Innovation, activism and social change is how some Jewish feminists characterise their legacy for women’s liberation movements in general and Jewish feminist movements in particular. As key contributors to that legacy gathered in New York earlier this month, their direct and indirect influence was visible not only in the US where their work began but in Israel today too. There, in addition to the many secular and Reform Jewish women’s groups, there is also an increasingly vocal feminist trend within Orthodox Judaism.
Jewish American feminists of the 1960s and early 70s joined the struggles against racism and patriarchal authority in religions. In her blog on the gathering, Meredith Tax eloquently recalls how she began to question the sexism that decreed she was “too smart for a girl” as well as the racism she observed: “As I grew older I began to notice contradictions between precept and practice in the Milwaukee Jewish community, specifically in relation to black people. Milwaukee was and still is one of the most segregated cities in the country. I couldn’t understand why people in temple weren’t marching.”
Today, Israeli Orthodox Jewish feminists like Dr. Debbie Weissman are asking similar questions, keen to unmask the disturbing combination of racism, nationalism and sexism that is increasingly visible in Ultra Orthodoxy in Israel. Through groups like Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum, of which Weissman is a part, Orthodox Jewish women are reclaiming their religion and resisting fundamentalisms, just as for example Catolicas por el derecho a decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide) and Sisters in Islam are doing in their own ways in Latin America and Malaysia.
Weissman, who was speaking with AWID as part of a research project on religious fundamentalisms, is a founder of the Kehillat Yedidya Synagogue set up in 1980 in Jerusalem. “Ours was the first in Israel to say we are an Orthodox synagogue but we are going to try to push the envelope when it comes to women’s participation. There are now three synagogues that have gone beyond us. One of them was started by Dr. Tova Hartman. They are not fully egalitarian but they are pretty close.”
Kolech was founded in 1998 once a critical mass had been reached: “By then you had enough Jewish women who had not only studied Talmud but also taught Talmud so they really knew their stuff. The key is going to be when we have women who were taught by women who were taught by women,” says Weissman.
The contribution of American Jewish feminism was also important: in 1997, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance invited a group of Israelis to attend their national convention in New York. “We were very impressed. We said when we go back to Israel we’ll do this, and the rest is history,” recalls Weissman.
Today, Kolech national conferences usually gather 1500-2000 participants, and says, Weissman “Our membership is at least double or triple that. Conferences have dealt with issues such as lesbianism; what it is like to be a single woman or a childless woman in the Orthodox community; the issue of battered women; the terrible discrimination against women in the rabbinical court system, marriage and divorce laws. We always have non-Orthodox women in our conferences; even Reform women rabbis speak. We deal with the oppression of Jewish women by other Jewish women in terms of the ethnic groups like the Oriental women who are oppressed by many - and one of the oppressors may be Ashkenazi women.”
A major theme for Kolech is also the whole fraught question of dress and modesty – instantly familiar territory for Muslim feminists, and increasingly for women in Christian Evangelical communities. Weissman notes the irony: “Once you make the measure of religiosity for girls how long their sleeve is; does it cover the elbow or not? Does this skirt cover the knee or not? Then you are thinking and talking so much about a woman’s body that it is almost accomplishing the opposite of what you wanted to do."
Orthodox Jewish feminists may seem to outsiders to be a contradiction in terms. But then Jewish politics in Israel is anything but straightforward.
“In the last three years,” says Weissman, we have in Tel Aviv something called secular yeshiva [religious schools] where the students are mostly secular Israeli young people, mostly left-wing, who spend four days a week sitting and studying classical Jewish texts like the Talmud, and then two days a week doing community service projects in some of the poorer areas.”
The idea of ‘secular religious schools’ is just one of the extraordinary contradictions of Israeli society that confront groups like Kolech.
Like fundamentalist communities in all religions, the Ultra Orthodox are pro-natalist; 12 children per couple is not uncommon. But, as Weissman points out “The women work because they have to support the men; the ideal is for the men to sit and study [Talmud] all the time.”
