There is nothing anti-Haredi about staying in your seat

The attempt to dismantle patriarchy does not necessarily imply hatred for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Rather it is an urgent task that extends to all spheres of daily life. A response to Orly Noy.

Jewish ultra-Orthodox women pray on a balcony in Jerusalem. (photo: Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)
Jewish ultra-Orthodox women pray on a balcony in Jerusalem. (photo: Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

My colleague Orly Noy, whose thinking and writing I greatly value, wrote an article entitled “Let’s fight women’s oppression without demonizing ultra-Orthodox.” After reading Orly’s arguments carefully, I found that I disagree with nearly all of them except perhaps the title. I do not support demonizing ultra-Orthodox Jews or any other group. But even my agreement with the title is qualified, since the issue at hand is everyone’s problem.

Orly was responding to a recent case of a woman who is suing El Al with the help of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), after she was asked to move seats so that an ultra-Orthodox man wouldn’t have to sit next to her. Orly felt that the incident is being exaggerated, treated like an “epidemic.”  She believes that  Anat Hoffman, a longtime activist for religious pluralism, and others opposing this practice paint Haredim as barbaric and anti-Semitic, while presenting themselves as enlightened. She hints that IRAC is using questionable legal tactics, and possibly provoked the woman to sue.

I don’t have the data to know whether the seat problem is a “phenomenon” or not. But I have been asked to move myself.

It was a few years ago, and I had a sprained ankle. Every move on the short business trip to London had been painful. On the return flight, I negotiated for an aisle seat, near the front – more stretching and elevation, less walking. Between summer heat, a crowded plane and the extra effort of shuffling through Heathrow with an injury, I reached my seat tired and grateful, settled in and closed my eyes. The stewardess tapped me. Would I trade seats? A Haredi man seated next to a woman somewhere wished to move, and I was sitting next to a man. For a second, I wanted to cry. It had nothing to do with feeling insulted as a woman or hating ultra-Orthodox. I just hated the thought of moving.

But like Orly, who made a case I generally support for simply being nice, my instinct is to be considerate and accommodating where possible. I reflexively said yes, stifling my overwhelming desire to stay put and dreading the cramped inner seat I was offered. As I began gathering my things, a woman in my aisle said “Don’t do it! Why should you have to move for him?” The man next to me, apparently her partner, looked indignant as he watched my discomfort.

Only then did it occur to me that I could also legitimately say no. Up to that moment, it seemed that to refuse would turn me into the bad guy. I moved. But I wondered why the burden of proof was on me to justify whether I was a good person or not. And had I just encouraged these chauvinist habits, rather than showing an act of kindness?

I huffed about it for a few days with friends, but let’s be honest; I wasn’t traumatized by that specifically. The daily burden of being a woman in a patriarchal, machoist, militarist society is much more exhausting.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather during a protest against their military conscription outside a military prison on December 9, 2013 in Atlit, Israel. Hundreds of Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested outside the prison following the arrest of a young man who refused to serve in the Israeli the army, September 12, 2013. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather during a protest against their military conscription outside a military prison on December 9, 2013 in Atlit, Israel. Hundreds of Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested outside the prison following the arrest of a young man who refused to serve in the Israeli the army, September 12, 2013. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

I am exhausted by the man who leered and sucked through his teeth at me while I was jogging last week; by the sexual harassment and professional manipulation I have experienced; by the all-male conferences, news panels and the fetishization of everything military in Israeli society. I am tired of patronizing condescension, male bluster, and fighting for a word in edgewise. I’m tired of being outraged that the most powerful men in the country, from the president to army chiefs, perpetrate sexual violence against the women who work for them — regular people without a fraction of their power.

No, I am not turning that one Haredi man into a rapist. But it is naïve to view his behavior as an individual issue; the man emerged from a culture that goes far beyond the ultra-Orthodox, in which women accept and accommodate male superiority.  To expect us to accommodate such a request as if we don’t bear these burdens all the time is unrealistic.

