Two things happened this week that speak volumes about women’s place in Israeli society.
The first took place in my son’s gan, where his pre-kindergarten class marked the end of the year with a celebration of Jerusalem. The boys dressed as soldiers and Orthodox men, wearing army berets and Tallitot, payot and tzizit respectively. The girls waved pom-poms and had no recognizable role.
Believe it: This happened in a regular, middle-class Israeli town, in a secular educational institution.
Welcome to Israel, 2017.
My first thought was why did my son, at age 4, have to assume the role of soldier? Won’t he have enough of that during his three years of obligatory service? I want to enjoy him as a civilian while I still can.
Beyond that, the characters that were chosen to define Jerusalem, a colorful and diverse city, were exceedingly narrow. Ultimately, the message conveyed to the gan’s 30 impressionable minds is that the way to celebrate our sovereign Jewish existence is to wage war or to pray. And this is relevant only if you’re male.
In a country where women serve as rabbis and are taking on leadership roles in the army in increasing numbers, I was horrified to see these simplistic and unrealistic prototypes being prescribed to my son in his most formative years. But I was not surprised.
This is not the first time my children have been exposed to uber-traditional gender roles. At Purim, the overwhelming majority of girls dress up as princesses, while the boys wear super-hero costumes. Kids in my older son’s second-grade class host gender-segregated birthday parties – some invitations explicitly state that the boys will play soccer and the girls will do “other activities” or arts and crafts.
As I tried to digest the spectacle in gan, I realized that most of the mothers in the room were career women: scientists, a musician, an engineer, and more. Several hold PhDs. Indeed, women of my generation have benefited from unprecedented opportunity. I would like to believe that our children — of both sexes — will be able to be and do whatever they want in life. My son can be a cook or a doctor or wave pom-poms, if he so desires.
Why then do the values that are imparted to our children contradict our reality? Are we a society in devolution?
Ironically, my four-year-old son is contending with the same gender stereotypes as Renee Rabinowitz, an Israeli octogenarian who made world headlines this past week.
In response to a lawsuit Rabinowitz submitted with the Israel Religious Action Center, a Jerusalem court ordered El Al to cancel its policy of moving women at the request of male passengers.
Like in several other highly publicized cases, Rabinowitz was asked to change seats after a man complained that he did not want to sit next to her for so-called religious reasons. Rabinowitz complied, but eventually decided to fight the case, becoming an unlikely warrior.
While Rabinowitz’s victory is encouraging, it speaks more to how unfriendly our reality is to women than to what stands to change in Israeli society. The Court’s ruling is but a dent in widespread ultra-Orthodox attempts to impose their misogynistic beliefs on Israel’s entire population. Sadly, the government and authorities generally bow to these pressures. Take the recent kerfuffle about the egalitarian section of the Western Wall as an example.
Israel boasts segregated buses, sidewalks and more. A few years ago, a girls’ dance troupe had to cover themselves in bizarre capes so as not to offend the sensibilities of some guests at a Jerusalem public event. Female Knesset parliamentary aides were banned temporarily from wearing skirts above the knee to work several months ago. This imposed segregation in public spaces inevitably causes friction between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of society, yet it persists.
I never understood why men who find female passengers so problematic don’t change seats themselves. And if travelling with women is so tempting or disturbing for them, why don’t they charter their own planes? And, for goodness sake, Rabinowitz is over 80. These men should be giving up their seats for her!
Women are not sex objects. We are human beings. If ultra-Orthodox women want to cover themselves fully, so be it. But don’t force the rest of us to play along with these unjust, sexist rules.
Of course, my son’s gan celebration and pressure to change seats pale in comparison to the ocean of violations facing women everywhere. In Israel alone, several women have been killed by family members in recent weeks. That’s in addition to widespread human trafficking, agunot, polygamy and more.
While we fight the big issues, we should not accept that men – and their accomplices — treat us as sexual objects. We must not accept the narrow gender roles that are dictated to our children. These are the same phenomena exhibited on different ends of one scale.
In this reality, we must sweat the small stuff too.