Yonatan Gher
Full time peace, human rights, environmental, social and religious-pluralism activist

You might be the airport lady too

Had the airport tefillin-wearer been female, she'd have been taken to task for being a 'provocateur'
Illustrative, Tefillin. (image via Shutterstock)
Illustrative, Tefillin. (image via Shutterstock)

Israeli social media went into frenzy yesterday, over a video in which a woman took upon herself to disrupt a Chabad representative who was helping another man lay tefillin:

This video, and this woman’s conduct, are embarrassing. While the concept of the Chabad tefillin booths in general are up for social and legal debate, as their purpose is declaredly missionary, nonetheless, the man in the video is clearly interested in the ritual and prayer, and the woman in the video should clearly mind her own business.

By saying this, I’m not saying anything different from the vast majority of people who have spoken out on the issue. The principle is very straight-forward: anyone should get to pray any which way they like, in public, at the airport, and it’s nobody else’s business. Right?
This last line is where I lose the aforementioned vast majority.

Let’s imagine a different scenario. I happen to belong to Conservative Judaism, where women and men pray together, and women — like men — can wear kippot, tallitot, and many lay tefillin. How many gigabytes of people’s iPhones could be filled with the responses that a woman would get for laying tefillin at Ben Gurion airport? I’m gonna go with many. How about Muslim passengers: how free are they to roll out a sajjāda (prayer mat) mid-terminal three? Regarding Christian prayer: the jury is out. We’re sort of all chummy now after the embassy and all, but, on the other hand, hotels will lose their kashrut certification if they have Christmas trees in their lobbies.

In short, I want to call BS on criticism such as that of Arutz Sheva and Hamodia whose links I gave above, and their hypocrisy towards the woman in the video. You don’t get to criticize her when you know full well that if it had been a woman laying tefillin being attacked by a man, you’d be calling the woman a provocateur and not at all discussing freedom of religion. In fact, we don’t need to theorize, but rather simply follow their coverage of Women of the Wall.

Young ultra-Orthodox women ridicule a prayer shawl-clad female worshiper at the Western Wall during a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group, October 4, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Another curious aspect here is the role-reversal with regard to the tension between one person exercising their freedom and another person’s feelings being hurt. We usually encounter this tension in the realm of women’s clothing, singing, or simply existing, in the proximity of Orthodox men. Or breaking Shabbat. Or eating hametz in public. In this paradigm, there is always one side with feelings — the more religious side — and one inconsiderate side — the lesser or non-religious side. How refreshing then, that in this case, the table has turned and the issue began — according to the woman’s account (thus far only in Hebrew) — from the tefillin interaction taking place over her head, and being called Hitler upon asking the men to move aside.

That does not make this woman’s behavior excusable. But to those who condemn her, I ask: would you support any person’s right to pray in public at the airport, such as my examples above? If not, than you’re being a phony.

Let us not forget that in other parts of the world, France for example, Jewish religious symbols such as a kippah, are taken, together with the symbols of other faiths, as a public offence to the secular feelings, and are banned in public places such as schools and parliament.

Amnesty International campaign against French Burkini laws

So, either you support a person’s freedom to practice their faith or lack thereof in public, or you are really no different from the airport lady.

About the Author
The writer is the Israeli Executive Director of Combatants for Peace. He has previously been the Executive Director of Amnesty International-Israel, Greenpeace Mediterranean, and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and Communications Director for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons. All opinions expressed are those of the writer only.
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