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Israel turns inward over role of religion

Ultra-Orthodox moves against women decried

 Women peeked through a curtain dividing men and women at an ultra-Orthodox wedding in Jerusalem. Israelis have been debating issues on the place of the ultra-Orthodox and women.
Women peeked through a curtain dividing men and women at an ultra-Orthodox wedding in Jerusalem. Israelis have been debating issues on the place of the ultra-Orthodox and women.Rina Castelnuovo/New York Times)

JERUSALEM - A few months ago, the Israeli Health Ministry awarded Channa Maayan, a pediatrics professor at Hebrew University, a prize for a book she had co-written on hereditary diseases common among Jews.

For the ceremony, Maayan wore a long-sleeve top and a long skirt in deference to the acting health minister, Yakov Litzman, who is ultra-Orthodox, and the other religious people attending. But that was hardly enough. Not only did Maayan and her husband have to sit separately, because men and women were segregated at the event, but she was instructed that a male colleague would have to accept the award for her because women were not permitted on stage.


Though shocked that this was happening at a government ceremony, 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.

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 - has erupted into a crisis.

And it is centered on women.

“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 in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

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 in the United States.

All of this seems anomalous to most people in a nation where five young women just graduated from the air force’s prestigious pilots course and a woman presides over the Supreme Court. But each side in this dispute is waging a vigorous public campaign.

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.’’

Religious authorities said liberal groups were waging a war of hatred against a pious sector that wanted only to be left in peace.

That sector, the black-clad ultra-Orthodox, is known in Israel as Haredim, meaning those who tremble before God. It includes many groups with distinct approaches to liturgy as well as to coat length, beard and side locks for men and different hair coverings for women. Among them are the Hasidim of European origin as well as those from Middle Eastern countries who are represented by the political party Shas.


They number 1 million, a mostly poor community in an otherwise fairly well-off country of 7.8 million. They tend to stay out of the normal Israeli politics of war and peace, often staying neutral on the Palestinian question and focusing their dealmaking on the material and spiritual needs of their constituents.

In other words, while rejecting the state, the ultra-Orthodox have survived by making deals with it. And while dismissing the group, have survived by trading subsidies for its votes. Now each has to live with the other, and the resulting friction is hard to contain.