Israel confronts its secular identity

Israel confronts its secular identity

Suddenly, it seems, gender segregation is everywhere in Israel – buses, army bases, Jerusalem sidewalks, Beit Shemesh schoolyards and, above all, the front pages. What is going on here?

Let’s start with the buses. In the late 1990s, at the request of some charedim, the Transportation Ministry created bus lines that served charedi neighborhoods and cities. On an officially “voluntary” basis, women would enter the buses and sit in the back. These buses were deemed legally permissible because Israeli law allows discrimination when it is necessary to provide access to public services and does not harm the common weal. All the fundamental questions (necessary? common weal?) were left wide open.

Next, we move on to Beit Shemesh, which has attracted growing numbers of charedim. They have joined the traditional but religiously moderate Mizrachi, who arrived when it was a hardscrabble development town, and the Modern Orthodox olim (immigrants), who began arriving from the United States in the 1980s. In Beit Shemesh, the charedi urban space abuts dissenting populations – religious Zionists and charedim from the United States, both of whom are anathema to the zealots (the latter because of their potentially moderating influence on Israeli charedi life).

Israel’s charedim are increasing in numbers (some predict they will be in the majority by 2030) and are no longer an enclave. Far from monolithic, they have have their own internal kulturkampfen, including from charedi women, who have made extraordinary educational and occupational strides. The response by some has been to send the women, literally, to the back of the bus – and push them out of view elsewhere. Thus, for example –

• The charedi-controlled Health Ministry has forbidden women to appear on stage at ceremonies honoring them. One case made headlines: A Hebrew University pediatrics professor, Dr. Channa Maayan, was invited to attend a Health Ministry ceremony at which she received an award, but was not allowed to go up to accept it; a man had to go in her place.

• There have been attempts to enforce separate hours for men and women in government offices.

• It took a petition to the High Court to get campaign posters for women candidates’ displayed on Jerusalem’s buses.

In conversation and on charedi websites, many charedim oppose forcible segregation and the accompanying violence. They have almost no collective voice, however, and no support from charedi leadership.

The recent furor over women’s singing in the Army come from a less obvious direction. Increasing numbers of IDF soldiers and officers are so-called “chardali” (and acronym for Charedi Dati Leumi, rigidly religious but belonging to the extreme right of the religious Zionist movement). Unlike the non- and anti-Zionist charedi mainstreams, the chardali participate in the military and favor the idea of the Jewish state, but reject its integration into Western culture. One element of their program is sexual modesty, or ts’niut – not only to prevent the public expression of sexuality, but also as a marker of national identity and a means of channeling romantic life in the direction of the sacred.

Both charedi and chardali countercultures seek to maintain the crucial gender divide while dissolving Israeli society’s boundaries between public and private, religious and mundane. Indeed, the surrounding Israeli society has been a key, if silent, player here.

Both the charedim and the chardali, seeking an ideology and identity distinct from the surrounding society, find in gender a powerful source of difference. Their excesses are a reaction to the freewheeling sexuality of secular Israel, whose socio-cultural norms are more European than American.

Moreover, until recently secular politicians and secular Israel at large have been thunderingly indifferent. These battles have been waged in court and elsewhere by lonely groups of feminists, Reform Jews, and moderate religious Zionists. They have been met with incomprehension by journalists, politicians, and other secular elites, who see the segregated bus lines simply as political spoils, the price of coalition politics, and do not understand that the nature of Israeli public space and civil society is at stake.

Americans may be astonished that Israel needs to debate whether women should sit in the back of the bus. In Israel, however, this debate, unwelcome as it is, can still be a good thing. Proponents of Israeli civil society, religious and secular, must demonstrate that they can mount a principled defense of their core values and their conception of the public sphere.