Dancing in the Streets, and Ending Women’s Segregation in Israel

I will start with a confession: my main news source is Facebook. And judging from my Facebook wall over the last few months the only conflict in Israel is between Ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the society, in the struggle against radical segregation between the sexes.

However, the phenomenon of segregating women, which is making waves all over the (Jewish) world at the moment, is not a few months old. It is a few years old. Maybe even decades.

A while back, I was involved in helping my mother, Anat Zuria, make a film, her third, on modesty. It began when she found out my friends, modern-Orthodox young liberal people, were keeping Smirat-Negiah, which means not only were they not having sex before marriage, but they were not even holding hands. Holding hands. Some people claim these restrictions have led to the phenomenon of young marriage, at the ages of 18-20, which is becoming more popular among young religious people.

In any case, as our research into the field of religious modesty deepened it seemed to us that the source for the extremism in the Zionist-Orthodox society was the attempt to imitate, to some degree, the movement within Ultra-Orthodox society, which had become more and more obsessed with modesty. It was at that point, around the end of 2007, when we found out about the buses—the ‘black buses’ as we later called them—where women were required to sit in the back, so that men wouldn’t have to see them. I was shocked. Later, we found out about segregated clinics, supermarkets, and even streets (“woman, please move to the other side of the street!” or, “women are not allowed on this street!”) I understood that this was only going to get worse.

But my real astonishment was to come from an unexpected source. As I shared these discoveries with people around me, religious and secular, I found out that most of them didn’t care. They didn’t care not because they were not social activists, or uninterested. They didn’t care out of concern for the rights of conservative communities to make their own rules.

Most of my friends and colleagues agreed with me. The phenomenon of female segregation is truly horrible. But, they asked, what can one do? We should respect their choices and their religion, no? After all, in this era of multiculturalism, who are we to judge right from wrong? And, it’s only happening in their neighborhoods, inside their own communities — so why should we intervene?

Indeed, why should we? Are we even allowed to intervene?

My answer: ‘Yes, we can.’ Even in a diverse society, all of us, secular, liberal, and post-modern “believers,” can and should voice their opinions, even if that means that the majority, secular cultural might hurt or offend or even interfere in the practices of a minority culture. We might need to consider becoming fundamentally liberal—and maybe some of us already have.

Segregation in Israel is just one example of a worldwide phenomenon where religious rights, claims and symbols stand in opposition to secular mainstream culture. The unasked question is this: in a world in which conflicting cultures coexist are all cultures and traditions equal? Or, to rephrase Orwell: are all cultures equal, but some cultures more equal than others?

In Israel, it seems that the outcry will lead to some changes in the national discourse. At least people are engaged, something they are demonstrating in many ways, including this flash mob in Beit Shemesh (which I know about because, of course, it was posted on my Facebook wall):



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