Symptoms of crisis? Religion and women’s rights in Israel

Women are being increasingly targeted as the accommodation between religious and secular Israelis crumbles, heralding a profound systemic crisis in Israeli society, Nira Yuval-Davis tells Deniz Kandiyoti

Nira Yuval-Davis
10 September 2012

Deniz Kandiyoti:  Through sporadic news items concerning ultra-orthodox excesses in Israel, we get the sense of a fundamental shift in the role of religion in public life. How would you evaluate the growing public role of religion?

Nira Yuval-Davis: I would not speak of a fundamental shift, but rather of an incremental and cumulative set of transformations that have finally culminated in a qualitative change. The historical status quo between religious and secular Zionisms since 1948 mutated after the 1967 war and reached a transformative momentum.. The Zionist movement had initially developed as a “modernization” of Jewishness and  the founding fathers sought to resolve the Jewish question by establishing  a “normal” nation-state. Religious Jews were vehemently opposed to this idea since they saw the coming of the Messiah as the precondition of Jewish sovereignty as well as redemption. There were exceptions, however, like Rav Cook ? who claimed that even though secular Zionists may not be doing it intentionally they were hastening the coming of the Messiah by settling in the Holy Land. Secular Zionists were even labelled as “donkeys of the Messiah” by becoming the unwitting instruments (like the animal on which he’ll ride to Jerusalem) facilitating his coming.  The messianic importance of the ingathering of the Jews in the Holy Land, incidentally, is a common myth shared by some Evangelical Christians who have been supporting Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although for them this ingathering is a precondition to the return of Jesus and the Armageddon in which all Jews would convert to Christianity or would be exterminated!

Initially religious Zionists were a minority. Prior to Zionist settlement and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 most of the Jewish religious parties of the old yishuv distanced themselves from the Zionists. After 1948 the relationships between secular and religious Jews were shaped by the status quo agreement in which  it was understood that the practice of the old yishuv would not be interfered with. So,  for instance, while buses ran on the Sabbath in Haifa which was dominated by the Labour left, there were no buses on that day in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Israel has been dominated by coalition politics. The ruling Labour Party relied on religious parties as their coalition partners since the latter made no claims in strategic areas  such as foreign affairs or defence but demanded and received concessions in domestic matters. In line with the Ottoman millet system which obtained in Palestine, only religious courts (and in the Jewish case only the Orthodox) could handle matters such as marriage and death. Divorce had to be religious but divorce settlement proceedings could be initiated in either secular or religious courts and the women’s movement always advised women to go to secular courts since they were clearly disadvantaged in religious ones. Indeed, refusal to serve and obey an errant husband disqualified  women from maintenance according to religious rules.

It must be understood that religious functionaries were and still are totally embedded into state structures at the local and national level. Aside from the two chief rabbis serving the Ashkenazi and Sephardi  communities, there are religious councils at municipal level, a huge bureaucracy overseeing kosher rules and religious functionaries in the Israeli military.

But the most important concession to the religious parties since the 1950s was that they demanded, and obtained, their own state education system. However, even in so-called Jewish secular education there was a heavy biblical content which was given a highly nationalist tinge. A study conducted during the late 1960s by Yochanan Peres, Nira Yuval-Davis and Avishai Ehrlich comparing the curriculum of Jewish and Palestinian schools in Israel, found that whereas Jewish children had 5 hours a week of religious education, Palestinian children were taught only small excerpts of the Koran as part of Arabic literature, and were receiving a much more humanistic education. When an MP expressed concern about these findings in the Parliament, the response was to introduce Koranic studies into the Israeli Arab school curriculum with no change to the Jewish one.

DK: So you are saying that basically the study of religion was mapped onto nationalist pedagogy?

