Saturday, 14 January 2012

Religious equality in Israel and the failure of multiculturalism

In the first article of the series of "Wrocław: The heart of Europe" series, I am delighted to host a guest article by suki da yo, who writes on the "דיבורים כמו חול - תפוז בלוגים" blog.  The blog is in Hebrew, but one can of course simply copy the title of the article, put in into a search engine and click on "translate".  By doing that I have just discovered that the writer in question writes about daily life in Israel: Culture, music, religion amongst other themes.  The writer is a good one, so you could at least simply click on the link above to help the person with more "hits".  Anyone from the writer's blog who likes the look of this one can keep in touch either via the RSS Feed box on the top right, or via a Facebook group.

Anyway, here's the article:


This should have been story about the discrimination of women, or the fight against religious fanaticism, maybe even one about atheism.
But it turned out to be a story of how multiculturalism fails.


I am an Israeli, a Jew-by-birth, a devout atheist-by-choice and a woman. And I guess this is why I was so mad when all of this started.
"Religious cadets leave officers' course graduation ceremony due to women's singing", cried the headlines, "women are being discriminated against". Some religious Jews believe that a woman's voice is a temptation. The extremists will refuse to listen to a female singer, and being extremists is both becoming more popular and making more noise of late.
The uproar was immediate. Blog posts were written, and women went out to the streets in one of the nicest demonstrations I took part in. under the headline of "we won't stop singing", we stood there, and sang. That was enough, and it felt good!

All of a sudden we were reminded by the media that religious freedom in Israel is often only the freedom to be religious.
The fight for the separation between state and religion in Israel isn't new. Being a secular person in a country with no civil marriages and no public transportation during the weekend (to give just two examples for the situation) is really frustrating. In most of its values, Israel is similar to European countries, but when it comes to religious freedom- and more specifically, the freedom from any religion- we seem to be stuck in the past.

 "Men should board and sit at the front of the bus and women should board and sit at the back of the bus. Men should exit from the front and women from the rear. But women who board must allow the driver to validate their ticket rather than allowing the women to self-validate them, as was the previous practice."
And so, when all this started, I went to demonstrations, I sang in public, I argued and wrote and talked. When the media started talking about how dance studios in Jerusalem must close their windows, so as not to display immodest women dancing in public view, I got pissed off. When the media started talking about the buses in which women are told to sit in the back, so no orthodox man has to look at their backs, I was disgusted. When the gym at my university decided to have a few hours a week in which only men or only women can work out- it turned into this huge, raging, hate-filled argument in which everyone aims as low as they can just so the other side gets hurt worse- and I started to think that we are fighting the wrong fight here.

The symptoms are there, and they are not new.
Separation in buses has been happening for years now. It's not all the buses, just a few lines that drive through religious areas, but I don't think it makes it any better.  Two years ago the Supreme Court decreed such separation should not be force on women, but there is no one to keep extremists from intimidating women into agreeing to sit in the back.
The separate hours in my gym are new, but the swimming pool has had some separate hours long before it became a topic worth discussing, and even the singing-prohibition isn’t new. It's been happening quietly, and none of us took any notice of it. So, yeah- it's horrible and unacceptable, but not new.

So, why now?
It could be that it was just suddenly too much to take. A time has come when I was no longer willing to beg forgiveness for being a woman or a non-believer and it turned out, I wasn't the only one. So much has been refused us, that one spark was enough to start this fire.
The social outcry of the summer [1] has left people more willing to stand up and shout about all the things they've been annoyed about for years. We are more easily convinced now that we can change the way this country works. The media reminded us that all those seemingly-separate occurrences were not at all separate. And with every new example people grow more hateful of the other side, and the discussion only rarely turns to an overall view of the problem.

