Tag Archives: jewish

Israel’s undemocratic oath to democracy

10 Oct

Don’t usually wade into the mire of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis as I don’t live there and don’t really feel I have the right to pass judgement.

However, this latest call (click here for BBC report) for new immigrants to Israel to have to swear loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state“, the “centrepiece” of far right-wing MK Avignor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu electoral campaign in 2009, struck me as so depressingly theocratic and undemocratic in its very nature that I, as a Jew, can’t resist commenting.

In a country made up of a significant Muslim/Christian Arab minority (20%), it seems no less than petty-minded and inflammatory to demand of new immigrants such as “Palestinians married to Israelis who seek citizenship on the basis of family re-unification, foreign workers, and a few other special cases” (quoted from BBC report) to have to swear allegiance to the Jewishness of the state of Israel, rather than to a democracy made up of people from a full spectrum of religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Which other country around the world demands that you swear loyalty to the religion adhered to by the majority of its citizens when you immigrate? I certainly didn’t have to swear loyalty to the USA as a “Christian and democratic state” when I got my Green Card last year.

Why not just stick to loyalty to democracy and leave religion out of it?

That way you might actually live up to your claims of being a democratic state.

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Sheitel à la Sorole Palinsky

9 Aug

You can’t go anywhere these days without Sarah Palin rearing her ugly head. It seems her sphere of influence extends even into the sheitel*-wearing public of America, who have apparently enthusiastically adopted a wig model styled on her inimitable hockey-mom locks.

Here’s what the Daily Forward had to say on the matter:

America’s most controversial hockey mom has inspired a new item made for religious women that probably isn’t sold up there in Alaska, gosh darn it!

The “Sarah Palin Wig,” based on the hairstyle of the Last Frontier State governor and GOP vice presidential candidate, is the latest head covering to go on sale at Sheitel.com, a Brooklyn wig shop and Web site for Orthodox Jewish women who maintain modesty by concealing their natural hair.

“One of our stylists thought it would make a good style, so we produced it,” said Boruch Shlanger, one of Sheitel.com’s owners, in an e-mail to The Shmooze. “It is very easy to maintain, and is a very classic look, yet fashion forward!”

The article goes on to mention that Sheitel.com also has a Posh model available,  à la Victoria Beckham.

(NB As I trawled the web for ‘Sarah Palin Sheitel’, I realized that I’m actually two years late with this piece of ‘news’, but seeing as a) I’m a newcomer to America, b) I just heard about this and c) I write for those on both sides of the pond, I thought I could still get away with writing about this!)

On the subject of the moose-hunting Palinsky, I’m sure you heard how she recently inadvertently coined a new word: “refudiate”, a cross between ‘refute’ and ‘repudiate’. Articulate as ever.

* Sheitel – wig, worn by married Orthodox Jewish women

On being Jewish and gay

30 Jul

Here’s my latest story just published in the Jewish Chronicle (UK) about a new statement of principles published by prominent rabbis here in the USA urging for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in the orthodox world:

American rabbis call for gay acceptance

By Rebecca S, July 29, 2010

A Gay Pride event in Tel Aviv.

A Gay Pride event in Tel Aviv

A group of prominent American rabbis have called for more acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community.

The “statement of principles”, signed by over 80 community leaders, affirms the rights of Jews of all sexual orientations to “be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community… and treated under the same halachic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join”.

Six months in the making, the document – written by rabbis Nathaniel Helfgot of New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; Aryeh Klapper, dean of The Centre for Modern Torah Leadership in Boston; and Yitzchak Blau, an American-educated kollel head in Israel – states that harassing or demeaning gay Jews is “a violation of Torah prohibitions”.

It recommends that homosexuals should not be encouraged to marry someone of the opposite gender, as this can lead to “tragedy and… ruined lives”, and recognises that “change therapies” – controversial treatments promising to make a gay person straight – are often “ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically”.

The document stopped short of embracing gay sexual relationships, stating that halachic Judaism “views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited”.

The authors are explicit in their commitment to halachah, saying that heterosexual marriage is “the ideal model” and that the signatories “cannot give [their] blessing to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies”.

Each synagogue must “establish its own standard with regard to membership for open violators of halachah,” the document said. However, it urged families of Jews in same-sex relationships to “to make every effort to maintain harmonious family relations”.

