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Protest against 'kosher lines'
Photo: Gil Yohanan
Woman behind the curtain
Op-ed: Religious exclusion of women may not be a crime, but it is certainly a sin
On some of the “strictly kosher” buses, a shower curtain, the cheap plastic variety, attached to a pole with plain white rings, separates the front of the bus reserved for the men from the back of the bus designated for women. The curtain hides the women. We can only guess what goes on in the mind of a young yeshiva student who wants to know what is concealed behind the divider. It is difficult to imagine a more sexual image than female voices emanating from behind a drawn shower curtain.

 

Just a few days ago, the judges of the High Court of Justice adopted the conclusions of the committee set up by the Ministry of Transportation and determined that the sex-segregated “mehadrin” (strictly kosher) bus lines are illegal, while leaving room, nonetheless, for consideration to be given to passengers who wish to have “voluntary separation.”

 

This is not an ideal decision, but it is one of the classic cases in which the principles established by the judicial decision are more important than the bottom line. And this declaration was loud and clear. If it had not been proclaimed, the “mehadrin” buses would have taken the State of Israel, at the price of a bus ticket, out of the democratic sphere and put it into another one altogether.

 

We have to tear away, once and for all, the veil of lies around the widespread contention that the exclusion of women from the public sphere must be honored in the name of “multiculturalism,” a principle which maintains that the culture of the majority threatens to weaken that of minorities and, therefore, the state must create conditions that allow minorities to maintain their way of life. Whereas classic liberal theory contends that the state should refrain from intervening in religion and culture, multicultural theory claims that the state must actively help minority communities safeguard their culture; otherwise the culture of the minority will be engulfed by that of the dominant majority.

 

This is a nice theory, which may be justified in many cases, but not when putting it into practice means the demeaning of another group. What is more, the equation of “separate but equal” is, in general, indefensible. When the bus is divided between the front and the back, the men will always sit in the front. When a divider is placed in an auditorium, the best seats will be given to the men. Sometimes the women will not even be able to see the speaker. Let them listen, why do they need to see anyway?

 

Facing a new era

This is true not only in ultra-Orthodox spaces. In many cemeteries in Israel, a woman cannot deliver a eulogy. They are also forbidden from accompanying the pall bearers, and can only walk behind the last male mourner. These are humiliating practices that have nothing to do with multiculturalism. It is not just women being excluded here; it is human dignity that is being demeaned.

 

If we are not vigilant, the public sphere will change. It has already begun to change. We may not have noticed it, but the voice of women is already being heard less, not metaphorically, but in reality. If cadets at the main officers training base, albeit only a handful, left the auditorium when an army entertainment troop (which included women) was singing, then we are facing a new era.

 

What seems absurd to us today is liable to become a commonplace occurrence tomorrow. Sex-segregated health fund clinics? Government subsidized conferences with women sitting in the back? Sidewalks for women only? All of these things have happened somewhere in Israel.

 

It is depressing to think how many years of wisdom humanity has lost by excluding women from positions of leadership, in the academic world, medicine, politics, philosophy, religion. Double the number of great books and important discoveries from all of these disciplines and you can see the great difference this would have made for mankind. The exclusion of women may not be a crime, but it is certainly a sin.

 

Yizhar Hess is the Executive Director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel

 

 

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