Let’s fight women’s oppression without demonizing ultra-Orthodox

The struggle against women’s oppression is one thing, but painting an entire group as barbarians in the name of ‘enlightened’ ideas is another thing. 

About 30,000 Ultra-Orthodox came to anti-draft rally (Oren Ziv / Activestills)
About 30,000 Ultra-Orthodox came to anti-draft rally (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

One can argue over whether asking a woman to move seats so that an ultra-Orthodox man does not have to sit beside her is a legitimate request. Clearly, the trend to remove women from public spaces has to be resisted. But to characterize this confrontation as “the war between light and darkness” is wrong.

The incident in question, which took place on El Al flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv was seemingly minor: a flight attendant asked an adult woman to upgrade to a better seat because the person who was to sit in the adjacent seat, a Haredi man, would not agree to sit next to a woman. The woman acquiesced and moved elsewhere. Despite this, the woman later decided, with the help of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, to sue El Al for gender discrimination. That’s when the story made headlines.

The exposure given to this story is not altogether surprising: it is firmly rooted in the attitude in which the “sons of light” are fighting a war against the “sons of darkness,” which the Israeli media loves to parade in connection with the ultra-Orthodox. How does one construct such a polarizing narrative? It’s simple. First of all, one publishes details about the poor woman who was asked to surrender her seat in order to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox man. Haaretz and The Marker chose to translate and publish the New York Times report, according to which Rina Rabinowitz is “a retired attorney who holds a doctorate in educational psychology, and who in her youth escaped the Nazis along with her family.”

It is not clear how her academic degrees and the fact that she escaped Nazi horrors are relevant to this story. “I am a mature and educated woman, I traveled the world,” Rabinowitz says about herself, as if it would have been less shocking had the woman in question been a small-town shopkeeper. Perhaps this is why the lawsuit, an insignificant affair, turns into an “intellectual, ideological and legal issue.”

But since one needs more substance to justify the article, we are talking about a “phenomenon” — a real epidemic. The ultra-Orthodox refuse to sit next to women, delay flights, and suddenly there is news about an ultra-Orthodox man creating a disturbance because the movie shown on the plane is not modest enough. These Haredim have become real airborne pests.

Struggle for equality or demonization?

Not surprisingly it was the “Reform Center for Religion and State,” which belongs to the Movement for Progressive Judaism, that took up Rabinowitz’s case. Strangely enough, a short while before the report purporting to expose a mass phenomenon was issued, there was talk among the people at the center according to which they had been waiting for around two years for such a case to pop up in order to sue El Al. For two years they had laid in ambush until they ensnared a woman who, of her own free will, agreed to move to a different seat and let a Haredi remain in his.

It is important to note that the Reform movement has for years been engaged in a praiseworthy, arduous struggle to broaden recognition of the Jewish religious spectrum beyond the secular-Orthodox dichotomy. This struggle is nothing less than a fight for shaping Judaism in Israel — a fight for which the Reform movement deserves appreciation and support. One aspect of this struggle is a categorical rejection of the scandalous removal of women from public spaces, often by ultra-Orthodox elements. Needless to say, this also is an important battle.

However, one often senses that, alongside the genuine engagement in advancing the rights of women and shaping Judaism, this struggle is based on sentiments of “the civilized aiming to enlighten the primitive.” This attitude diverts attention from the main battlefield where the struggle should be fought, namely breaking the monopoly on Judaism that the state itself has given to the ultra-Orthodox. Instead, this attitude marks every individual in the Haredi community as a target. Moreover, one gets the impression that for many on this side of the barricade, the objective is not to create a level playing field, but rather to instill their version of “enlightenment”in the Haredi community, often by demonizing its members.

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, MK Stav Shafir (Labor), MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) (left to right) at the Western Wall, March 12, 2013 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, MK Stav Shafir (Labor), MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) (left to right) at the Western Wall, March 12, 2013 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

For example, in an interview on the popular talk show “London and Kirschenbaum,” Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform Center for Religion and State, claimed that the anonymous Haredi man told the flight attendant: “I want you to kick her out of here” — words which he allegedly directed at Rina Rabinovitz. Does Hoffman have solid proof that this was indeed what the man said, or is it Hoffman’s attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox that made her ascribe this verbal abuse to him? Would it not be equally reasonable to assume that the man asked respectfully and politely to arrange for alternative seating for himself?

In the course of this conversation Hoffman asked host Yaron London how he would react if he were asked to move to a different seat because his prospective neighbor refused to sit next to a Jew. So our anonymous Haredi man has now been turned into a bonafide anti-Semite. In the many discussions swirling around this topic I saw many variations on this theme: what if he refused to sit next to a black man? To a homosexual? To a Jew?

To me, these parallels are proof of ignorance, to say the least. There is indeed a worrying trend of marginalizing women in Haredi society (although, let’s not be naive, these trends exist in the secular community as well and indeed in any community). But it is absurd to compare the position of a woman in the Haredi community to the status of a black person in the eyes of, say, the Ku Klux Klan. Such a comparison negates, for instance, any possibility of a deep connection based on friendship and mutual respect between members of a Haredi couple.

‘Tolerance’ is not a dirty word 

No doubt, there is an ongoing struggle against restricting women in public spaces, a struggle which must include all segments of our society. And there is also no doubt that the ultra-Orthodox themselves contribute to this reality. In this context it is important to mention the brave Haredi women who fight this phenomenon from within their own community. It would behoove us all to defeat backwardness and obscurantism first and foremost in our own circles before embarking on crusades to enlighten others.

But this struggle must by no means turn into a “battle of the sons of light against the sons of darkness.” It must not crudely obliterate the basics of human interaction like respect, tolerance and being mutually considerate. This battle must not be turned into a proselytizing campaign against the unenlightened “other.” I cannot but recall another one of Hoffman’s inappropriate remarks: “The Americans brought us equality, and the Moroccans brought us the Mimouna festivities.” She immediately realized how harsh this statement was and hurriedly apologized, but she would not have said these things had she not felt a sense of moral superiority and enlightenment vis-a-vis the backwardness of the other, the ignorant, the one in need of special education.

So it could be that I am not progressive enough for Hoffman and people of her ilk. But whenever a Haredi man enters a service taxi and the only available seats are next to women, I do not try to educate and enlighten him — I move elsewhere to allow him to sit down. What can I do, I’m primitive.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Newsletter banner