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Gitit Levy-Paz
Gitit Levy-Paz
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So how, in fact, do Haredi women behave? 

Ultra-Orthodox feminists aren't just changing their own communities, they are posing a wider challenge: Can new and different models be tolerated in the Israeli secular space?
Esty Shushan, founder of the ultra-Orthodox women’s group Nivcharot shown in a promotional photo for Anna Somershaf's documentary film 'A Woman of Valor'
Esty Shushan, founder of the ultra-Orthodox women’s group Nivcharot shown in a promotional photo for Anna Somershaf's documentary film 'A Woman of Valor'

Anna Somershaf’s documentary film Women of Valor aired recently on Israeli television, and will soon make the rounds on the festival circuit abroad. The film follows the Haredi women’s movement Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot (No Voice, No Vote), and shows the struggle of Haredi women for inclusion as public representatives within Israel’s Haredi political parties.

The film interweaves the personal story of the movement’s founder and leader, Esty Shushan, with the story of the movement itself. Shushan seems entirely consumed by the public effort she is advancing, and determined to generate change, not only regarding women’s political activism, but also regarding Haredi women’s status overall.

The film has an immediate emotional impact. It sparks identification with, and amazement at, the inner strength and force of will demonstrated by Esty Shushan and her partner in the struggle, Estee Rieder Indursky. Esty and Estee, along with the other Haredi women who appear in the film, are courageous figures swimming insistently against the current in a Sisyphean effort to take on the stubborn establishment that vehemently opposes their cause. The film explores the personal price these women pay, the slander and verbal abuse to which they are subjected to in the social media, the incitement, the attacks on their family members, and the attempts to expel them from their communities, since “that’s not how Haredi women behave.”

A new Haredi feminist discourse

Well, the fact is that Haredi women do indeed behave this way, and this is precisely where the film’s social importance rests. It paints a picture of the current trends toward change in the Haredi community, and hints at the possibility of a new and different Haredi connection to Israeliness and Israeli society in the future.

It’s hard to forget the depth of the hatred and the sense of alienation and rage most of the Israeli public had for the Haredim during the first waves of COVID-19. The sense of a seismic rift was palpable; there were even dark prophecies of civil war. This apocalyptic scenario was, however, countered by voices (a minority) that engaged with other Haredi subgroups and identified opposite trends – trends of modernization, liberalization, and a desire to open up to Israeli society.

Somershaf’s film and the women’s movement she founded illustrate these deep processes taking place below the surface, often hidden from view but real and meaningful nonetheless.

The film’s main message has to do with the very existence of a purely Haredi feminist struggle coming from women who glory in their Haredi identity and have no desire to relinquish it. On the contrary, these women are unabashedly calling for change – for an integration of the Haredi values they hold dear with the feminist and modern discourse they espouse. They are seeking to adapt aspects of the liberal feminist discourse to the traditional discourse, without dishonoring tradition and without abandoning Halacha.

This fusion is a major development, as it reflects a struggle that is bottom-up, rather than top-down, and those pursuing it want, in any case, to effect change in a way that is compatible with the unique traditional discourse of Haredi society. This is the significant change heralded by the film, which shows that the revolutionary spirit is indeed already present in the Haredi street.

It is clear that the film also, perhaps chiefly, expresses the arduousness of the struggle. Many Haredim, and certainly the Haredi establishment, are not prepared to accept these new voices, and perceive the changes sought by these women as a serious, if not intolerable, attack on the basic premises of Haredi tradition. But the winds of change now blowing, the founding of Nivcharot, its integration within the local landscape, and the entire set of processes documented in the film, hint at future victory. A victory that will be important not only for Haredi women and their just cause but also for Israeli society as a whole.

Repercussions for Israel’s secular society

The change is emblematic of the integration of liberal-feminist discourse into all segments of Israeli society, the necessary bi-directionality between various Israeli communities and a set of ideas, values, and a normative discourse that will enrich and contribute to the Israeli social fabric.

This will have repercussions for Israel’s secular society. One is easily impressed by Esty Shushan’s bravery and unique personality, but make no mistake – Shushan is a Haredi woman who represents Haredi women. Although it is the Haredi leaders who are under pressure right now, it will be Israeli society as a whole, and in particular the secular public, that will eventually have to respond to the necessary change. Change that is starting with the Haredi sector but will proceed to the penetration of Haredi space into the secular space, while creating a new secular (and Haredi) discourse.

Shushan’s boundary-breaching Harediness means not just adherence to feminist values, but also a new Haredi feminist discourse that will enter the (secular) marketplace and broader Israeli public discourse. This will likely seem strange to feminist purists. How can a feminist woman seek inclusion in a male-dominated party but also demand gender segregation? This is, in fact, possible when dramatic developments occur, and the secular and the Haredi discourses blend into each other. Therefore, just as we want and expect the Haredi leaders to accept the changes Shushan and her associates want to introduce into Haredi society, we must also display tolerance toward other fusions that will penetrate the shared secular space.

Many secular Israelis understand that, for the sake of strengthening their feminist consciousness, Haredi women have to pursue academic education. But when they hear about gender-segregated classrooms intended specifically for Haredi men and women, they cry “religious coercion.” A self-confident secularism should not have to fear an open dialogue that allows new and different models to enter the secular space. This is the price that must be paid if we are to reinforce desired liberal trends among the Haredim, and it is also a tolerant and appropriate path that recognizes the Haredi community’s right to maintain its way of life while also moving toward acceptance of the values associated with liberalism, modernity, and Israeliness.

About the Author
Dr. Gitit Levy-Paz is a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. JPPI and she teaches at Bar Ilan University. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Bar-Ilan University, an M.A. in Hebrew Literature from Ben Gurion University, and a B.A. in Political Science and Communication from Bar-Ilan University.
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