Conservative Jews lead demonstrations for egalitarianism in Israel
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — Our celebration of Chanukah this week made the news reports coming out of Israel even more disturbing and ironic. Chanukah is the festival which celebrates Jews fighting for their rights against the Greeks. In Israel, Jews are fighting for their rights against other Jews.
An eight-year-old Israeli girl was recently spit upon and verbally assaulted by ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh because they did not approve of the way she dressed. Although Naama Margolese, who is in the second grade, comes from a modern Orthodox family and wore a long sleeve blouse and skirt which covered her legs to below the knee,
this was not sufficient for the “religious” men who terrorized her. Naama is now terrified to walk to school.
This unfortunate incident was but another in a growing number of attempts by Israel’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community to segregate, demean, and subjugate women.
This Wednesday, a female Israeli soldier was threatened and called a prostitute when she refused to move to the back of a gender segregated Jerusalem public bus.
During Sukkot, a Jerusalem synagogue erected a gender separating fence on the street in front of its property, despite the Israeli Supreme Court forbidding it. (The case was immediately referred to the Supreme Court. The court allowed the fence to stand this year but declared that it could not be erected next year.)
Women soldiers have been forbidden from singing in some Israel Defense Force ceremonies lest male religious soldiers be offended. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon said that if soldiers are ordered to attend events where women sing, “[The IDF] is bringing close the day in which rabbis will have to say to soldiers ‘you have to leave those events even if there’s a firing squad outside, and you’ll be shot to death.’” (Ha’aretz, 11/17/2011)
On Monday night Judy and I watched an NBC National News broadcast in which the Haredi growing demand for gender separation was featured. Frankly, it was embarrassing. It made Israel look more like Iran or Saudi Arabia than a modern democratic state. The reporter commented that Tanya Rosenblit’s refusing to move to the back of the bus was Israel’s “Rosa Parks moment.
Most Israelis, religious and secular, vehemently condemn the goals and tactics of the ultra-Orthodox. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minority Leader Tzipi Livni, President Shimon Peres, and many rabbis have taken strong public positions against the gender separation being forced upon the Israeli public by an aggressive and increasing violent minority.
I am proud that members of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel were at the forefront of demonstrations against the segregation and marginalization of women which took place in Beit Shemesh this week.
When I was ordained, the fight over women’s rights in the Conservative Movement was still being fought. I was one of the founders of the Seminary’s first egalitarian minyan. One of the first votes I participated in at a Rabbinical Assembly Convention was the one allowing women to become members. When I looked for a congregation, I only considered those that were already fully egalitarian. To this day, I almost never attend services at a congregation in which women are not allowed to participate.
I do not, however, believe it is my right or obligation to impose my religious point of view on others.
If Israel’s ultra-Orthodox want to observe gender separation in their synagogues, homes, and institutions, that is their privilege and right. Their rights stop, however, when they reach the public square. As TIS member Stephen Ghio said to me this week, if seeing women in public offends them, they should spend more time looking at their shoes than at that their neighbor’s dress.
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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