Protests Begin at Restaurant Banning Thursday Night Waitresses

Protesters in front of the Heimishe Essen restaurant. Click image for additional photos.

Yesterday men and women gathered on a cold Thursday Jerusalem night for the first time in front of the Heimishe Esin ( ‘היימישע עסין’ ) which removed women from busy Thursday night shifts after Badatz of Agudat Israel demanded it as part of its Kashrut certification process.

About 30 male and female demonstrators gathered for over an hour to sing a selection of popular Israeli songs that includes both songs about the love of Israel and Jewish religious values. The singing ended with HaTikva and the waving of the Israeli flag. They included secular and religious Jews from a variety of streams and even earned some applause from on-lookers, as well as Jerusalem Council member Laura Wharton.

The demonstration was organized by the Jerusalem branch of Israel Hofshit (ישראל חופשית)  . Protesters plan on meeting again at the restaurant next week on Thursday night unless Badatz withdraws its demands and women continue to be employed as waitresses on Thursday nights.

The owner told photo journalist Nir Alon that the protests are unnecessary because he convinced Badatz Agudat Israel that women will only serve tables with women and men will only serve tables with men. However, when asked directly by News1 if women will wait on tables on Thursday nights or serve only in the kitchen he did not give a direct answer.

The Heimishe Esin restaurant is located in the heart of pre-state Jerusalem. There is a secular high school across the street from the restaurant and the majority of the area is secular/non-Haredi dati. It’s in the heart of the very secular original post-independence Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency building where statehood was proclaimed by Ben Gurion is virtually around the corner. Teddy Kolech’s old aparment was a few blocks away. So is Golda Meir’s home.

Expanding Media Coverage

Since our coverage of this story at the beginning of the week the story has been picked up by two major Israeli papers, HaAretz and the Jerusalem Post, and syndicated to US Jewish world papers such as the Los Angelos’s Jewish Journal on the West Coast of the USA and the Forward and Vos Iz Neias on the East Coast . It has also been picked up in the Israel Haredi press via LaDaat. The story is also beginning to make the rounds of the blogosphere: Failed Messiah, Frum Satire, and Life in Israel have all featured pieces and reader comments.

Based on mynet’s poll of its readers and the tenor of blog comments, opinion is strongly against this demand of Badatz Agudat Israel. A mynet reader poll resulted in 91.5% disapproval rate.

Discrimination or Just Good Business?

The owner sees this as a customer preference. He told HaAretz, “My right as the restaurant’s owner is to do anything I want.” . He does not see his actions as discrimination because no one is being fired. They are only being asked to switch to less busy shifts. He told the Jerusalem Post,

the haredi community in Rehavia is growing…. It’s like someone who complains about the taste of the food or complains about the cleanliness, they’re complaining about female waiters … It’s not discrimination, because no one is getting fired.

Rachel Azaria, Jerusalem city council woman and activist for women’s rights disagrees. Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, she says:

Generations of women fought so that wouldn’t happen… we can’t let the haredi population take that away from us. It’s not like [the waitresses] are in swim suits, and they’re not asking to pray….It’s against the law. In Israel, you can’t cut shifts because of sex…It’s not just exclusion of women, it’s discrimination.

Israeli law does not allow employment discrimination based on gender. The 1951 “Women’s Equal Rights” law ensured that ambiguous legislation would always be interpreted according to the principle of equality of women. The basic law, “Human Dignity and Freedom”, passed in 1992, is widely interpreted to prohibit the Knesset from passing laws that explicitly discriminating against women. The law guarantees the right to human dignity and Israel Supreme Court judges have typically interpreted that in light of international conventions that include women’s equal rights in the concept of human dignity.

A Dangerous Precedent?

Azaria also told the Jerusalem Post that the request from Badatz Agudat Israel to move waitresss off of Thursday night shifts set a dangerous precedent.

Agudat Isreal, the organization behind the restaurant’s kashrut certification, is a mainstream organization that has played a key role in many government coalitions since the founding of the state. The demand that women give up the Thursday night shift in the name of Agudat Israel’s understanding of modesty is part of a growing trend to restrict women’s economic opportunities in the name of modesty. For over a year, a Sephardic radio station, Kol BaRama has been refusing to employ women broadcasters.    This winter a high school senior in Dimona was expelled from her school because she worked in the kitchen at the local Kosher McDonalds. The school would rather she have no income than work along side men.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Badatz Agudat Israel originally demanded that the restaurant not hire women at all and only backed off when the restaurant’s owner pointed out that over 60% of his customers were women and someone had to serve them. This was despite the fact that some of the waitresses themselves are Haredi. According to a Haredi waitress they never wear pants or T-shirts and are always dressed modestly.

Even this solution still causes considerable damage to the waitresses. Thursday night shifts are their busiest night so this represents a financial loss for the waitresses. One of the women reported that she would have to look for another job because of the kashrut authority’s demand.

Judaism has always recognized the importance of financial rights in Halachic discussions. Even a minority opinion can be relied on if it will avoid a significant financial loss (hefsed merubah). Surely needing to change jobs qualifies.

Even Badatz of Israel’s reduced demand, the removal of women from busy Thursday night shifts, shows that separation of men and women has become more important than economic rights and obligations in the mainstream Haredi community.

Ironically, Badatz is itself relying on a minority opinion within Jewish tradition to push away women. The vast majority of Jews, including Jews who observe Shabbat and have studied halachah, reject the separation of men and women as an overarching principle in all spheres of life, let alone as a principle so important that it justifies financial loss.

Related Stories in Jacob’s Bones

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Extremism, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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