Liberals, ultra-Orthodox battle over Israel’s public spaces

The debate over gender separation at a concert in Afula is an example of the ongoing struggle between liberal groups and the ultra-Orthodox, which are both trying to shape the Israeli’s public spaces according to their own norms.

al-monitor Visitors walk on down a path at a park in the northern Israeli town of Afula, July 13, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Rami Ayyub.

Topics covered

israeli politics, afula, gender segregation, segregation, equality, gender equality, secularists, ultra-orthodox parties, ultra-orthodox

Aug 22, 2019

 These days it looks like Israel is closer than ever to a culture war between two ideological groups: liberals and the ultra-Orthodox. In its most recent iteration, the conflict pits liberal groups headed by feminist organizations who opposed a concert in Afula with separate seating for men and women and the ultra-Orthodox, who insisted that the concert must have complete gender separation. Their stubborn rivalry highlights the gap separating these two groups, both of which are trying to reshape the public space in accordance with their ideals.

The women's equal rights law was adopted by the Knesset in 1951, but it is not fully implemented. The current public debate could revive the issue to shape the character of the state of Israel and respect all its communities. 

For the past few years, certain parts of the ultra-Orthodox community have been struggling to reshape public spaces in Israel in accordance with what they consider to be the values of a Jewish state. These disputes surround efforts to force total Sabbath observance on the public space and prevent the public sale of leavened bread before Passover, for example. The ultra-Orthodox claim that they are not trying to interfere with the personal choices of private citizens. Rather, they want to shape the appearance of the public space to ensure that it is in accord with what one would expect from a Jewish state.

In a mirror image of this view, liberal groups are now trying to force the ultra-Orthodox to adopt behaviors that are not in accord with their lifestyle. For instance, they tried to force Afula to host the concert without any gender separation. The ultra-Orthodox community is used to separation of this sort from a very young age. It is present in synagogues and at weddings — in fact, in any gathering that includes more than the extended family. Insistence on preventing the ultra-Orthodox from having gender separation of this kind in the public space, even if the only people in that space are ultra-Orthodox, reflects a desire to shape that space to reflect liberal values.

“There is a conflict underway over the nature of the country,” Esti Shushan told Al-Monitor. Shushan is an ultra-Orthodox feminist and activist and the founder of Nivcharot ("The Chosen Women"), a group dedicated to attaining political representation for ultra-Orthodox women. “Both sides are fighting to impose their ideology and beliefs on the public space. As an ultra-Orthodox feminist, I personally believe that the government must operate on the principle of equality and egalitarianism. I am personally active in promoting ultra-Orthodox women in politics and other centers of decision-making. I oppose radicalization and the ways that gender separation is leaking into new spaces. Nevertheless, even if it was women’s groups that led the fight in Afula, what they did was actually harmful to women, and to ultra-Orthodox women in particular.”

Shushan believes that there should be a balance between the conflicting sets of values so that the liberal struggle doesn’t turn anti-liberal. “There are all sorts of examples over the past few years, and especially within the Western world, where allegedly in the name of liberal values, anti-liberal steps are taken,” she argued. According to her, the fight against gender separation at the concert in Afula is “a disproportional struggle based on an attempt to shape a space to coincide with liberal values, even though that space is only of interest to the ultra-Orthodox community. The traditions of the community, which do not harm secular women, are being ignored. I tend to believe that there would be no such fight by outside forces against Muslim society in Israel.”

Attorney Edna Harel-Fisher, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, vehemently disagrees with Shushan. She told Al-Monitor, “Separation should not be enforced in the public space, even if the event is planned for the ultra-Orthodox community. Anyone who wants to organize an event where separation such as this is enforced can do so in private spaces. It is incumbent on the authorities to ensure that the public space is free of approaches that advocate gender separation.”

Harel-Fisher rejects the argument that this is a case of consensual separation. “When there is a component of coercion and the space does not allow for any other options, we lack the tools to know whether the decision made by some woman or other is the consequence of social norms engrained in her from an early age or a conscious choice. All we know is that given the current situation, that woman has no other option.”

Harel-Fisher expressed understanding for those European countries that act in favor of liberal values, though these moves are perceived by some as unliberal. Some European countries want to ban women from totally covering their faces in public spaces. She pointed to the ideological aspects of the issue beyond the security reasons that also motivate Western governments in such decisions. “It is a statement by the ruling authorities that they cannot allow such an extreme move that runs counter to the principles of equality and the freedom of women,” she explained. “Public spaces must be neutral. Municipalities must not take sides or allow coercion by one group or another if it infringes on the principle of equality.”

As far as Shushan is concerned, the fight being waged by liberal movements is predatory in nature and ignores the unique cultural fabric of groups other than their own. “To a large degree, those liberal movements are motivated by fear,” she said. “They are scared that separation at a concert for the ultra-Orthodox in Afula today will trickle down to them tomorrow. But the ultra-Orthodox are also motivated by fear. They worry that the ban on holding events with gender separation today will trickle down to their synagogues tomorrow. I can understand both sides. What I can’t accept is the idea of preventing religious groups from living in accordance with their characteristic habits and customs. The ultra-Orthodox child from Afula deserves to receive cultural services in accordance with his or her own lifestyle, just like any other citizen, as long as no one else is hurt.”

Harel-Fisher also sees it as a conflict between two opposing world views over the nature of the state. According to her, there has been a struggle over the nature of the Jewish state ever since it was founded. That struggle has intensified in recent years, "pitting the liberal Jewish approach against an approached expressed by certain groups within the ultra-Orthodox sector, among others. We are witnessing the same thing that happens in other countries, where non-liberal groups use pseudo-liberal arguments to attack liberal positions. In this way, they are assaulting the most basic principles of liberalism, such as human dignity and equality, while trying to advance a non-liberal approach to Judaism. Now, the liberal public is standing up and saying, “This has gone far enough.'”

Sociologist Sammy Smooha offered a more complex approach to the issue. “There certainly is a struggle over what society will look like, and that struggle is justified,” he told Al-Monitor. “I can understand how the majority — in this case, the secular community — can dictate what the public space should look like, even though I am absolutely prepared to accept gender separation in those places in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods with a distinctly ultra-Orthodox character.” Smooha said that it is a delicate balancing act. “For example, I support forcing the core curriculum on ultra-Orthodox schools, but I oppose changing their lifestyle in an abrupt manner by preventing gender separation at religious events, for instance. I oppose gender separation in institutes of higher learning, but I am prepared to allow the creation of ultra-Orthodox colleges with a policy of gender separation.” Smooha claimed that the approach should be flexible, with every effort made to avoid coercion.

If there is one thing that everyone can agree on, it is that the many different voices in Israeli society have gotten louder over the last few years.

“As a result of social changes, including the growing political strength of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the fact that the ultra-Orthodox are more involved in Israeli society at large, we are seeing more conflicts surrounding the very core of our joint existence here,” Harel Fisher said. “These debates are sometimes tough, but they are necessary. It is important to have them in such a way that they advance the common discourse and offer a basis for hope that we can reach understandings at some time in the future and enjoy greater social cohesion.”

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