The real problem comes down to this: allowing extreme orthodox Jews freedom of religion must mean taking away at least some of my freedom. They believe that driving a car during the weekend is forbidden, and so there isn’t any public transportation. They believe women are a temptation and so they force separation on buses. They believe their religion (and their certain sect of this religion) in the right one, and so they force it upon the rest of us.
They are not a large group, but in a political system built on a coalition between too many small political parties, the religious parties, with the high voting rates and uniformity of their voters, have far more power than they ought to have when considering just their fraction in the population. They use this power to ensure that the secular majority is force to be more Jewish than they wish. More correctly- the secular majority is forced to be Jewish in the one correct way
I have read once, long ago, that the problem with multiculturalism is that not all cultures are willing to accept the other. If I believe in cultural pluralism, should I allow this freedom to be bestowed upon groups who openly say they do not believe in such pluralism, and that , had they had the power, would take away my freedom to choose how to live my life?
We tried so very hard to make multiculturalism work, but we forgot that it has to be a two-way street.
The Jewish orthodoxy (like other extreme religious groups) doesn't believe in equality. Not between men and women, not between different religions, not between religious and non-religious Jews. Like every other religion, they have to promise their own people that belonging makes them better than the rest.  Had they had the power- they would turn Israel into a theocracy, not much different from Iran.

It's easy to say we should live and let live. It's a bit harder to really do it with whole hearts. Deciding where to draw the limit to multiculturalism and open-mindedness just might be the hardest thing.
Cultural pluralism, in my opinion, should be a self defending one [2]. You should be free to your own culture and life style and truths, but you cannot take away my own freedom and claim it for yourself.  Your freedom of religion may stop you from sitting next to me in the bus, but it should not stop me from sitting where I wish.
In a way, we are faced with a problem even more complex than the failure of multiculturalism in Europe, because we are forced to fight part of our own culture, gone out of control. Limiting it means risking our own self determination as a part of it, even if we only want to belong on our own term. Yet, if we shy away from this difficulty, pretend it will somehow work itself out and refuse to ask hard questions and admit uncomfortable truths, we will find ourselves with less and less chances to turn Israel into a better, freer country for us all.

[1]- the social outcry of the summer according to Wikipedia "The 2011 Israeli social justice protests " are a series of ongoing demonstrations in Israel beginning in July 2011 involving hundreds of thousands of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds opposing the continuing rise in the cost of living (particularly housing) and the deterioration of public services such as health and education. A common rallying cry at the demonstrations was the chant; "The people demand social justice!""
[2]self defending cultural pluralism is, in a way, like a self defending democracy. This is a concept in which some of the people's freedom is taken to ensure the stability and continuity of the democratic system. It is practiced in Israel (the expulsion of extreme racists and fascist parties from the parliament, for example) and in Germany (in a similar fashion). It is also used to describe the outlawing of holocaust denial in many European countries.


  1. First of all, thanks a lot for this article. Here's a piece in the Guardian about the issue for others:

    A quote from it: "We won't stop singing or showing women's faces or dancing until this ugly phenomenon which is foreign to Judaism or to any democratic society has vanished," said Micky Gidzin, of Be Free Israel, the organisers of the musical protest. "This issue is a symbol of what kind of society we want to be."

    This reminds me of the issue of how homosexuality is dealt with in the Anglican church, whereby the issue becomes one whereby ultra-conservatives try to gain more power. Of course, though, there are more women than LGBTs.

    Regarding "the failure of multiculturalism" I think that it is the people themselves who have failed, the people being the ultra-conservatives. I read somewhere (I cannot remember where, but it was in a book about trans-cultural learning) that multiculturalism is flawed insofar that it presumes that people will live next to each other and stay the same. In fact, people change each other in the praxis of sharing a living area. The writer (writing from a British perspective) was saying that we are not just, say, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or white British, we transcend these categories all the time, being for example librarians, jazz fans, politically liberal and so on. It's not about "us and them", rather the many parts of our identities that we share. As so much attention is given to "the meeting of civilisations" or "meetings between Muslims and Christians" we ignore the many sub-sets within both cases, and the many other group-identities that we can share. For that reason multiculturalism is said to be the wrong approach. That those ultra-conservative Jews are more than ultra-conservative Jews get missed by they themselves, and others.

    That they (and we) in the praxis don't live as islands but rather as with others demands of us social skills to negotiate differences. That politicians however look to protect themselves (sometimes under the banner of "respecting democracy") it means they don't always stand up for democracy, for equality, for human rights. You are of course right in raising the issue that the sharing together of a living space gives us the right to assert our humanity when it is threatened by others. To put it more religiously: Love requires clarity, and an assertion of it.

    1. like everything, there is always a fine line that should not be crossed. naturally, if people will not missuse the cultural pluralusm they are given, it will not fail society as a whole. what I tried to say was that not misusing it is against some cultures, and so this pure, free cultural pluralidm is failing, and we must find a way to make it work still.