Can Israel’s Feminists Save the Country from Fundamentalism?

by Melanie Mignucci


As peace talks between Israel and Palestine prepare to resume this week, the tensions between Jews and Muslims, Reform and Orthodox, and men and women have never been so strict. Feminism doesn’t exactly come to mind when you think about Israeli politics – other issues, like the settlement of lands in the West Bank and displacement of Palestinians, seem more pressing, both abroad and to the Knesset (Israel’s legislative branch).

But within Israel itself, a new debate about the role of women in the public sphere is emerging in the wake of attacks on “indecently dressed” women and girls by ultra-Orthodox men, championed by an expanding class of feminists.

This article from New Republic asks whether feminism can undermine the stranglehold the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) have over Israeli society, especially in the super conservative neighborhoods over which they have almost total autonomy.

Israel was founded under the pillars of equality; modern Zionists envisioned a state that blended socialist ideology with gender equality, encouraging the “full integration of women into society.” In the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), for which service for all but yeshiva students was until recently mandatory, and in the kibbutzim, women serve together alongside men; it is telling of Israel’s progressive attitudes that Golda Meir was appointed prime minister in 1969. Israeli women have relatively free access to birth control, abortion and childcare, and enjoy freedom from that heinous debate, “Can Women REALLY Have It All?” (Working mothers are not nearly as controversial in Israel as they continue to be in the West.) 

Berlin wall graffiti showing former Israeli PM Golda Meir

In ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, however, the divide between men and women is drawn as if in stone. Signs are posted in these neighborhoods advising women to “dress modestly”; public billboards and advertisements get defaced if they show pictures of women or girls; even some buses that run through these areas segregate the men from the women. An 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, was assaulted while walking to school in Beit Shamesh, a municipality west of Jerusalem; older men spat on her and other schoolgirls, called her a “shiksa” and a “prutze” (a non-Jewish woman and a slut in Yiddish). This is sadly not an uncommon story. The Haredi community “claimed that the schoolgirls were ‘provocative’, because they wore t-shirts instead of blouses and bare legs beneath their long skirts,” said the article’s author. A Facebook campaign called “Save Little Naama” garnered 10,000 likes, but no political action.

Video of Naama Margolese that brought attention to the assault of schoolgirls by the ultra-Orthodox

Can secular Israelis stand by and do nothing while young girls are sexualized, demonized, and systematically pushed back into the home, while authorities stand by, helpless?

Miriam Friedman Zussman, a modern-Orthodox Israeli woman, said to New Republic: “I never considered myself a feminist. I didn’t think I had to be. Then suddenly, you start to say, ‘You want me to wear what? You want me to say what? You want my daughter to wear what?’” Zussman compared the situation to a frog’s not noticing its being boiled until the water is too hot.

 Feminism, it seems, is a new option for the frustrated women of Israel.

“Most Israelis would “never think that religious women would align themselves with those radical feminist women from the Reform movement,” said Nili Philipp, a Canadian-born Israeli (pictured at the top). “They would just assume we’d be good girls and listen to our rabbis.”

Despite that prevailing wisdom, feminist groups are gaining traction in Israel as fundamentalist intolerance grows more outrageous. One group, Kolech, Israel’s first Orthodox feminist group, signed onto a civil suit against bus segregation as a friend of the court – the suit ultimately saw the prohibition of all segregation on municipal buses.

Much of the problem, however, with legislating against the customs of the ultra-Orthodox is that it runs counter to the carefully developed balance between the religious and secular. The law gives ultra-Orthodox areas near sovereignty so as to not infringe upon their freedom of religion.  Ultra-Orthodox areas, like the Western Wall, a holy site for Jews of all denominations, are legally regarded as synagogues, essentially, meaning that “local custom” takes precedence over justice.

Women of the Wall protesting the exclusion of women from worshipping at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The ultra-Orthodox make up about half of Beit Shamesh’s population, and about 10% of the total Israeli population, but those numbers are growing. As ultra-Orthodox populations move into more secular neighborhoods, the clash between fundamentalists and progressive Israelis is reaching a fever pitch.

A success earlier this summer at the Western Wall shows some movement in the case for equality. Women of the Wall, a group that for over 25 years has been conducting all-female prayer services at the Western Wall, from which women are ordinarily prohibited, finally gained police protection for female worshippers at their May prayer service. Where previously female worshippers had been arrested by the Ultra-Orthodox authorities who protect the site, men who came to protest the women’s prayer were now arrested. Three female Knesset members came to these groundbreaking services, adding a new legitimacy to the movement. 

Fundamentalist observers have as much right to their religion as less conservative Jews, but the right to not be offended NEVER takes precedence over the right to exist. Israel’s feminists are negotiating this tension with equal measures grace and rage. Between the ongoing fight and the snowballing victories, feminists are reshaping the core values of Israeli society, one sexist policy at a time.

Thanks to New Republic

Photos and videos from YouTube, Brooklyn Street Art, New Republic, Huffington Post

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.