Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Substitute: ‘Jew’

Last week, I read a post by Moshe Yaalon, number three on the list of the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party and head of its Telem faction, justifying sex segregated events in public space on the specious grounds that “we” do not back religious or “secular coercion.”

This is utter sophistry.

No one forces anyone to sit next to anyone s/he does not wish to sit near. People are free to self-segregate in public space, if they wish.

The Haredi sector gets billions of shekels annually in State, that is, tax-collected funding for its private sphere of synagogues, schools, and  yeshivot, in which it holds sex-segregated events all the time, as well as events — and, in the case of the yeshivot, primary functions — that bar women altogether. To suggest that this sector does not enjoy an “equal” call on the public’s consideration or purse is ridiculous. Anyone can also rent, and pay for, halls, and discriminate there to their heart’s content. This, too, happens all the time.

The disingenuous argument that Haredi elements — and some defenders who should know better —  make, that holding sex-segregated events in public space, such as parks, is somehow a liberal cause, about tolerance, pluralism, or even, no end to the hutspa, cultural relativism, insults intelligence. They use such arguments while reviling those values, same as they use the institutions of constitutional democracy while working to destroy it. The theocracy they wish to see instituted would bury all that with its birth.

Israeli society is now engaged in a battle over public space: space in which no group’s norms, with whatever rationale, can be imposed on anyone else; space that belongs to all. That principle holds equally for everyone. No one forces anyone to sit next to or interact with anyone in such space; nor can anyone force her or his restrictions about this or anything– e.g., dress; type of food consumed– on anyone else there. Of course, this protects the rights of ultra-Orthodox people as much as those of everyone else.

There is no such thing as “separate but equal,” never has been, and cannot be.  The people, powers, parties, pushing for segregation never share the status, the physical place, the amenities or the lack thereof, of the class they wish to segregate, but always, privileged ones. Segregation invariably and necessarily means hierarchy and inferior status for the group to be kept “separate.” There is not a single instance in any society or culture when this was, or is, otherwise. To take perhaps the best known case: evidence about racially separate and supposedly equal school systems in the US showed overwhelmingly that facilities and staffing for African American children were always woeful, vastly inferior to those for white children. This is why the US Supreme Court struck down the notion of “separate but equal” in 1954, ruling it unconstitutional in setting up a parallel, inferior, enjoyment of citizenship—systematic discrimination, in short.

Yet, here we are in 2019, in Israel, re-arguing this specious notion and faced with the real threat of its imposition in social policy, via piecemeal actions like a concert “here and there, what’s the problem?”Or in the demand for sex-based discrimination in the universities—in which supposedly “equal” arrangement, women would lose their positions as instructors while men could teach in both sex-designated spheres, and male students would be privileged with more course options.

Privilege inheres in the very demand for segregation, in the power to assert it. Only those who will enjoy superiority ever make it.

Those behind these supposedly innocuous concerts realize that each event in which women are discriminated against or excluded greases the wheels for the next such event and above all, fuels a social process whereby discrimination against women in public space and policy becomes normal, “customary, the “status quo.” The ultimate goal is theocracy, as some of its more honest proponents, like MK Betzalel Smotrich or Rabbi Zvi Tau and his (publicly funded) Har Hamor yeshiva, openly admit. Since forcibly seating women and girls, literally, in the back of the bus, or spitting on little girls on their way to school did not play well in the arena of public relations, they cleverly settled on these concerts. Smotrich says clearly that, since the ultimate goal of theocracy is unattainable at the moment, a piecemeal approach will be taken, wearing down resistance with cleverly constructed events and defenses of them, cynically manipulating liberal values and processes for the most illiberal of outcomes.

The group being designated for segregation in Israel is women. This is misogyny.

Sex-segregation is about normalizing the sexual objectification of women: reducing women and girls to sex objects of (heterosexual) men and enforcing in public space a misogynistic obsession that would render women official, anathematized Others—second class citizens.

To all this and to any who make this demand or justify it, whether as primary proponents or as politicians hoping to court haredi establishment support in the aftermath of the coming election, we say:

Civil rights for women are unconditional. The principle of civic equality is absolute. There will be no compromise of women’s rights for any purpose, with any rationalization.

Any similar compromise about the rights of “Jews” to full, unconditional access to and enjoyment of public space would never be countenanced, least of all, by public figures in the State of Israel.

The people whose rights are being questioned currently are, of course, Jews, but our being women somehow renders our Jewishness irrelevant; invisible. Why is this? Why, when it comes to women, can “Jew” be overlooked; more, effaced? How deeply does misogyny in our collective consciousness go? Apparently, very deeply, indeed.

Hear this:

Women are not second-class citizens. We are not second-class Jews. And we will not be made such.

Here is my rule of thumb for any time an argument for inferior status for women is made (as in: can’t sit next to one; can’t hear the voice of; can’t see the face of; can’t be under the authority of):

Instead of “women,” substitute: “Jews.”

Can’t say it about “Jews?” Can’t say it about women.

This is a critical moment in the struggle to defend and preserve public space in Israel against efforts that are the fore guard action in the push for theocracy.

Laws against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender already exist in Israel. The question is their enforcement in the context of a relentless campaign to undermine civic equality of all in public space and institutions.

It is time for the public—and for women in particular– to take a stand and be heard in defense of our rights, so that no one—including Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit– imagines that enforcement of such laws can tilt to rendering them meaningless.

Our rights are not for sale. They will not be traded or compromised in any political deal or alliance or in response to interest group pressure from any quarter.

To any party that would seek haredi establishment support through the compromise of women’s absolute civic equality and our place in public space, we say this:

Not with my body, not with my rights. You can compromise, barter, your rights, place, space, bevakasha. Not mine.

Of course, no one is threatening the superior place and space of men. Least of all a party with no women in the leadership or even in the top rank of its Knesset list.

Women’s rights, our civil status, are not for sale, for trade, for deals, period.

And lastly: I, we, vote.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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