Weissman weaves her way through the intricacies of religious Jewish politics. There are some Ultra Orthodox who “definitely reject Zionism as a modern political expression of Jewish identity. They are so extreme they will not participate in the political process in Israel at all.” Because they refused to engage in military service and were not armed, they were not seen as a threat to democracy: “They prayed, but didn’t do anything terribly active to impose their views.”
Other Ultra Orthodox, like the United Torah Judaism, “use democracy the way many movements throughout the world use it: to get elected but they don’t embrace the content of democracy which is human rights, and equality before the law.”
In a bizarre fusion of binaries that defies the usual labels, this stream has now merged with religious and secular Zionists to form something new, and that takes racist and sexist discrimination to a new level.
As Weissman explains, in the 2006 election, the long-standing religious Zionist political party, the National Religious Party, “formed an alliance with a very right-wing, kind-of secular party so they no longer exist as a separate religious party. Called the National Union, it includes both religious and secular Knesset members. The Zionist part of their ideology could be perceived as problematic, especially when it was in a very right-wing direction, the settlement movement, a kind of disregard for Palestinian human rights.”
This trend was joined by some from the Ultra Orthodox community. “There is now a new phenomenon that is called Ultra Orthodox nationalist, and in my opinion they combine the worst features of the two groups because religiously they are very similar to the Ultra Orthodox. They have all the anti-modernist, anti-democratic, and to some extent anti-feminist, features of the Ultra Orthodox - but they also have the army, they have guns, they have a racist ideology. I am very worried about them.”
At the end of last year, Shmuel Eliyahu the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, one of the holiest cities in Israel, ruled that it was forbidden to sell or rent apartments to Arabs. The failure of the Attorney General to condemn the ruling – a publicly racist position by a rabbi who is an employee of the state – drew heavy criticism from intellectuals and youth. The controversy highlighted the existence of extreme racism among some religious leaders.
Weissman, quoting progressive Orthodox scholar Yoske Ahituv, sees a clear link between the racist and sexist aspects of the Ultra Orthodox nationalist worldview: “This tremendous emphasis on modest dress is because there is a connection with nationalism: seeing the woman’s body as a body politic, a way of relating to the nation and clearly an emphasis on women having children and giving birth and perpetuating a nation, which I am sure is found in other cultures as well.”
But while some sectors of Jewish society in Israel are becoming more aggressively exclusionary, others may be opening up – including in regard to women’s rights.
There is serious progress towards an opening up of the Orthodox community. Until 2007, the hundreds of thousands of Eastern bloc migrants to Israel were unable to contract valid marriages because the law stated that as Jews they had to be married by Orthodox rabbis yet they did not ‘qualify’ as Jews under Orthodox halachic criteria, leaving them in legal limbo; a new law at last provides them with a civil alternative – and profoundly challenges the Orthodox establishment’s control over family law and religious identity. Experimental yeshivas are opening up and, according to Weissman, “there is now a group of young Orthodox rabbis who are seriously talking about setting up an alternative to the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel.” This raises the hope that the “human tragedy” of discrimination against Jewish women in matters of divorce may finally be addressed.
But it would be simplistic to read progress in women’s rights in family law as a sign that the Orthodox community has moved towards the left on all matters. Weissman cautions that while the modern Orthodox community in Israel may have moved to the left religiously and culturally, this has not necessarily been matched by changes in political attitudes towards Palestinians. Kolech itself has yet to engage with Palestinian women “because a not-insignificant proportion of Kolech are fairly right-wing politically; they are not extreme, there is nobody that is fundamentalist, but some of our national leadership are women who live in settlements in the territories.”
In other words, while the sibling pair of racism and sexism are usually promoted and resisted as a family, progress in struggles against one does not automatically bring progress as regards the other. These complexities in Israeli politics and society, are mirrored in contexts as diverse as Britain, where a gay pride organiser is found to have links to the far-right English Defence League, and Nicaragua where former revolutionary Sandanista leader Daniel Ortega as President promoted a total ban on abortion. Evidently, feminist struggles like those of Dr Debbie Weissman, Kolech and the next generation of American Jewish feminists still have their work cut out.
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