Liberating the Haredi Woman

The Supreme Court decision to allow Kollech, the modern orthodox Jewish feminist group, to sue the Haredi radio station, Radio HaKol BeRama – for a record 104 million shekels — on the grounds that it has denigrated women by not interviewing women or employing them as programme interviewers is an important step in advancing women’s rights in the ultra-orthodox Haredi community.

The case has tested the mutual rights and obligations of public broadcasting and religious fundamentalism. `Kolech’ is particularly irked because the radio station is publicly funded.

But like all radio broadcasting in Israel, Radio Hakol Be-Rama is required to be a publicly funded station – drawing upon the British model of public broadcasting. By contrast to the American model of commercial broadcasting in which any person seeking to set up a radio or TV station, may do so without any prior approval.  Going back to the 1927 Federal Broadcasting Commission set up in 1927, all one needs is to simply apply for a wavelength.

Indeed, Radio HaKol BeRama argues that its viewers want a radio station which operates in accordance with perceived Jewish religious standards. Radio HaKol BeRama is the most popular Haredi radio station today; according to the TGI survey of Israeli media habits, in the first half of 2014 26.4% of Haredim listened to the station.  The Knesset approved the principle of special interest broadcasting back in 1995  — an acknowledgement that the needs of the religious in general and the Haredim in particular were not filled by the mainstream media.

The truth is that the same standard is also applied throughout the Haredi media. The Haredi media owes its origins to a decision in the early Fifties by some Haredi rabbis to establish alternative Haredi news media otherwise readers would be exposed to the secular media. In building a cultural ghetto, Haredi leaders have repeatedly placed bans on exposure to the secular media – most recently against Internet.

With the exception of a couple of Haredi Internet websites like Kikar Shabbat, no Haredi media – whether the daily Haredi papers, Hamodia, Yated Neeman, Hamevaser, Peles, or the commercial weeklies Mishpacha, Bakehilla, Shaa Tova – there are no photographs of women.  All Haredi media do not publish pictures of women — in the name of modesty. Nor are women broadcast singing.   Even the initials instead of the first name of women Haredi reporters are printed in some Haredi news media.

Yet, it reaches Taliban-like excesses – all in the name of `hidur mitzva’ (or the `beautification of Jewish commandments’). Women decision makers fail to receive the same coverage as males.  For example, one Haredi news editor dealing with an item by the then Knesset Speaker Chairperson Daliah Itzik `dealt’ with the `problem’ ingenuously by adding a gimmel to become `Gedaliah’ Itzik. The Kollech’s legal suit should be enlarged to also include discrimination in programme content.

In the court decision, by Judge Yoram Danziger, to allow Kollech to present its legal suit, the Supreme Court has come down in the debate between national standards for women and minority interests of the Haredi community on the side of the former. Indeed, in an earlier decision, the Supreme Court rightly distinguished between the narrow ruling of halakha (Jewish religious law) and basic rights of women. It was not against halakha for a woman to be heard speaking.  Moreover, it stopped women from participating in public affairs if they were unable to give expression to their views, the judge said.

A case could be even be made by Kollech for extending its suit to also demand that women singing be allowed in the Haredi radio stations. After all, the prohibition of hearing women singing  – drawing upon the fear that a man might be `turned on’ – appears to some to be less relevant in an age when women singing is frequently heard at a press of a switch on a radio .

But for Kollech to take such a high principled pitch and also demand the right to broadcast women singing would be self-defeating because no Haredi media, right or wrong, would play along and broadcast women singing. It is, therefore, important for the legal suit to have made a distinction to be made between women singing and women speaking.

How will Kollech’s stand be perceived? Will it change the standing of Haredi women in their society as presented through the media?  Only incrementally. When, in 2012 the second television and radio authority demanded that women be given greater involvement, Haredi radio stations changed only cosmetically. According to Yifat, an Israeli company which provides media-related data, an examination of 77 programmes on Radio HaKol BeRama, lasting 101 hours during a single week found that only 37 women were heard in contrast to 484 men, speaking for 182 minutes (about  3 hours) for women in contrast to 3477 minutes (or 57 hours) for men. Or, on a daily basis only five women alone were heard in contrast to 69 men.

But for the Haredim, the Kollech suit is yet another in a long series of threats from outside the Haredi camp. Rather, the most successful revolutions for change are those that occur within movements rather than outside.  Thus, the appearance of independent Haredi newsweeklies in the 1980s, like Erev Shabbat and Yom Shishi – which were succeeded later by Mishpacha , Bakehilla and others – caused a revolution in the Haredi press, challenging the monopoly enjoyed by the institutional party Haredi daily newspapers like Hamodia and Yated Neeman, which were under the close control of rabbis at the helm. The same is true with the creation of Internet websites like BeHadrei Haredim – which has left their rabbis in the defence, unable to hold back waves of Haredi surfers.

About the Author
Yoel Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Communication, Ariel University, Israel (School Chairman 2009-2011). His research interests include media and religion in Israel and Judaism; religion and news; foreign news reporting; defence and the media. He completed a doctorate in political sociology at City University London. His book publications include God, Jews & the Media: Religion & Israel’s Media (Routledge); Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy (Pluto) / The Whistleblower of Dimona: Vanunu, Israel & the Bomb, (Holmes & Meier); Media Diplomacy: the Foreign Office in the mass communications age (Frank Cass). His research has appeared in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics; Gazette; Journal of Media & Religion; Israel Affairs; Review of International Affairs; Encyclopedia of Religion, Communication & Media. He was departmental editor, Israel Media, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
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