Exclude Women from the Circus Ring? Modiin Says No

South African Modiin residents picnic in Modiin Park (Shabbat haGadol)

According to HaAretz (Hebrew version) during Chol haMoed a female volunteer was asked to leave the stage in Modiin when a Haredi women from the audience complained and asked that the circus use a male volunteer. The woman had gone backstage and told Rafi Vitis, the host of that a woman volunteer violated the sensibilities of “most” of the audience. In fact “The Shambuki Show” was being performed in Anabe Park in Modiin.

Modiin is a mixed secular and religious town, but the religious in Modiin primarily come from Progressive (Reform), Masorti (Conservative), and National Religious camps rather than Haredim. Non-haredi orthodox believe separation of men and women belong only in the synagogue and have varying opinions about hearing women sing. Non-orthodox relgious give men and women equal access in all areas of adult religious and secular life. One Modi’in religious resident told haAretz,

Instead of enjoyable time out with the family we received an alarming example of how normal it has become to take women off stage and marginalize them in the public sphere, even in a city like Modi’in where the population is not predominantly Haredi, and where Haredi politics don’t prevail,…It was striking to see such a flagrant case of exclusion of women from the public sphere. Here in Modi’in, it is unacceptable.

A Modiin official and the city council took swift action to prevent future attempts by self-styled police to segregate women. The Modiin city council told HaAretz

As soon as the incident was brought to the attention of the director of cultural activities he rushed to the scene and gave a specific order that it was unacceptable and that the show would go on as usual. Afterward we circulated specific instructions that all changes to shows at Anava Park cannot be approved by anyone other than the city council.

Avi Elbaz, city council member, told haAretz:

The incident with the acrobatic show didn’t take place in Modi’in Illit, Ramat Beit Shemesh or another Haredi city. If it doesn’t suit you to see women on stage, don’t come. It’s unbelievably rude to go to a show in a secular city and make these demands. This place is not owned by the Haredim

Avi Elbaz is also chairman of Free Modiim , a group that defends the rights of secular Israelis . Modi’in Illit is a nearby town that is predominantly Haredi. Members of the nearby Haredi town sometimes come to the park and have caused problems in the past when they’ve insisted that park events and other park visitors act according to their values.

Different spins in different languages

The Hebrew and English haAretz versions of this story have different slants. The Hebrew version, like this article, stressed the action of the city government and local officials. The English version stressed the conflict between Haredim and Modiin residents. In Hebrew the article summary in bold at the start of the article says “Modiin city hall: we gave instructions that an incident like this shouldn’t happen now or in the future”. The English version says “Modi’in residents angered by ‘unacceptable’ act. “.

This difference in coverage may have been motivated by the assumption that English readers are predominately out of country and will not care about municipal details. However, downplaying the governments quick response also leaves the mistaken impression that non-Haredi Jews are a beleagered and defensive minority in Israel. In reality, the majority of the population supports women’s presence in the public sphere and accomodation to secular lifestyles. Most of the difficulties regarding women come from non-enforcement of laws rather than the lack of laws.

Respect for whom?

The haredi woman who approached the acrobat show’s host and the hosts decision also illustrates some common theme in stories about the exclusion of women.

Often the decision to remove women is made by non-Haerdim with the intent of being respectful to Haredim. Rafi Vitis told HaAretz “I was trying to do my best to show consideration for their sensibilities and didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings.” The decision of Beersheva to segregate playground at their local zoo one day during Chol haMoed Pesach had a similar goal which they described as “harmony”. However, exclusion decisions are never neutral. If there is a single event, there is no way to both include and exclude at the same time. Being sensitive to a person who believes in excluding women is going to offend women who want to be included as well as bystanders who believes women should not be excluded.

The MC’s lack of awareness that he was going to offend someone no matter what he did may be related to the way Israelis typically view religion. There is a tendency in Israeli culture to view religion as a continuum with secular antagonism at one end and Haredi extremism at the other. There is only one way to be religious and it involves becoming more and more like the Haredim. Objection to Haredi lifestyle can only reflect either a lack of religious passion or even anti-religious intolerance.

This contrasts with the more pluralistic view found in the Diaspora and in academic study of Judaism. These later perspectives see religious Judaism as something more like a tree with many interpretations branching out of a core trunk of common texts and history.

The notion of a continuum leaves little room for disagreement since relgion is viewed as additive rather than diversifying. If Haredim see exclusion of women as a positive religious goal then inclusion must represent the absense of commitment to that goal rather than a religiously motivated opposition based on a different understanding of Judaism and human dignity. The person opposing segregation must either be (a) indifferent and happy to comply (b) anti-religious (c) assimilated to a world of non-Jewish values (d) selfishly trying to go beyond her God appointed role. Most people want to think of themselves as nice people. Compliance is the only option that doesn’t have some sort of negative connotation.

A second common theme is the belief that “most” people agree with the Haredim. This was the argument given by the Haredi woman who approached the acrobat show’s host. She believed her objections to the female volunteer were shared by “most” of the audience.

The HaAretz article doesn’t give any attendence numbers, but there have been many incidents where Haredi sources have grossly overestimated their numbers or general agreement with their valeus. In 2009, Hiddush did a study of Israeli attitudes towards segregated buses. They found that 50% of the general public did not want to ride a segregated bus. Haredi men and women had put the estimate at less than 30%. In February, when the Tel Aviv city council decided to work towards making buses available on Shabbat, local rabbis told the press that 80% of Tel Aviv was against it. Tel Aviv is a predominantly secular city. Furthermore several national studies show that 60% or more of the country is in fact in favor of making public buses available on Shabbat.

This tendency to overestimate may be related to the psychological process of salience . We tend to overweight something that attracts our attention. There is little doubt that the distinctive dress of Haredim can dominate one’s perception of a space even when there are not many present. Additionally, many Haredim live in a self contained world so they may simply be unaware of the diversity of viewpoints outside of their communities.

Categories: Extremism, Gender Segregation | Tags: | Leave a comment

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