NYD: Yes, at least in the Jewish ‘secular’ schools that was totally the case. In order to sustain the myth of national time which was interrupted by 2000 years of exile but has been restored in the homeland by the Zionist movement,  this was essential. The paradox of Zionism was that the legitimation of settlement in Palestine was always with reference to the religious narrative of the Promised Land. So although the early leaders were personally secularists, they could not allow a total alienation between religious authorities and the Zionist movement, since this would lead to a de-legitimisation of their political project.

DK:  What were the watershed moments in the balance between secular and religious Zionisms?

NYD: After the 1967 war when “Biblical Israel”, especially the West Bank, was conquered and occupied, there was a transformation in the status and role of religious Zionists. Until then they were considered as “second rate” to both Labour Zionism and non Zionist Jewish orthodoxy. The pioneering narrative of Zionist settlement virtually excluded them and  non Zionist Orthodox Jews saw them as compromising the traditional Jewish way of life. Apart from an extreme minority of non-Zionist ultra-religious  groups (like Naturei Karta http://www.nkusa.org/) who were vehemently opposed to the state of Israel, religious Zionists  treated the state of Israel as any other state and maintained their own institutions within it. After 1967, however, the religious Zionists established what they considered to be their own superiority vis a vis both the secular and the non-Zionist religious groups. They developed settler movements which reproduced the frontier experience of early Zionist pioneers, but by occupying Palestinian land near Jewish holy places such as Hebron and other places in the West Bank, they saw themselves as bringing back the Messiah more actively by establishing Jewish sovereignty at the heart of the Occupied Territories.

There was also an important intra-Jewish demographic factor.  A whole generation brought up in the religious education system after the establishment of the state in 1948 came into leadership positions. Also Mizrahi Jews (coming from Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa) had a more traditional outlook, and although they may not have had an explicitly Zionist ideological orientation they were subject to integrationist pressures in the secular education system and thus preferred to  send their children to religious schools. The demographic balance between secular and religious constituencies gradually changed in favour of the latter, aided by differences in birth rates, with much larger families among the religious. The Mizrahi were also much more open to settling in the new territories because of state subsidies and they tended to support the Likud party. The Labour party’s stance on the occupied territories was that  occupation could be justified in relation to security concerns  but they were worried that full annexation would change the demographic ratios between Jewish and Arab citizens of the state . So they did not want to annex Palestinian populations but to control strategic territorial points. The religious Right, on the other hand, wanted to annex the holy places which were near dense Palestinian populations in towns and villages.

The non-Zionist religious communities also benefited from the occupation and started to open yeshiviot in the Occupied Territories and the new Jewish settlements. Thus, over the years there was a growing rapprochement with religious Zionists who were becoming more orthodox while the non-Zionist became involved in the religious Zionist settlement project.

This inevitably had  gender-related repercussions especially in the Israeli army. Traditionally all religious women could declare they refused military service on religious and conscientious grounds. Religious men did not have this privilege but could ask for a postponement of military service as long as they were studying in a yeshiva.  Israel now has a huge number of yeshiva students and the question of the non-military service of the Ultra Orthodox has become a major political debate in Israel. At the same time, the growing participation of religious Zionist men in the military - for example via the specific kind of Yeshivot Hesder -  has brought its own controversies.

DK: Would it be fair to talk about the de-secularisation of the public sphere, and to argue that this is having a tangible impact on gender roles and expectations?

NDY: Certainly. Religious Zionists did not avoid the army, but whereas previously elite members of the army used to come from the kibbutzim, now the proportion of religious settlers in the army has increased.  Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, was quoted as saying that IDF soldiers should choose death rather than remain at events which include women’s singing. Previously religious soldiers were exposed to girls’ singing and dancing and Levanon’s comments came as a reaction to a possible ruling forbidding religious soldiers from leaving events where women sang.

