Let’s talk specificity, shall we?

March 7, 2007

(this is a long one, so decide now if you want to read it. Topics: anti-religion progressive feminists aka women stuck in the 70’s, people who should STFU, the Haredi sex-segregated bus issues. The rant-y part is separated by that bold line about halfway down.)

Maybe it was the freezing cold weather last night, or the snow I woke up to this morning, or maybe it was the infuriating Jesus preacher woman who thought that 8:30 in the morning on a snowy, cold day would be just a perfect time to command all of her fellow commuting subway riders to accept Jesus as our personal savior.

Or, perhaps my morning got off to a bad start because of a bunch of “feminists” waxing self-righteous about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in comments section of a Feministe post. A decent post reporting on an awful situation in Israel brought on comments from all kinds of brilliant folks. The situation: pockets of Haredi Jewish men in Jerusalem are attacking women on buses (city, not private) who refuse to conform to the sex-segregation imposed by the men. You can also read a personal account of a woman who experienced this last November (a different woman than the one mentioned in the NPR story linked above).

Just to get this out of the way: this is totally fucked, brings up a whole host of questions about the tenuous relationship between religion and democracy there; the increasing power of the Haredim (pl. for Haredi); the ways that religion can be completely bastardized by its supposed most devout (i.e. to protest the woman’s lack of “modesty,” they kicked her to the ground and pulled off her head covering); and the general violence that seems to permeate every corner of Israeli society; among many other questions. The last time I checked, this news piece does not involve:

-How Haredi Jews in Brooklyn are weird freaks who don’t understand pets or birdfeeders and who are in desperate need of your pity for their backward lifestyle.
-How religion, as a whole, is perverse and how the women who fall victim to it are helpless and in need of our (read: white-, middle-class, and American) feminist rescue.
-Questions of are there any religions out there in the world that love the wimmins, really and truly? (nothing like a completely nonspecific question to spark some real discussion).
-And a complete and detailed response to that question: I would find it hard to imagine a sect of Dianic Wiccans with fundamentalist extremists like that. And Haredi Judaism in Israel has what, exactly, to do with Dianic Wiccans?
-How Haredi Jews are just incredibly annoying (although their payos [sidelocks] are real cool!).
-Umm…I have no response for this one: Sometimes it seems, ironically given the history of the Jewish religion, that today’s pagans and Jews have so much in common 😉
-Factually incorrect statements like my friend’s sister’s mother’s great uncle married a Haredi, so I am therefore the expert: “they also refused to teach the kids how to read and write in English — only Hebrew.” (here’s a clue: if you can’t tell the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish, perhaps you should wonder what right you have to drop your opinion in this thread).

I could go on but I might seriously lose it. I feel like there are some basic rules that people seemed to just throw out the window here. First of all, if you do not know what you’re talking about, DO NOT SPEAK. Seriously. Ask specific questions. Second of all, stay on topic. The big underlying problem with second-wave feminism is that it lacked specificity (or should I speak in the present, lacks specificity, since sometimes I think we’re still in the 1970’s).

But I thought we were beyond that. Right? Because when you think about it, logically, a Haredi woman living in a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem doesn’t want your feminism, white American college-educated woman! Hello? Why is that so difficult?

“Stop taking your value system completely out of context” rant ends here. Below, for any interested parties, is my own take on this issue.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way I see it, we have here a situation that calls for a tremendous amount of tact and complicated thinking: two things that are, apparently, foreign to many. The problems here, as I see them, are twofold: one within the Haredi community and one with their relationship with the larger mainstream Israeli society (and a piggyback off the second question: how “religious” should Israel be as a democratic country?).

Haredi women seem to be fighting some part of this battle within their communities and their homes. It is not up to us (including me – and when I say us, I’m talking about women who live in the US, non-Jewish women, non-Orthodox women, even Israeli women who are not Haredi) to decide exactly how that battle should play out, what is at stake for these women in fighting against sex-segregation on buses. Our concern is not whether these women are oppressed in their marriages and their birthing of 12 babies or how in the world they wear those heavy black tights in 90+ degree sweltering desert heat in the summertime in Jerusalem or why they don’t just get on the train/bus to the secular part of town and see the (secular) light! If you’re all about autonomy, how about letting them speak for themselves, hmm? You may wonder about it, but it is completely irrelevant to this discussion. It starts to concern Israeli society at large if it comes to making high-court decisions regarding the permissibility of sex-segregated public buses – and indeed, it does. From the NPR story:

The bus company released a statement saying they let the ultra Orthodox enforce their own rules. The company says its own surveys show that the general public wants “to respect the Haredi-religious sector that uses public transportation and to let them behave in a way that is convenient to them.”

(one aside: Egged’s supposed “live and let live” attitude here is a total farce: Egged buses don’t run on Shabbat, for one – what about “live and let live” for all the secular Israelis who can’t travel on Shabbat?)

What I find really interesting is that Egged (the bus company) has some weird notion that the buses in question move between Haredi neighborhoods, never entering anyplace else, which is not true. The Haredim can’t live their lives isolated from the rest of Jerusalem 100% of the time, and we see the disastrous consequences of this fact when they react to gay pride parade in riots (and the riot police, who are quick to pull out rubber bullets in Bil’in, are strangely nowhere to be seen, but I digress). Egged, like many other bodies in the state of Israel, are completely scared of Haredim, and for good reason: they vote in blocs and they have tremendous political pull.

Religion is tricky – it pushes the public/private boundaries like nothing else that I know of, and in Israel this debate has a tremendous amount more weight. All Israeli Jews have complicated relationships with Judaism (not to mention Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis, who have a differently complicated relationship with Judaism!); with negotiating their secular identities and the religious country that governs so many parts of their personal lives. I just beg that we keep the discussion in the context where it belongs: in Israel, on the topic not just of religion but of Judaism, and not on Judaism generally but its relationship with the (mostly secular) Israeli mainstream and the laws that govern the state of Israel. Just a little specificity is all I ask.


One comment

  1. Ugh, I really shouldn’t have clicked on any of those links because now I’m steaming mad.

    And you know once they bring Wiccans into the conversation, it’s all over. LOL!

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