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Women in Israel: Are Certain Rights at Risk?

February 25, 2010 By:
Nancy Ratzan
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Last spring, two Israeli newspapers doctored photographs of the new Israeli Cabinet to remove the images of two female ministers, Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver. In one paper, the women's faces were replaced with two male ministers; in the other, they were blotted out.

The erasure of the women's faces was in accordance with the ultra-Orthodox view that it is immodest to print images of women.

Freedom of the press dictates that such editorial decisions are perfectly legal and to be protected, but the incident highlights contradictions facing women in Israel on a daily basis. It's time to admit that Israel faces an emboldened movement against women's equality, and not just a series of isolated incidents.

For more than three years now, Israeli feminists have been campaigning to end gender segregation on publicly funded bus lines that serve the ultra-Orthodox, as well as the general community. Bus segregation has arisen only in the last 10 years. Women sitting where they wished on such vehicles have been subject to verbal and physical harassment by male passengers, with bus drivers doing nothing.

The Ministry of Transportation and the Israeli Supreme Court have been engaged in seemingly endless consideration and reconsideration as to what to do about the women's complaints.

On Jan. 31, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz effectively rejected the recommendation of his own ministry's committee that passengers may sit where they wish, and that buses serving the Orthodox population allow passengers to enter and pay in the front or the rear if they want to segregate themselves. Katz dismissed allegations of violence against women and advocated "behavior-directing" signs asking (though not mandating) that passengers sit separately.

At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the group Women of the Wall has been fighting for equal rights to pray for 20 years. Women who chose to wear a kipah and/or tallit, and pray out loud and read from a Torah scroll, have been given a designated, and many would say, inferior place to worship near but not at the wall itself.

Harassment of women deemed by bystanders to be immodestly dressed and of female worshippers alleged to be engaged in prayer in the wrong place or in the wrong way has increased.

Last November, Nofrat Frenkel, a medical student and a Conservative Jew participating in a Rosh Chodesh service with Women of the Wall, was arrested at the wall after wearing a tallit and reading from the Torah. Along with others, the National Council of Jewish Women called for the charges to be dropped.

Despite the ensuing uproar, the police have not backed down. In December, Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, was questioned by police and told that she might be charged with a felony for violating rules of conduct at the wall.

The authorities assert that they are enforcing the 2003 Supreme Court decision that allowed arrests at the wall for actions that are "offensive to public sensibility."

Israeli women today are asking if their sensibilities matter.

The Israel Religious Action Center says that it will soon release a study that has found instances of medical clinics seeing male and female patients on separate days, post offices with separate lines, stores that have separate entrances, and funeral homes that forbid men and women to sit together.

To top it off, the Knesset is again considering whether to expand the authority of rabbinical courts to rule on financial and civil disputes based on Jewish law. Rabbinical courts have had jurisdiction over personal status issues such as marriage, divorce and burial, but not over financial or civil disputes. Women would likely wind up victims of the move, pressured to transfer property disputes involving divorce to religious authorities in return for a get, the Jewish divorce decree.

Hoffman refers to the growing pressure to relegate women to second-class status as a "mudslide." It is one in desperate need of new and stronger retaining walls, if women's rights in the 21st century are to be saved.

Otherwise, friends of Israel will watch in horror as aspects of Israeli life become eerily reminiscent of its most backward neighbors. We cannot let that happen.

Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

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