“We want Jews of this orientation to not feel shunned. The goal is now for communities to take up the challenge of fidelity to halachah on the one hand, and embrace people of homosexual orientation and their families as much as we can on the other,” said author Rabbi Helfgot.

The impetus for the statement was a high-profile symposium held at Yeshiva University in December 2009 entitled “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World”, in which alumni spoke openly of their struggles of being gay in the frum world.

“A group of educators decided it was time to give people some guidance on this sensitive matter,” said Rabbi Helfgot. “I’m sure there will be people on the right who won’t like it and people on the left who will say it hasn’t gone far enough, but that’s the nature of trying to write a balanced document and trying to be as inclusive as possible.”

American Jewish LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups have been quick to show their support.

“We are very pleased that so many courageous mainstream Orthodox rabbis have taken such an important step forward in recognising the needs of gays and lesbians in their communities,” said Jay Michaelson, of Nehirim, a national Jewish LGBT community organisation. “If this statement can help separate a halachic issue on the one hand, from fear and homophobia on the other, it will go a long way.”

Mordechai Levovitz, of JQYouth, a support group for young Orthodox gay Jews, said that the reaction from its 400 members was “overwhelmingly positive”, with many posting a link to the statement on their Facebook pages.

“Many of these statements heal open wounds. We needed Orthodox rabbis to speak out against homophobia.”

heads, shoulders, knees and toes

21 Jul

The latest installment in the “extreme modesty” saga  is that girls three years old and above must now wear tights all year round when they attend kindergarten (pre-school).

This from a contact of mine whose family live in Stamford Hill, a hasidic community in London, where parents clothe their baby girls in tights from the tender age of three, and where kindergarten rules dictate this same vestimentary requirement. From doing some Googling, I understand that this is already the norm in some hasidic communities in Israel too.

Three-year-olds forced to wear tights the whole year round? I’ve had enough.

I accept – even if I don’t quite adhere to – the reality in orthodox Judaism that there are well-established halachot relating to a woman’s external modesty. Namely, that her elbows and knees must be covered at all times once she reaches bat mitzvah (coming of age at the age of 12). Within the orthodox community, these are universally accepted halachic requirements.

I’m not going to get into deconstructing these laws by arguing that they are merely the product of a long-gone patriarchal era when such rabbinical rulings reflected societal norms on modesty – although I could.

What I AM going to get my teeth into is the fact that what was once a clearly delineated line between the actual halacha, and the chumras, or stringencies which particularly devout Jews choose to take upon themselves, exists no longer. This line has now been utterly eroded by the religious establishment, so that the ever-increasingly draconian dictates on modesty issued by haredi rabbis are now taken on by their followers with the same vigour with which they observe the actual halacha. As I argued in my previous post becrying the hasidic communities who ban women from driving:

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Time to call time out perhaps? Hasn’t this gone just too far? These modesty ‘norms’ have reached immodest proportions. This business of swaddling every inch of a three-year-old baby girl’s  body – from her collar bone down to her feet – under the guise of a modesty ‘norm’, is not halacha, it is simply an abuse of her human rights.

This is what one woman wrote in the comments section on an Israeli blog posting entitled Hyper-Tzniut Fashions for Young Girls:

My girls (4 of them) have worn tights all year round since the age of three. If you start at this age, they get used to it, and you don’t have to battle with them at age 10+ to cover their legs.

All I can say is the time has come to blow my own cultural relativism quandary right out of the water. It is morally wrong to argue that we should accept these women’s religious choices. What we need to do is speak up against the religious establishment which is going about creating such oppressive norms.

I am nothing but depressed by this woman’s wholly dubious argument justifying her restrictive dress-code on her four daughters from the age of three.

What, so, following her logic, should we start covering a three-year-old girl’s hair too so she’ll get used to and won’t kick up a fuss later on when the time comes for her to get married? And while we’re at it, why don’t we force all three-year-olds to start fasting Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av too so they get used to deprivation from food and drink and won’t protest at Bar/Bat Mitzva age that they don’t want to fast?

(Or maybe my argument doesn’t even work here, seeing as what she’s priming her young daughters for – wearing tights – is not even a halachic requirement like fasting Yom Kippur.)

