(Jewish Ideas Daily) — 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 Haredim, the Transportation Ministry created bus lines, serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and cities, on which women would enter from and sit in the back, on an officially “voluntary” basis. They 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, Beit Shemesh, which has attracted growing numbers of Israeli Haredim. They have joined the traditional but religiously moderate Mizrahim who arrived when it was a hardscrabble development town and the American Modern Orthodox, who began arriving in the 1980s. In Beit Shemesh, the ultra-Orthodox urban space abuts dissenting populations, religious Zionists as well as American Haredim who are changing Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy, both anathema to the zealots.
Israel’s Haredim are increasing (some predict they will be in the majority by 2030) and are no longer an enclave. Far from monolithic, they have they have their own internal kulturkampfen Haredi women have made extraordinary educational and occupational strides. The response by some has been to send them, literally, to the back of the bus—and push them out of view elsewhere.
The Haredi-controlled Health Ministry has forbidden women to appear at ceremonies honoring these same women. 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 women candidates’ campaign posters onto Jerusalem’s buses. In conversation and on Haredi websites, many Haredim oppose forcible segregation and the accompanying violence. But they have almost no collective voice and no support from Haredi leadership.
The recent furors over women’s singing in the Army come from a less obvious direction. Increasing numbers of IDF soldiers and officers are so-called “Hardali” (Haredi Dati Leumi). Unlike Haredim, they 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 tsniut — not only to prevent the public expression of sexuality, but also as a marker of national identity and a means of channeling romanticism in the direction of the sacred.
Both Haredi and Hardali 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.
Haredim and Hardalim seeking an ideology and identity distinct from the surrounding society find in gender a powerful source of difference, and their excesses are a reaction to the freewheeling sexuality of secular Israel, whose socio-cultural norms are more European than American. Moreover, secular politicians and secular Israel at large have until recently 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 constitution of Israeli public space and civil society is at stake.
In Israel’s early decades, the Mapai Labor Zionist establishment constituted both the state’s ruling body and its civic-religious center. Mapai, with its flaws, offered a governing ethos and a plausible interpretation of Jewish history and identity. Its political eclipse beginning in the 1970s, then its fissile social and cultural collapse in the ensuing decades, left Israeli society increasingly fragmented. One casualty has been the idea of a public, civic space, open to and shared equally by all. Major political parties lay less claim than before to representing the entire public and avowedly sectoral parties are growing.
In that respect, the public outcry galvanized by the broadcast of ultra-Orthodox thugs tormenting Naama Margolese is of a piece with last summer’s economic protests. In both cases, many people, particularly in Israeli middle-class society, who could choose to live elsewhere but who serve in the army, pay taxes, and still feel Zionism in their bones, have shown that they feel the common weal has been sold off in pieces—and that they want it back.
Americans may be astonished that we need to debate whether women should sit in the back of the bus. But in Israel, 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.
(This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.)