Micah Segelman, you are my hero for many reasons, but the most important one is that you took the time to show up and be part of the conversation. I get my share of criticism both at home and abroad, but very few take the time to actually come out and hear me. Thank you, but…
The disproportionate power the Rabbanut has in Israel, and therefore the state of religious freedom, is indeed as dire as I described. The viability of most Haredi men to leave the Yeshiva and work or even function in mainstream Israeli society is indeed as I described, and unfortunately, racism linked to misogyny is one of the greatest threats to Israel developing a just and civil society.
I can understand why hearing about the connection between racism and misogyny is difficult. I would encourage you to read our recent report on the issue. The pattern of using the “honor of Jewish girls” to justify racist rhetoric towards the nearly 25 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish is not a new phenomenon. Young religious men use this type of thought as a justification for terrible acts of violence. Not long ago I visited the family of a 17-year-old east Jerusalemite who had been savagely beaten for, in the words of his attackers, looking at a Jewish girl. We list example after example in our report. It is hard to see this as anything other than an endemic problem.
You wrote that you “…have never met a Haredi man incapable of finding the post office or writing a check.” That might be true, but the larger point I was making is that ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not study the national curriculum in school after around the age of 10 or 11, so they do not have basic competencies in math, English, or the hard sciences expected of most Israelis. The result is that they are basically unemployable in anything other than the lowest paying non-skilled jobs. This forces even the men who would like to leave the yeshiva and work to continue learning full time since they cannot take care of their large families in any other way. Instead of contributing to the Israeli economy, they are locked into a cycle of forced poverty that is, at the same time, a burden to the rest Israel.
The nuance you talk about in the Orthodox community is important. Unfortunately, if the language used by men like Rav Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed appalls the majority of Orthodox leaders and adherents, they are a silent majority. The fact that we have to keep pushing back against men like him only shows how accepted and respected they are. Just so I’m clear: telling Jews in Safed not to rent apartments to Arabs is using his state-funded position to discriminate against other Israeli citizens who have committed no crime other than being non-Jews. Rav Eliyahu is the son of a Chief Rabbi of Israel and was a contender for that position himself (before we stopped him). I cannot accept that he is a fringe anomaly.
Of course one should never paint an entire group with a single brush, but as a person who deals with public policy I am more concerned with what groups do to shape the agenda than with what each individual believes in his or her own heart. I have no way of knowing what percentage of Orthodox rabbis around the world feel equality for women in the public sphere is important. I only know that the Orthodox women came to us for help when they were being pushed to the back of the bus. Time and again they told they had no place else to turn. If the majority of Orthodox rabbis believed that this trend towards “heightened modesty” for woman was wrong, surely those women would have sought help in their own communities. Feel free to read some of their stories here.
This week we are both going to sit down at our respective seder tables and read a story of how our people went from bondage to freedom. In many places there is a new custom of reading ten new plagues that we must now try to defeat. I’m sure you and I could come up with ten things that really deserve the world’s attention. In any list we come up with, ending racist incitement and giving women the right to fully enjoy the public sphere in our beloved Israel must make it to the top.
Read I’m Anat Hoffman’s hero, by Micah Selegman