The expansion of the ultra-orthodox communities also has an important spatial expression since geographic proximity is central to the maintenance of an orthodox lifestyle - one which necessitates being able to walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath when going by car is forbidden. Thus, there are growing territorial spaces in which Orthodox Jews are concentrated which are totally intolerant of those leading different life styles. With the demographic changes, more and more neighbourhoods and towns are being taken over and have become frontier zones between ultra religious and secular as well as more liberal religious Jews. This has happened in a context where the non-religious sections of the population have become increasingly more globalized and cosmopolitan. So the growing apart has occurred on the part of both the secular and religious Israelis. I recall that when I was growing up there was an implicit consensus about kosher food, pig cultivation was discreet (and pork referred to euphemistically as “white meat”) and there were few non-kosher restaurants. The more metropolitan Israel became (as a result of its absorption into the global neo-liberal market) the greater the challenge to kosher and other restrictive rules (such as non opening of cinemas and theatres on the Sabbath) became. So the religious sector, as their power grew, started to feel more and more threatened by secular Jews who, in turn, were feeling increasingly encroached upon.

DK: Judging by press reports, women are being specifically targeted and gender seems to be at the heart of these controversies.

NYD: My own work has been on the role of women not only as the reproducers of the nation, but as symbolic reproducers of communal boundaries. The Jewish religious tradition is patriarchal and women are excluded from leadership positions; in  the religious courts, for example, their evidence is not acceptable. At the same time, since men have to be dedicated to the study of religion, women have to be economically active and thus while segregated are not excluded from the public sphere. Indeed women have been very active in the settler movement, demonstrating  their role as sacrificial mothers. Some religious feminists have fought against the equation between segregation and disempowerment. They have argued for instance that they should be allowed to lead prayers provided this does not involve mixed congregations, and have attempted to do so at the Wailing Wall (and were repeatedly arrested). There was also contestation about segregation on buses going to ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods; the religious communities felt entitled to segregated buses even though these also go through other neighbourhoods. Religious feminists did not contest segregation per se but protested by sitting at the front of the bus claiming there was nothing in the scriptures suggesting women should sit at the back.

A widely publicized incident at Beit Shemesh, aired on prime time television, where a group of ultra-orthodox men harassed a conservatively dressed 8-year old on her way to school created great unease. The growing ultra-orthodox population of this community, which is half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, also put up a sign outside a row of synagogues instructing women to walk on the other side of the street. This prompted protests against religious coercion and the attempt to restrict women’s public presence, which is the wish of the ultra-orthodox to have the school serve them exclusively.  It is also among these neighbourhoods that ultra-orthodox women started wearing the equivalent of a burqa as a signifier of extreme piety (the global and regional ‘ecumenical’ fundamentalist effect is clear here). Interestingly the rabbis (who are always male) objected to it because the women had acted on their own initiative and without consultation with the proper authorities. The fact they were exercising agency was not appreciated by the rabbis.

There are many paradoxes in the current situation. The Israeli Defence Force, in line with the reforms in the US military, has reduced the exclusion and discrimination of women in the army and women can now serve as officers in mixed units. Sexual harassment, which took place routinely and in silence, has become a public issue and a former president has been tried for rape allegations. Yet, the rabbi of a religious political movement is able to ban women singing, and orders men to avoid finding themselves in proximity to singing women.

In a similar vein, at a recent conference on women and Jewish morality, women were allowed to sit in the audience but they were not allowed to speak, and a woman scientist who received a state prize was not allowed to go up on stage to receive it. In the midst of all this, an Israeli ambassador’s attempt to “pinkwash” Israeli policies in a speech in Philadelphia by presenting it as the only gay-friendly state in a hostile environment prompted sharp criticism.

Netanyahu needs the orthodox more and more to justify occupation policies, but this is backfiring. He stated that gender segregation and discrimination against women could not be tolerated in a liberal democracy, and he realizes that the secular public is not in a mood to compromise on the issue of gender segregation. But this has become a symbolic frontier, as well as a concrete testing ground of the power struggle between the religious and secular sectors in the Israeli Jewish society.

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