HBI looks at Israeli women's struggle with segregation

Overflow crowd turns out for Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights

Prof. Pnina Lahav, BU School of Law

Requiring women to sit in the back of public buses in Israel is just one of a wide range of denigrating restrictions proposed in the name of religion, speakers told an overflow crowd at a program in Wasserman Cinemateque Monday evening. Sponsored by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute’s Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law (GCRL), the evening brought light to many inequities.

Attempts have been made to create separate sidewalks, medical waiting rooms and cashiers for women, said Boston University School of Law professor Pnina Lahav, who delivered the fourth annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights. In fact, Lahav told of a recent medical symposium on infertility, where doctors – all male – got together to discuss the female body, she said, “but pretend women have nothing to do with it.”

The event, attended by 350 guests, included the New England premiere of filmmaker Anat Zuria’s documentary “Black Bus,” which explores the rise of sex segregation in Orthodox life, followed by Lahav’s lecture, “The Woes of WOW: The Women of the Wall as a Metaphor for Israel-Diaspora Relations.”

When the Women of the Wall first tried to gather and pray at the Western Wall, which beginning in 1967 was prohibited, it “shot an arrow right through the heart of the Orthodoxy,” Lahav said, “and that hurt.”

They had requested to pray at the wall just .14 percent of the Jewish year and their “very modest demand was rebuffed.” When the women, who lost their battle in court, went to pray at the wall anyway, authorities stood by while women were assaulted, she said.

Co-founders of the GCRL Sylvia Neil and her husband Dan Fischel started the series in memory of her sister’s commitment to gender equality and social justice. When Neil’s parents took her and her sister to Israel to visit Orthodox family and friends in Israel, and had to dress accordingly.

“My sister, so wise, even then as a 14-year-old, said she never felt so naked as when she had to dress up from head to toe,” Neil said.

Twenty years later, Neil was one of the Women of the Wall, and had to endure the barrage of garbage that was thrown at her and her peers.

More than another two decades later, Neil said, she hopes Zuria’s film and Lahav’s lecture would move people to action against what Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, director of GCRL, called a “novel interpretation that goes against the ruling of 21st-century Jewish law.”

Though women have won their court battle against bus segregation, the courts noted that people would not, however, be stopped from voluntarily segregating, and so the social pressure and harassment continues.

Lahav noted many similarities in the two battles for equality, but said the dissimilarity lies in the public’s reaction.

“In bus segregation, the public rose to action,” Lahav said, adding that to end the inequality, “Each and every one of us must take a stand.

“American Jews have tremendous power. You are the 99 percent of the Jewish people,” she said. “Write letters, sign petitions… the state of Israel has an obligation to you. The wall also belongs to you.”

The event was cosponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life; the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, which is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation; the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department; the Film Studies Department; the National Center for Jewish Film; Women's and Gender Studies; the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Hopeful for the future of women’s rights in religion, Lahav concluded: “Progress and Judaism are not like oil and water. On the contrary, they are like milk and honey.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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