In Israel, a religious clash over gender segregation

Judith Sudilovsky
12 January 2012
Jerusalem (ENInews). Should Israel allow segregation by gender in the public sphere simply because one religious group -- ultra-Orthodox Jews -- demand it? This issue has become a focal point as Israel struggles with its identity as a Jewish democratic state.

"This is taking us straight to the most important dialogue [for the country]: what kind of values do we want for our Jewish state?" said Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, in an interview with ENInews.

The ultra-Orthodox have until recently only imposed their rules regarding the separation of the sexes -- including separate sidewalks for men and women -- in their own neighborhoods, but they have begun trying to enforce those standards in other areas. They maintain the separation is necessary in order to protect the modesty of women and is mandated by the Halacha, or Jewish religious law. However, a prominent conservative rabbi, Eliezer Melamed, said in his weekly newspaper column that it is "optional" not "required" under Jewish law.

Alon Visser, 22, a Jerusalem resident who initiated a bus protest on 1 January against segregation, said the issue was one of "freedom in the public sphere and of religious coercion." He said that "there are certain values I want to see this country retain. I don't want to see this country turning into a fundamentalist bastion."

Several women have been exposed to verbal abuse in recent weeks as they refused to move to the back of an unofficially gender-segregated public bus. A young modern orthodox girl was spat at by an ultra-Orthodox man on her way to school in the town of Beit Shemesh just west of Jerusalem because he deemed her long skirt and shirt to be not modest enough, according to media reports.

Gender segregation has been illegally imposed on sidewalks where women are allowed to walk on only a certain side of the street and men-only public health clinics. Some public advertising campaigns have refrained from posting images of women in deference to ultra-Orthodox sensibilities. There was outrage among secular Israelis when a sole woman recipient of a Health Ministry award was excluded from the award ceremony because her presence offended religious sensitivities and when women speakers were excluded from a scheduled gynecological conference.

In response, women have held a "flash mob" dance performance in the center of Beit Shemesh, groups of "Freedom Riders" have ridden segregated buses, women have lent their image for an advertising campaign on private property and have held public "sing-offs" in protest of the growing extremism.

"People confuse the concept of multi-culturalism," said Laura Wharton, 49, a member of the Jerusalem City Council from the left-wing Meretz Party, who last week boarded a segregated bus in an organized protest. "It means you can celebrate whatever holidays you want ... It doesn't mean you can invent your own laws."

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