Posters depicting women have become rare in the streets of Israel’s capital. In some areas women have been shunted onto separate sidewalks, and buses and health clinics have been gender-segregated. The military has considered reassigning some female combat soldiers because religious men don’t want to serve with them.
This is the new reality in parts of 21st-century Israel, where ultra-Orthodox rabbis are trying to contain the encroachment of secular values on their cloistered society through a fierce backlash against the mixing of the sexes in public.
On the surface, Israel’s gender equality seems strong, with the late Golda Meir as a former prime minister, Tzipi Livni as the current opposition leader and its women soldiers famed around the world.
Reality is not so shiny. The World Economic Forum recently released an unfavorable image of women’s earning power in Israel, and in 2009, the last year for which data are available, Israeli women earned two-thirds what men did.
The newly enforced separation is felt most strongly in Jerusalem, where ultra-Orthodox Jews are growing in numbers and strength. The phenomenon is starting to be seen elsewhere, though in the Tel Aviv region, Israel’s largest metropolis, secular Jews are the vast majority, and life there resembles most
Still, secular Jews there and elsewhere in Israel worry that their lifestyles could be targeted, too, because the ultra-Orthodox population, while still relatively small, is growing significantly. Their high birthrate of about seven children per family is forecast to send their proportion of the population, now estimated at 9 percent, to 15 percent by 2025.
“The stronger the ultra-Orthodox and religious community grows, the greater its attempt to impose its norms,” said Hannah Kehat, the founder of the religious women’s forum Kolech. Their norms, she said, are “segregation of women and discrimination against them.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews around the world have long frowned upon the mixing of the sexes in their communities, but the attempt to apply this prohibition in public spaces is relatively new in Israel.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox began testing gender segregation years ago when ultra-Orthodox men started ordering women on certain bus lines to sit at the back of buses traveling through their neighborhoods.
The practice, also adopted in some ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States, was successfully challenged in Israel’s Supreme Court, and Kehat says women have been filing far fewer complaints about their treatment on buses. The vast majority of Israeli bus lines have never been segregated.
But buses weren’t the last stop on the gender-segregation ride.
Some supermarkets in ultra-Orthodox communities, once content to urge women patrons to dress modestly with long-sleeved blouses and long skirts, have now assigned separate hours for men and women — another practice seen in ultra-Orthodox communities in the U.S. Some health clinics have separate entrances and waiting rooms for men and women.
Meni Shwartz-Gera, an ultra-Orthodox journalist, says strict observance of modesty is a pillar of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and is being “wickedly” misrepresented as demeaning to women. People who dislike it can choose different options like supermarkets without special hours for men and women, he said.
“The purpose is not to denigrate women,” he said.
Israel’s Supreme Court disagrees.
Last month, the court ordered the dismantling of barriers erected in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood meant to keep women and men from walking on the same sidewalk during a religious ceremony that drew tens of thousands to the enclave’s narrow streets.
Gender segregation “began with buses, continued with supermarkets and reached the streets,” Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch was quoted as saying during the court hearing. “It’s not going away, just the opposite.”
The Jerusalem city councilwoman who brought the case before the court, herself a religious Jew, was fired by secular Mayor Nir Barkat.
Barkat, who rose to power vowing to scale back the growing influence of an ultra-Orthodox population that accounts for one-third of the city’s 750,000 people, said he dismissed Rachel Azaria because she sued the city, not because she faced off against the ultra-Orthodox.
For years, advertisers have been covering up female models on billboards in Jerusalem and other communities with large ultra-Orthodox populations. Ultra-Orthodox have defaced such ads and vendors faced ultra-Orthodox boycotts of companies whose mores they deplore.
Recently, the voluntary censorship has gone beyond the scantily clad: Women are either totally absent from billboards, or, as with one clothing company’s ads, only hinted at by a photo of a back, an arm and a purse.
Over the summer, Jerusalem inaugurated a long-awaited light rail with a major outdoor advertising campaign. The rail line is touted as a marvel of 21st-century technology, but there are no women’s faces on any of the billboards affixed to its sides.
Advertisers acknowledge ultra-Orthodox pressure.
A private radio station went so far as to ban broadcast of songs by female vocalists and interviews
Ohad Gibli, deputy director of marketing for the Canaan advertising agency, confirmed Monday that his company advised a transplant organization to drop pictures of women in their campaigns in Jerusalem and the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak for fear of a violent backlash.
“We have learned that an ad campaign in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak that includes pictures of women will remain up for hours at best, and in other cases, will lead to the vandalization and torching of buses,” he told Army Radio.
Barkat told reporters recently that “It’s illegal to forbid” advertising women. But “in Jerusalem, you’ve got to use common sense if you want to advertise something. It’s a special city, it’s a holy city with sensitivities for Muslims, for Christians, for ultra-Orthodox.”