Female rabbis are being abused for having an opinion

Rabbi Charley Baginsky speaking during an event (Jewish News)
Rabbi Charley Baginsky speaking during an event (Jewish News)

Sexist comments, inappropriate body language and the mild- mannered groping many of us have endured over the years now begins to be looked upon almost nostalgically when we bear witness to the new levels of abuse bestowed today.

With a record number of female MPs stepping down at this election and the vitriolic misogynistic trolling we see on both social media and even in print – see Rod Liddle’s recent comments in the Spectator as one of many examples – abuse against women in the public eye has never been of more concern.

 Not only vile, it is prolific and without question focused on women.

Whenever I’ve spoken on a controversial issue – including in the pages of this newspaper – I’ve received abuse. Unlike the message my male colleagues receive on social media, which are focussed on the argument itself, the comments I receive are almost always about my looks and graphic descriptions of sex. I’ve had these tweeted to me, emailed to me and posted on forums. Almost every female rabbi and faith leader I’ve spoken to has experienced the same thing – being told they are ugly or enduring repulsive sexual comments  for having the temerity to offer an opinion.

 A colleague of mine, a woman rabbi in another part of the world, is collecting outrageous comments said to them, with a plan to engage male colleagues. It follows a video made by United Methodist Pastors which saw male clergy reading out the misogynist abuse that their women colleagues had experienced.

 What is fascinating about this exercise is that it takes a man to say the words that have become common place for his female counterparts to hear – words that for many of us have lost the power to shock – for the daily abuse women experience to become apparent to men.

 In a recent survey by the APPG, it was demonstrated that misogyny and antisemitism can be linked and that the language used in the abuse is particularly venomous as it combines hatred of women and Jews.

 Thanks to Stella Creasy MP, Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich and Citizens UK, misogyny is finally being reviewed by the law commission as a hate crime. However, that should serve to emphasise why we need to have intersectional hate crime recognised as well.

 I fully endorse the tremendous efforts of women, particularly MPs, who are putting themselves in the firing line in order to draw attention to this double sided abuse and hatred.  I want the personal risk that they draw to be acknowledged and I want, of course, all of us to think how we can help and support them. But it is not nearly enough. We need to ask why was it not until male Methodist pastors voiced the words of abuse that their colleagues endured daily that it became real for them.

Why are my female colleagues seeking to ask their male counterparts to do the same? It is possible that we have, through complacency towards misogynist language and casual sexism, created the space in which hatred has been allowed to grow unchecked?

 Almost paradoxically one can also argue that the #MeToo movement’s highlighting of the abuse of women and advocating for change, has placed women on a podium and inadvertently added to their abuse.  I have heard it a thousand times:  we – as women – have more opportunities and more equality than we have ever had.

I know it, I’m a woman rabbi, an opportunity that was not there for Liberal Judaism’s founder Lily Montagu. Yet steps towards equality come at a price and with experiences that our male colleagues do not endure.

We need to ask the question – is what you are saying or overhearing really appropriate? We all need to challenge misogyny in the same way I hope you would with antisemitism or racism of any sort.

 There are many Jewish women out there with important things to say, who need to and should, take up space and be heard. They themselves are showing new methods of leadership which provide a space for each and every person to speak, contribute, be recognised and heard.

Do not talk for them. Do not reduce the space they take up or try to reduce their risk by deflection. Instead you should recognise that there are deep seated issues of misogyny in every community, and commit to examining and addressing the root causes of the threat that these women are considered to present… and sometimes you have to start at home.

About the Author
Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism's director of strategy and partnerships, as well as rabbi at South Bucks Jewish Community. She was previously rabbi at Kingston Liberal Synagogue.
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