and pluralism while ignoring the impact this could have on Judaism in general. “Showing support for ultra-Orthodox extremists is translated into causing harm to more moderate ultra-Orthodox groups as well as moderate religious groups and the [traditional] Mizrahi community,” Ben Haim said. “If Israel chooses to make these concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, the issue is no longer limited to the internal ultra-Orthodox arena. It quickly becomes the norm, in the army and elsewhere, leaving the more moderate ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi communities no option but to adopt that norm. The fact that there are now ultra-Orthodox families that go canoeing on the Yarkon River and elsewhere can be attributed to the secular State of Israel. The moderate ultra-Orthodox communities do not know how to defend themselves, and the extremist dynamic continues unabated.”

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Influential women in ultra-Orthodox society claim that the state is interfering in matters that are part of the consensus, as far as they are concerned, while avoiding issues that they consider far more important, like education and the integration of ultra-Orthodox women in politics.

Adina Bar-Shalom, an Israel Prize winner and daughter of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder and spiritual leader of Shas, told Al-Monitor that there were no walls or barriers between men and women at her wedding or at the weddings of her brothers. Her father did not forbid women from singing. Bar-Shalom also noted that as such events grew and became less intimate, Rabbi Yosef agreed that there should be separation, so the women could feel free to dance.

“There is a difference between a concert and a bus,” Bar-Shalom said. “There are some places where the state should intervene. Jewish law forbids women from dancing in front of men. That’s one thing. On the other hand, when some members of the ultra-Orthodox community want their children to learn the core curriculum at school, and others fight against it, with the result that our boys do not learn the core curriculum, it is incumbent on the authorities to intervene. As for attempts to impose gender separation on sidewalks, buses or the line at the post office, those are unacceptable too.”

One person who is well aware of the increasingly extreme position on gender segregation in the ultra-Orthodox community is Esti Shushan, founder and general manager of Nivcharot (The Chosen Women), a movement dedicated to winning ultra-Orthodox women representation in the Knesset. Shushan told Al-Monitor, “This kind of extremism can be seen in all sorts of places: separate sidewalks, separate buses, etc. There are even separate lines at the post office and supermarkets. I am decidedly opposed to all that. I see it as a reaction. The more the ultra-Orthodox community opens up, becomes more involved, and allows itself more, the more the gatekeepers try to stand in the way of the breach. The more the ultra-Orthodox community allows itself more mixed events, the more intense the religious reaction is to build the walls higher.”

As an example of how complicated the issue is becoming, Shushan noted that until now, Steinmetz had only performed in front of men. He would not perform before a mixed audience of men and women. In other words, the concert in Afula was itself a shift. She added that the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties are fighting to host such events, despite the religious rulings of quite a few influential rabbis in opposition, is important in and of itself.

Shushan calls on non-Orthodox groups that want to work on behalf of ultra-Orthodox women to cooperate with other forces in the community, rather than trying to go over their heads. “Those groups would not go to Arab villages where women are excluded from activities without first communicating with the community itself,” she stated. “In our case, however, anything goes. It’s infuriating. It certainly creates a lot of antagonism.”

Sari Roth, an ultra-Orthodox woman who works as a commentator for the ultra-Orthodox website Haredim 10, has a different opinion. She sees excessive intervention by the courts in her community’s affairs as the problem. “Our concerts have always been gender-separate,” Roth told Al-Monitor. “That’s what the ultra-Orthodox community wants. I live in Modi’in Illit, a very ultra-Orthodox town [on the West Bank], and there is no comprehensive separation by gender on our buses. There are two or three seats on the bus reserved for men, but there is no coercion, and families can sit together on the rest of the bus. I think we are moving away from David Ben Gurion’s vision of a state that would be both Jewish and democratic. Back then, the Supreme Court did not try to interfere in the internal affairs of minorities.”

The courts, the Attorney General’s Office and social organizations involved in gender-segregation issues face a dilemma. Any action or decision they make will unleash a firestorm. Meanwhile, politicians will try to take as much advantage of the situation as possible, with each one pulling in his or her direction. Obviously, any measure that totally bans gender separation or one that fully accepts the ultra-Orthodox demand will escalate tensions. At the end of the day, for the sake of co-existence, Israelis will have to find a compromise that allows the ultra-Orthodox to live and enjoy life the way they choose and believe, while also clearly defining an acceptable norm in the state of Israel for the rest of the society that doesn’t neglect to set straight those un-negotiable red lines.

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