A recent Jerusalem district court ruling may reset the balance on the limits of acceptance for religious extremism in Israel.
The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), representing the religious women of Kolech, brought a class action suit against the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Kol Barama station for its discriminatory practices against women. The station did not employ women in any position and refused to broadcast female voices. No women were interviewed and all female voices were censored from audio clips; even the words of female parliament members such as Minister Tsipi Livni, and foreign dignitaries such as Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and the queen of England would have been blipped out as if they were uttering obscenities. Women were not allowed to call into shows; if they had a question or comment they could send a fax, to be read aloud by the all-male radio hosts, who identified the woman only by the initial of her first name.
This was happening at a public radio station. Kol BaRama is Israel’s fifth largest regional station. It uses one of Israel’s eight national public radio frequencies. As a public radio station, it is subject to government regulation, but the authorities were very reluctant to address this issue. As the go-to address for Orthodox and Haredi women seeking help to protect their civil rights, IRAC was among the first organizations to identify this as a problem that cannot be ignored. Had we lost or relented in this case, the discriminatory policy of this station would have spread to other stations that cater to the religious public. They would have been under massive pressure to toe the extremist line, even if this is not necessarily what their audience wants.
Our victory in this case — the first class action suit dealing with gender exclusion in Israel — signifies the final breakdown of the approach that gender segregation and exclusion of women is acceptable because “they want it.” We filed our suit against Kol Barama after conducting a survey in which we found that more than 30 percent of the ultra-Orthodox women in the station’s target audience found its practices humiliating. It’s the same story we saw on segregated buses, in segregated medical clinics, and on streets lined with modesty signs. Just scratch the surface and you discover women (and men) who oppose these extreme practices, but are unable to make their voices heard.
This was IRAC’s first class action suit, but it was not the first time that we used the threat of damages to effectively address the discrimination and exclusion of women in the public sphere. We challenged gender segregation on buses by suing bus drivers and their employers for failing to intervene when women were harassed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. We won damages in six separate cases, small sums of less than $5,000, but enough to create a radically different reality. You’ll be hard pressed to find a driver today who does not know he can be found liable for looking the other way.
Rules of gender segregation that reflect the strictest possible interpretation of Torah law and result in the humiliation and silencing of women have no real base in Jewish tradition or law. Placing limitations on the presence of women in public life or requiring them to relinquish such substantive rights as freedom of expression is antithetical both to Judaism and to the very idea of a free and democratic society.
In its verdict, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that we can claim damages, as can all women who have been discriminated against by this practice over the years. The court stated that the station’s policy was blatantly discriminatory and that regardless of the station’s target audience, the exclusion of women is illegal and cannot be allowed. Even before this verdict was handed down, the station had been forced to reconsider its policies when, earlier this year, the Attorney General ruled that the station should end its exclusion of women and enable women’s voices to be heard without restriction. As a result, the Second Broadcasting Authority, which is in charge of regulating public radio, finally conditioned the renewal of the station’s broadcasting license on a thorough policy change.
The court has ordered the station to place an ad in two newspapers, inviting women who have been discriminated against by their practices to lodge a complaint. We are, meanwhile, preparing for the possibility of an appeal and for the upcoming negotiations about the exact amount of compensation that will be paid. Recent surveys show that since the station was forced to change its policy and put women on the air, it has only seen its audience grow.
How paradoxical that a station named Kol barama, after the voice of our matriarch Rachel, was in the business of silencing women, and how appropriate that just before Rosh Hashanah, “Kol barama nishma,” a voice was heard, and reward has come.
Kol Barama: A voice is heard from on high, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are gone.