When and where will this madness end?

I propose a return to modesty and moderation on the part of the religious leadership of the orthodox Jewish community. Let’s stop this ever-increasing spiral into an Iran-style police state, where women – and baby girls’ – modesty is constantly scrutinized, and let’s get back to basics. Let orthodox women keep the halachot on modesty which are required and let’s all get on modestly with our own modest lives.

the debate on feminism vs cultural relativism rumbles on

6 Jul

Interesting to see that my previous post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the thorny issues surrounding condemning women’s oppression in cultures other than our own, republished in the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Sisterhood blog, has now sparked off an insightful response by Elana Sztokman -see this link.

Sztokman is quite emphatic in her response to my feminist quandary:

Rebecca S… had an argument in her own head about these issues, which she shared here on The Sisterhood. She had just read one of my favorite authors and real-life heroines, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who has one of the most powerful voices on behalf of protecting women from violence and harm.

Rebecca found herself stumbling over these issues of cultural relativism. “What is the right answer?” she asks. “[H]ow do the rest of us square our desire to fight for women’s equality with a niggling fear that we should only be criticizing our own?

I would like to say to you, Rebecca, that you should stick you to your guns! Your initial reaction, which is to condemn the mistreatment of women outside of your own culture, is the right one. The voice of “cultural relativism” is a smokescreen. It is the argument put forward by people who really do not want feminist interference. And who would that be? It’s not the women who are suffering from genital mutilation or honor killings who are asking you to butt out. It’s not the women who face violence, polygamy, and corporal punishment for showing ankles and wrists who are demanding that you step aside in the name of some abstract, twisted notion of intellectual consistency. The ones asking feminists to be quiet are the ones who want to continue harming women. And those are voices that do not deserve to be heeded.

Her arguments are compelling, persuasive. But there’s still a part of me that’s wavering. Here’s an initial comment I wrote underneath Sztokman’s post:

Hi Elana – thank you for your response to my blog post about my feminism vs cultural relativism dilemma. I find your arguments insightful and I’m glad that my post enabled this debate to be opened up!
The thing I’m still worried about is that although you say that women who suffer from various forms of oppression within religious groups are not the ones telling western feminists to butt out, I’m not sure if this is always the case.
There are many women within Islam who will passionately advocate their ‘right’ to cover themselves from head to toe with a burka or niqab, just as there are many women within communities in Africa who may still passionately encourage their female offspring to be circumcised, even in this day and age.
It is these women – who we claim are oppressed, but who themselves argue that these forms of oppression are actually a form of religious freedom, that I worry about when I feel the urge to give a blanket condemnation.

I also wanted to quote a response from a well-informed friend who questioned my wisdom in citing Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the first place. Here’s what she has to say:

She [Hirsi Ali] is, I guess, the most well known face of the common cause formed by (absolutely well-meaning but ignorant) western feminists and islamophobes. I can’t really see her as brave. Megalomaniac and self-promoting and full of righteous zeal, yes. But don’t forget she has an awful lot of adoration and support from the right wing (and the pretty far right wing in Holland).

More questions to consider. Can someone like Hirsi Ali be trusted in her condemnation of the oppression of her fellow Muslim women, or does her cosying up with the European right discredit her? Is there anyone who can be considered a trustworthy and neutral (I use these qualifiers with caution) enough feminist, whose credentials are such, that s/he can stand up and condemn oppression against women in ANY culture and not have an underlying agenda?

A version of this blog post was republished on The Sisterhood blog on the Jewish Daily Forward’s website. See: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/129308/

a feminist quandary

22 Jun

Thinking back on my last two posts condemning the prohibition on women drivers in some parts of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, I realized that ever since, I’ve had a strangely guilty conscience for having voiced my opinions on this issue.

There’s a small, persistent voice in me that’s saying: Maybe it’s their culture, their tradition, maybe I just don’t have the right to criticize and impose my feminist objections on them.

But then my more dominant voice argues back: No, of course, as a woman, I DO have the right to criticize and demand change for my fellow women denied a basic human right – the right to drive a motorized vehicle. We’re talking about a basic and very real injustice against women, which should override any cultural sensitivities.