Of course, any system that drives women down is bad for all of society, not just women. And Israel has whole legal and social systems built on female inferiority.

The airplane switchers come from the same religious family as those systems, like the rabbinical courts that govern personal (family) law for Jews in Israel; this affects everyone — non-Jews too must turn to their religious institutions because Israel is intent on maintaining the ultra-Orthodox’s monopoly over Jews.

The most extreme among the ultra-Orthodox are also associated with men who spit on small girls for showing elbows, or who walk out on women singing and advocate segregated bus lines and sidewalks. Over four years ago, orthodox Jewish leaders and left-wing politicians alike rallied in Beit Shemesh against religious extremism. To forget that just a few years ago we were all up in arms indicates that once again we have let wars and elections distract us from any other burning social problem. The male-military opium has worked.

Rabbi Dov Lipman is confronted by ultra-Orthodox protesters while escorting girls to school, Beit Shemesh, September 2011. (Photo: Michael Lipkin)
Rabbi Dov Lipman is confronted by ultra-Orthodox protesters while escorting girls to school, Beit Shemesh, September 2011. (Photo: Michael Lipkin)

The quiet accommodation as Orly proposes is fine for individuals. But what should be happening is a cross-political alliance of all people who are non-extremist, religious, secular, Arab, Jewish or otherwise, who must cooperate in the definition of a shared civic space with certain ground rules. In that space, people who bear no relation to the values of gender segregation and subjugation bear none of the responsibility for them.

Haredim must accept that in the world they inhabit, they are free to practice their values in the private sphere, but in the shared space everyone has to make some compromises. An individual may ask a woman to move, and she may accept or refuse.

But as the symbolic national airline (although now privatized), it is disgraceful for El Al to accommodate gynophobia as a policy, as IRAC charges. That gives the seal of approval to the norm that a woman is expected to remove herself when asked. It is particularly insulting when we consider that in airline hosting, it is primarily women asking other women to collaborate in erasing themselves from men’s view. I shudder to think what these young women stewardesses must internalize.

The attempt to dismantle chauvinism in any institutional sphere is not an anti-Haredi screed, but an urgent task for numerous spheres of life. I simply didn’t see her examples as convincing evidence of demonization, but I was reminded of the attempt to brand anti-occupation efforts as anti-Semitic.

In fact, I was troubled to see other arguments in Orly’s piece that are characteristic of right-wing attacks on the Left. She hints that the action against El Al is tainted because IRAC had been seeking a potential legal precedent for some time. The Israeli Right regularly uses the absurd accusation of “lawfare” against human rights organizations, a bizarre notion invented to delegitimize the most appropriate and peaceful means of fighting injustice in a democracy. The Right accuses the Israeli Left of provoking Palestinians to demand their rights, as if Palestinians might never have wanted them otherwise. I’m surprised Orly chides advocates of gender equality by using tactics I believe we both reject when it comes to human rights and opposing occupation.

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Epilogue: I am not making this up. I wrote this response on an El Al flight to New York. As I was writing that last paragraph, a woman two rows ahead of me turned and asked a Haredi man sitting behind her if he would mind changing seats. She had a terrible backache, she said, and he had two empty seats in his row. They spoke quietly, politely; he told her something I couldn’t hear and stayed put. I felt sorry about her back, but also a certain satisfaction. I hoped that if this man ever asked a woman to move and she refused, he would accept it graciously like this woman just did, like a grown-up who doesn’t hold up flights as a result. His hypothetical gynophobia is no more the future woman’s problem than this woman’s backache was for him.  The only difference is that gynophobia is a pattern of a whole group, not one woman with a stiff spine.

While I was thinking these things, the man got up briefly and I leaned over to ask the woman what he had said. “He told me he really didn’t want to move even though he has two empty seats next to him. He says he paid for all three seats.” And that too, I suppose, is a perfectly acceptable solution.

Correction: An earlier version mistakenly referred to Anat Hoffman as a Reform rabbi.