The Battle Against Israel's Orthodox Patriarchy

I didn’t fully appreciate how spiritually free I am as an American woman until I set foot on an El Al plane.

“Do you speak Hebrew?” the fretting woman in front of me asked.

“No, not really.”

“It’s okay, I speak English,” she hurriedly replied, obviously looking for a friendly face. “These Orthodox,” she motioned to the people sitting next to her, “they don’t like sitting next to women.”

“Well, that’s their problem.” My response was pointed, matter-of-fact, American.

She smiled as if a light bulb went off in her head. “You’re right!” Her expression grew cloudy. “But what if I take off my sweater? They won’t like that I expose my shoulders with my tank top.”

Again, I simply replied, “That’s their problem.”

She smiled, empowered. Removing her sweater, she took her seat and stood her ground.

And at that moment I thanked God I was raised in pluralistic America, and realized, oddly enough, that the Holy Land was giving me my first chance to practice the biblical feminism I’ve preached.

Israel is a Western nation in that women have equal rights by law. Israel is also a confluence of religious and ethnic cultural attitudes, not all of which are friendly to women. Two days into our trip to Jerusalem, a family member who also happens to be a retired journalist explained the latest story to hit the nightly news. A man accused of spousal abuse was released to return home. Later that evening, police found his wife had been shot dead. The husband confessed to the murder. Apparently, domestic violence and death is a relatively small but significant problem in Israel. When I asked my former journalist why, he pointed to the influence of Middle Eastern (both Arabic and radical Islamic) patriarchal culture as the primary source.

Yet, even religious Jews in Israel (and around the world), despite their insular nature, are far from immune to sexual abuse. Sex scandals among the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) show up frequently on the evening news. In this case it’s not the Arab/Muslim influence, but perverted behaviors that arise from rabbinic abuse of biblical teachings. How do you expect a man to relate to a woman sexually when he’s not even allowed to look her in the eye?


The Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Note the woman trying to peek through the mechitza (separating wall) between women and men.

The struggles women face in Israel aren’t limited to spousal or sexual abuse. Women are emotionally, mentally and spiritually diminished as well. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Kotel (Western Wall). After 1967, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate was given control of the site by the government of Israel. Since then, women and men have been cordoned off away from one another. The tiny wall has been split, with 2/3rds of the territory going to men, and a measly 1/3 to women who struggle for an inch of wall to touch as they pray, tripping over chairs left there presumably because they are the weaker sex and need to sit down to pray. Boys who dare to peek through the fence separating the sections are quickly pulled away, cracks covered by the tallitot (prayer shawls) of their adult male counterparts. If a woman dares to wear a tallit of her own she risks being hauled away by the police. Mothers who want to watch their sons become a bar mitzvah must stand behind another gate cordoning off the male area for prayer. Hopefully they keep their binoculars handy.

Due to their Duggar-like belief in procreation, the Haredi population in Israel has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decades. Now they are sowing their oats. Women have been forced to sit at the back of the bus on certain routes in Jerusalem. Both women and men risk having their cars stoned if they drive into the wrong area of Jerusalem on Shabbat (not to be confused with the risk of harm if they walk or drive into the wrong quarter of the Old City or area of East Jerusalem during Friday Muslim prayers). And while women move freely throughout the entire country, Orthodox men will do their utmost to avoid them. This includes avoiding eye contact at all costs.

On our flight home, four days before Erev Rosh Hashanah, a group of Orthodox men and women threw fits at having to sit next to the opposite sex. The El Al air hosts worked out the moronic squabbles with relative ease. Shortly after we took off, the Orthodox man in front of me proceeded to recline his seat into my lap. “One more inch, and he’ll be breaking a ton of mitzvot,” I thought. Throughout the flight he would push his seat further back with his body weight, lounge his hands over the back of the chair in my face, and make a general nuisance of himself as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. So much for being gracious to the lady present. To him, I am not a lady, but a woman, and therefore different and undeserving of the same courtesy he gave to himself and his male counterparts that surrounded him.

I did my best to maintain my sense of humor, but for Israeli women worn out by the constant abuse, the Haredi offense is not taken so lightly. The day after I returned home I read Elana Sztokman’s account of Orthodox sexual harassment on her flight from the U.S. to Israel:

…Right before the man found a replacement to sit next to me, I said, “Can I say something?” and without looking at me, he said yes. I said, “Imagine if instead of men and women, we were talking about Jews and non-Jews. Imagine how you would feel if a bunch of non-Jews were standing around saying that they can’t sit next to you because you’re a Jew, that they are willing to sit anywhere but next to you, because their religion won’t allow it, because you are impure or different, or whatever. how would you feel? How would you ever get over that insult?” I could feel my voice rising. After all these years of writing about this, after this whole tour where I went around listening to people and sharing ideas, I just couldn’t stay silent in the face of this humiliation.

I’m not sure whether it mattered. One young man very kindly said to me, “You don’t understand, women are holier than men.” I said, “That’s rubbish and it doesn’t excuse the insult,” and then I added that I spent 13 years in yeshiva and there’s nothing he could tell me that I haven’t already heard. Then the original man, the one who refused to sit next to me, muttered to another man as he was walking away, “She doesn’t understand.” I said, “I understand everything, and don’t talk to me as if I’m not here.” He ignored me, and all the other men turned their backs and did not respond or even look at me.

I sat down, put on my seatbelt, looked out the window and suddenly started to cry.

The same week Sztokman sat crying in coach, Emma Watson stood before the UN in the hopes of attracting “one billion men and boys” to the cause of feminism. She never once acknowledged the fact that the men and boys she really needs to reach are ones who aren’t allowed to look at her face or listen to her voice.

A combination of multiculturalism, ignorance, and plain old fear has trained Western feminists out of questioning, let alone drawing attention to the ramifications of patriarchal attitudes in Middle Eastern and ultra-religious cultures. They’d rather play it safe and define “patriarchy” as the white frat boy with a beer in one hand and a Playboy in the other. They have become what they were told to despise: Yuppie, upper-middle class, career-driven, culturally protected, sexually perverted, emotionally sterile women who view sex as a business agreement and abortion as their only legitimate right. Their definition of feminism couldn’t exist outside the world of Legally Blonde. They’ve been crafted into morons. Want to conquer the patriarchy? Start by looking them in the eye.

In our post-flight survey I was asked for my religious affiliation. “Why?” I replied, “Because if I were ultra-Orthodox my opinions would somehow matter more and the fact that I was rude, demanded not to sit with the opposite sex, reclined my seat into the secular woman behind me and made myself a general annoyance would somehow be justified?”

“Whoa!” my husband exclaimed and laughed at my apparent gall.

Later that evening, my Israeli-American father-in-law proffered Delta as the solution to El Al, just as Tel Aviv has become the solution to an ever-more religious Jerusalem. But I think I’ll keep flying El Al, for the same reason I’d encourage non-Orthodox Israelis to stay put in Jerusalem. Because the bottom line is, if the Haredi don’t like what we do, that’s their problem. We’ve learned to live with them, now it’s their turn to live with us. And as a proud Zionist, I’m more than happy to pack my American biblical feminism in my carry-on bag.