Yesterday, I read your critique of the Haredi women activists behind the ‘No Representation, No Vote’ movement with great interest, as my advocacy work at Hiddush deals directly with matters of religious freedom, democracy and Jewish identity in Israel. I remain very supportive of these women’s initiative, but as a Modern Orthodox person, I cannot personally tell whether Israeli ultra-Orthodox society is yet open enough for such a development. Your identity as a political professional and empowered Haredi woman have drawn a lot of attention because you navigate both the political realm, as well as the ultra-Orthodox world.
I’ve written before that it’s no small thing to surrender one’s name and face to public discourse, for many readers relate to bloggers as representatives of very particular ideas, rather than as complex individuals; and reading through all of the comments on your post, I imagine that it wasn’t easy to receive so much dissenting feedback from so many different kinds of people, including other ultra-Orthodox women. It’s safe to say that most TOI readers are in favor of women assuming public leadership roles, and I’m sure you knew that – you made yourself vulnerable for values that you must hold very dear. Thank you.
The online market of ideas favors nobody, and the public can judge our arguments on their merits. For example, you outlined several reasons as to why a “true Haredi woman” could justifiably want to run for office. Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox women behind the ‘No Representation, No Vote’ movement were convinced by your post. Perhaps you caused them to reflect or reconsider their positions. You wrote respectfully, and your readers had the liberty of arriving at their own conclusions.
Unfortunately, your approach was dramatically different than that of Rabbi Mordechai Blau of the ultra-Orthodox ‘United Torah Judaism’ party. As you surely know, Rabbi Blau publicly spoke to the Haredi media on Sunday, threatening that any woman who goes against the leadership of the Torah sages will thereby ensure that her children will not attend ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, that no one will do business or work with her, that all of her descendants will be expelled from Haredi schools and that she will be divorced without a ketuba. And he guaranteed to personally implement all of the above.
Now, I’ve written before about a Supreme Court petition that Hiddush brought against coercing private citizens with excommunication to circumvent the civil court system. Even as I spoke with our Haredi client that court day about the ramifications of getting excommunicated from her community, I couldn’t relate to her experience. In free society, people don’t get threatened or excommunicated by religious leaders like Rabbi Blau.
Driven by curiosity, I Googled “Mordechai Blau” and found that he represents a group called the ‘Guardians of Sanctity and Education’, and carries quite a bit of clout in Israeli Haredi society. For example, popular U.S. Haredi musician Ya’akov Shwekey has been disinvited from performing in Israel because he wouldn’t acquiesce to Rabbi Blau’s demands, and has even had Rabbi Blau’s agents at his concerts armed with cameras to see to it that ultra-Orthodox attendees would be punished severely. These discoveries lead me to assume that Rabbi Blau’s threats are not taken idly in Haredi society. (there’s much more on Rabbi Blau’s methods and worldview available online)
Hiddush took Rabbi Blau’s threats very seriously, and on Monday, December 8, we wrote to the Attorney General of Israel, urging his office to open an investigation of Rabbi Mordechai Blau for suspicion of using threats and extortion against ultra-Orthodox women to intimidate them and prevent them from running for office. One of the women’s husbands even called our office to express his appreciation for this.
Again, I can only observe Haredi society from the outside, and I’m actually quite confused as to what the term “Haredi” means to you, to Rabbi Blau, and to others. This week, I stopped by the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies to hear MK Rabbi Dov Lipman discussing what the Ultra-Orthodox community can contribute to the State of Israel and the Jewish People. When he finished speaking, one of the students asked him, “What does ultra-Orthodox actually mean? You look Haredi to me, but your views are not what I would expect from a member of that community.” In response, Rabbi Lipman brought up the example of the women behind the ‘No Representation, No Vote’ movement. “Racheli Ibenboim, Michal Chernovitzky and Esty Reider-Indorsky are Haredi too,” he said, “Are they what you would expect?”
As a modern woman, Chevy, you naturally used the Internet to reach out to your Haredi sisters and others with your message; and you’ve posted another blog post about politics too. But in Beit Shemesh, for example, an initiative called Haver encourages members of the haredi public to sign a declaration in front of their rabbis that they either have no Internet access, or only have rabbinically approved devices, with content filters, which they need for work. Also, a Haredi school in Zichron Yaakov was just recently forced by the Education Ministry to accept two students despite the fact that their father uses a cell phone with Internet access… so are these Haredim more ultra-Orthodox than you? Would they say that “true Haredi people” don’t use the Internet?
Ultimately, if this conversation continues and voters freely decide whether or not to elect female ultra-Orthodox candidates, I think that’s wonderful. I greatly respect the ‘No Representation, No Vote’ movement, and I respect you for voicing your dissent civilly and generating discussion on this matter. However, if Haredi’ism is defined by coercion and power politics, if ultra-Orthodox politicians are exclusively selected by a small group of rabbis, rather than democratically elected by ultra-Orthodox society, and if Haredi women are threatened against holding public office, I find myself profoundly troubled as an advocate of human freedoms, democracy, Jewish People-hood and Israeli rule of law.
While you may personally decide not to vote for female Haredi candidates, wouldn’t you agree that they should be free to run for office without having their families and livelihoods threatened? Wouldn’t you agree that they should be free to vote as they see fit? And wouldn’t you agree, Chevy, that these female political activists are no less part of your mutual “Haredi” community than you and Rabbi Blau are, and should be treated with respect, acceptance and love accordingly?