Lest we forget, the theocratic element in Israel–a modern and nominally secular state–is active and powerful. An ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) group living in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood intends to defy a court order by actually banning women from certain streets during celebrations for Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival. These are public streets, mind you, and the ban extends not merely to Haredi women but *all* women.
Large billboards posted throughout the capital’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods this week forbade women to enter Mea She’arim Street during the celebration.
“Women … are requested to use alternative streets on their way home and to synagogues … to help prevent mingling,” the posters say.
Last year community leaders put up tarpaulin partitions along the sidewalks on Strauss and Mea She’arim streets, creating a narrow path on one side for women to walk on. The other sidewalk and the center of the street were reserved for men. A group calling itself “the neighborhood committee” operated “ushers” to make sure the women were keeping to the narrow path.
Notice the separation doesn’t even make a pretense of being equal.
I once attended Orthodox Chabad services in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood and was directed to the “women’s section,” a screened-off area at the back of a large room. The screen was set so closely against the wall that my knees bumped it, and it was opaque, so I had to peer through a hole in the cloth to see the services. It wasn’t until I found myself poking a finger forlornly through one of the holes like a monkey at a zoo that I got up and left.
The Orthodox are big on modesty and on “preventing mingling,” and, as with all religions obsessed with maintaining “purity” at the expense of actually discussing sexuality in an educated way, their fears of impropriety can paradoxically wind up sexualizing everything they do–from handshakes to prayer to conversation. One shudders to contemplate how they spiritually bulldoze their non-straight members. These theocrats have real power in Israel;* it’s up to us to make sure that their like-minded American Christian counterparts don’t gain more in our country.
* For example, their sons and daughters are exempt from the military service that’s incumbent on all other young Israelis, and adult men are bankrolled by the Israeli state in huge numbers because their yeshiva educations don’t prepare them for the modern work force.