Chany Ma’ayan, a professor of pediatric medicine at Hadassah University Hospital, made headlines when it was revealed that when she was awarded a prize by the Ministry of Health, unlike the male winners of the same prize, was not invited to the stage to receive the award.
Though shocked that this was happening at a government ceremony, Dr. Maayan bit her tongue. But others have not, and her story is entering the pantheon of secular anger building as a battle rages in Israel for control of the public space between the strictly religious and everyone else.
The episode is causing Orthodox women, in particular, to express indignation at the growing extremism of religious men in public life.
“This was a public event involving a deputy minister of state,” said Dr. Hanna Kehat, the director of Kolekh, an organization of professional religious women, in an interview with Israel Radio. “This is an incidence of gross discrimination, which is prohibited by law and it is difficult to believe actually took place. We are advancing at a rapid pace toward Iran.”
At a time when there is no progress on the Palestinian dispute, Israelis are turning inward and discovering that an issue they had neglected — the place of the ultra-Orthodox Jews — and it is centered on women.
How has Israel reached this point? Among other things, ultra-Orthodox society, a minority within the Israeli population, has outsized influence in the nation’s political and partisan sphere due to the fragile coalitions that form Israeli governments, which often require kingmakers from minority parties. In addition, unsettling changes within ultra-Orthodox society are causing some to retrench.
And as Orthodox women demand greater freedoms, some young men too are choosing lives of interaction with the secular world, either through army service or through the labor force in the place of life-long religious studies.
“Just as secular nationalism and socialism posed challenges to the religious establishment a century ago, today the issue is feminism,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. “This is an immense ideological and moral challenge that touches at the core of life, and just as it is affecting the Islamic world, it is the main issue that the rabbis are losing sleep over.”
The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.
Public discourse in Israel is suddenly dominated by a new, high-toned Hebrew phrase, “hadarat nashim,” or the exclusion of women. The term is everywhere in recent weeks, rather like the way the phrase “male chauvinism” emerged decades ago here in the U.S.
I know it seems impossible in this day and age that women are treated with such disrespect and dishonor. Here in the U.S. we have waged our battles over discrimination and have made substantial progress. Do we have more work to do? Yes we do. Is it our responsibility to support our sisters in other countries? Of course it is.
The New Israel Fund, which advocates for equality and democracy, organized singalongs and concerts featuring women in Jerusalem and put up posters of women’s faces under the slogan, “Women should be seen and heard.”
Amen to that!!!
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