Sunday, February 23, 2020

What Do Charedi Women Really Want?

Founders of Nivcharot (Ha'aretz)
It’s hard to know exactly where to stand on the issues discussed in this Ha’aretz  article. Which is about Charedi women complaining that they have been discriminated against - and shut out of Charedi political power in Israel. They have formed Nivcharot -  a movement that ‘promotes the representation of ultra-Orthodox women in state institutions’.

I have no doubt about their complaints have merit. More about my ambivalence later.

First let me reiterate what I must have said a gazillion times. I stand second to no one in acknowledging the disparity in pay between men and women in the workplace. It is a gross injustice whose correction is long overdue. I stand foursquare with feminists in support of that goal. As I do in all areas where there is an unjust gender imbalance in which men are favored.

(However,  as I have said many times, my support for that goal stops at the door of observant Judaism that includes not only following Halacha - but also following our Mesorah - long established traditions that have historically not been overturned except in existential situations.  But this post is not about that.)

There are some grey areas. Like the one discussed in this article. I agree in principle that Charedi women should be given – not only a voice but  an equal voice in government. I also see is no issue of Serarra – the Halachic problem of women ruling over men. They would not be ruling but simply democratically representing their constituency in the Keneset.

So what is my problem?

Well… It isn’t exactly a problem. It is more of q question. Which is - what is it exactly that the majority of Charedi women actually think about this? Is this something they support in principle- even  if not for themselves personally? Or do they agree with their rabbinic leaders’ rejectionist approach – seeing these women as some sort of renegade feminists that have gone off the reservation.

I think that matters. Sometimes doing the right thing has to be judged in the context of what the vast majority wants. Not what the ideal would be in a vacuum. That said, I would still support what these woman are asking for - even if a minority would support them. Provided  it was a significant minority.

But is that the case? Is there at least a significant minority of Charedi women who agree with these women? It’s hard to tell and hard to find out since there is always the fear of being ostracized if they shared their true feelings in public.

What is however shocking is the descriptions of how these women are being treated. What - for example - does it say about a community that allows articles by women in Charedi magazines if they do not identify as women. As noted by Esti Shushan  cofounder of Nivcharot:
 “I was writing for Haredi journals at the time,” Shushan says. “Like other Haredi women, I used a pseudonym, E. Shushan. Your editor tells you, ‘If you want to write for the serious sections in the newspaper and for male readers to take you seriously, it’s better if they don’t know that you’re a woman.’ Later, I found out that many of the male names alongside mine in the op-ed section, Menachem or Yossi, actually belonged to women. 
How sad is it that in some (not all) mainstream Charedi publication - even the mention of a woman’s first name is considered problematic? But the lunacy doesn’t stop there: 
“I’ve been through terrible things,” Shushan says. “My mental health was questioned, my relationships with my husband and my children, too. Nothing is out of bounds for them.
Even this interview could be used as fodder against the women. “My husband will be summoned to the local welfare office to explain the actions of his promiscuous wife,” says (Tirtza) Bloch. “Getting interviewed for Markerweek [the weekend section of Haaretz’s sister business publication, TheMarker] is a vulgar and irresponsible action, and he’ll be called in to answer for it.”
“I was hurt and I cried. Letters were sent to my daughters’ school saying that we were a dangerous and promiscuous family, that I smoke, drink, beat my children and host house parties for secular political parties...” 
No matter what your feelings might be about women being accepted as members of Charedi political parties and serving in the Keneset  - that kind of behavior and intimidation is outrageous  - no matter which walk of life you come from.

If this is how women who express a desire to have their voices heard in the halls of government – are treated by the Charedi political parties, I don’t see how any sane person can support them. How can any human being, no matter how Charedi they are vote for a political party that treats fellow human beings like they are criminals because they expressed a desire to be heard in the legislative body - on issues that affect all of them?  What kind of rabbinic leadership condones this kind of intimidation?

My guess is that the rabbinic leadership does not condone it. But for some reason they let their activists get away with it.  I’m hard pressed to believe they don’t know about it. Maybe they look the other way because they support the goal. But as far as I am concerned that is no excuse.

It apparently also escapes them that the majority of Charedi women are the breadwinners of the family. So that their husbands can study Torah full time. An upside down world of their own making for which they seem to have little gratitude.

Can it really be that the activists that have treated these women so poorly - do so because they actually consider women to be inferior beings subject to unquestioning male rule?  I think that may actually be the case… even though that is clearly not the intent of male/female roles in Judaism.

They must have forgotten what Mishlei (1:8) says:  Al Titosh Toras Imecha  – Do not discard the Torah of your mother.  Or what Mishlei (14:1) says; Chochmas Nashim Bansa Baisah”  - The wisdom of a women builds a household . Yes. Women have wisdom. They should be heard. Not treated like chattel to be discarded at will.

Back to my question. Being mistreated is one thing. Women complaining about not being accepted is another. For me it is important to know what the women of the Charedi world in Israel really want. Do they support these women or don’t they?  And if they don’t - why don’t they?

If most Charedi women are indeed happy with the status quo – and might even be upset at these women are rocking their boat - I’m not sure fighting for change is the right thing to do.

The thing is, finding out the answer to these questions may not be possible. And I’m not sure what to do about that.