And then, by chance I came across Nomad, a new memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali campaigner, feminist and outspoken critic of Islam, who raises these very questions when discussing the muted response of Western feminists to issues of female circumcision, honour killings and other injustices to women that are most commonly associated (but, by no means, exclusively) with the Muslim world:

When I read about honor killings, I am haunted by the certitude that something, many things, could have been done…Is there an urgent need to try to recognize this pattern and prevent these killings? Yes. Are we talking about how to do this? No.

Why not? Why the hell not?

When Muslim women face not just oppression but violent death, why aren’t the feminists out protesting these abuses? Where are the great European and American campaigners who powered the contemporary movement for women’s equality in the West? Where, to take just one example, is Germaine Greer, author of such classics of Western feminism as The Female Eunuch? Greer believes the genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context. Trying to stop it, she has written, would be ‘an attack on cultural identity’.

It is unconscionable for her to refrain from speaking out against honor killings because it would be “tricky” to challenge the culture that condones it.

Hirsi Ali is furious at the failure of Western feminists to openly condemn these forms of women’s oppression in the Muslim/developing world she has left behind. She goes on:

Because Western feminists manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group’s culture, the situation of Muslim women creates a huge philosophical problem for them.

So what’s the right answer here? What’s it to be – cultural relativism/multicultural tolerance or a purist, non-hypocritical brand of feminism? It’s clear which the powerful Hirsi Ali advocates, but how do the rest of us mortal feminists square our desire to fight for women’s equality with a niggling fear that we should only be criticizing our own?

This post was republished on The Jewish Daily Forward website, in The Sisterhood blog – see: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/129050/

Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

6 Jun

Still mulling over my previous post about Jewish women not being allowed to drive in two hasidic communities in upstate New York, I decided to look to the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia for inspiration, they having “successfully” upheld a nationwide ban on women driving for the last 20 years.

I found out that the official ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia came about in 1990 in the aftermath of an audacious protest by a group of prominent Saudi women:

That was the day when 49 Saudi women from affluent families, grouped in 15 cars, took hold of the steering wheels in a silent protest for women’s rights. They drove on the streets of Riyadh until the local and religious police spotted them. Putting a stop to the audacity of these women proved a lot easier for the authorities than explaining what, exactly, they had done wrong.                  (source: Fahad Faruqui, guardian.co.uk)

What’s interesting to see is the wording of the ban:

The government announcement, carried on Saudi television, said that the ban on women driving was for “preserving sanctities and to prevent portents of evil, because it has been juridically proven that reasons for woman’s degeneration or for exposing her to temptation should be prevented.” (quoted in same article)

I smell a rat. Unlikely as it may sound, I’m starting to suspect strongly that the Jewish clerical leaders of New Square and Monroe in up-state New York are in cahoots with the Saudi Muslim clergy with the express aim of keeping their womenfolk down. A dubious kind of inter-faith unity. This prohibition on women driving is all to do with my Jewish and Muslim brothers’ joint fixation on the need to protect their sisters from slipping down that infamous slippery slope that leads straight to a life of harlotry and degeneration.

Well now that we’ve got that one sorted, here’s what I’d like to say to my Jewish brothers: You could do well to draw inspiration from the Saudis as to the intricacies of the ban. Think outside the box. Use your imagination. Don’t forget there are many kinds of vehicles you can ban women from driving other than the obvious automobile:

Saudi driving ban on women extends to golf carts

While we’re at it, I’d like to throw in my own suggestion too: I would argue that it would be wise to ban women from pushing shopping trolleys too. After all trolleys have four wheels and move licentiously fast. Plus they can lead women straight past inappropriate sections of a supermarket (e.g. where they sell immodest clothing, non-kosher food etc). No doubt there’s potential for a great deal of temptation and immorality in this the action of trolley-pushing. It would certainly be infinitely preferable for men to do any shopping that involved the use of this four-wheeled vehicle.

Well maybe I’m being a bit unfair. I confess that I’ve omitted to mention that the article I quoted above does read that the Saudis are now seriously considering lifting the ban on women drivers. So come on Satmar and New Square, surely if the Saudis are considering lifting the ban, you can too? What’s the worst that can happen? Your wives will drive to their places of work? To pick up your children from school? To run their errands? How bad can it really get?

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