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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Solving a problem begins by calling it by its proper name

It's difficult these days to talk about anything associated with the 'ultra-religious' (i.e. Hareidi') sector of Israeli society without being drawn into an unhealthy mix of side-issues that, if extant in any other sector of the population, would not be seen as being in any way relevant.

For example, open a discussion of the terms of service by ultra-orthodox Jews in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and you will not only find yourself being given contradictory information that ultra-orthodox don't serve in the IDF, and that they are taking over the IDF... but you will also likely be dragged into a discussion of the illegal behavior or the ultra-orthodox civilians(!) towards their less Hareidi neighbors in Beit Shemesh, and their attempts to segregate Israeli buses along gender lines.

The problem in allowing the mixing of all these issues/stories into a single discussion isn't that they aren't true (at least in part), but rather that they attempt to discuss all religious people when each of the sub-discussions being tossed in may only apply to a specific (and often tiny, non-representative) portion of the religious/Hareidi population.

This is akin to trying to hold an intelligent discussion about affirmative action in the US while allowing the introduction of side issues such as welfare statistics, crime rates, the prevalence of single parenthood within the black community, and even unsubstantiated personal anecdotes by participants in the discussion about negative interactions they've had with blacks. 

In short, not only does a productive discussion of affirmative action become impossible under such circumstances, but the discussion can't help but be hijacked by those whose intention it is to portray African Americans in as unsympathetic a light as possible… specifically so as to make them seem undeserving of any sort of systemic preferential treatment (such as affirmative action).

I use the example of affirmative action advisedly.  According to a commonly accepted definition, affirmative action refers to policies that take factors including "race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin" into consideration in order to benefit an underrepresented group, usually as a means to counter the effects of a history of discrimination. [emphasis mine] [source]

I don't think anyone will argue that new policies and laws being introduced in the IDF and Israeli society as a whole, are intended to benefit Hareidim because historically they have been underrepresented.  The main difference here is that the underrepresentation of Hareidim in the IDF, and the Israeli workforce, has largely been a matter of their own choice rather than the workforce and the IDF overtly excluding them.

But even that isn't entirely correct.  And to illustrate this I need to borrow yet another example from the US.

I served in the U.S. Navy at a time when women were just beginning to be allowed to serve on combat ships, and in roles/areas that had been entirely male bastions.   

I recall that suddenly there was a lot of discussion of topics that had never been raised onboard American Navy ships such as 'appropriate behavior', 'sexual harassment', 'creating a hostile environment', etc..  

Also, inspections were being held on a regular basis to ensure that Playboy centerfolds and other potentially offensive images were no longer taped up in workspaces, and workshops were held to role play what kind of jokes and slang was acceptable in a mixed-gender environment, and what was considered appropriate behavior between superiors and subordinates of different gender.

Things that had formerly been considered part and parcel of 'team building' and 'unit cohesion' such as initiations, hazing and good natured reinforcement of the military hierarchy known as the 'Chain of Command' had to be reexamined to see how they would be perceived by women. 

Needless to say, whether or not you were in favor of the gender integration of Navy ships, you had to admit that the practical aspects of integration required a significant upheaval of the prevailing culture if the new system was going to work.

It has taken awhile, but a combination of economic and cultural pressures on the Israeli Hareidi community has begun to make them reassess the workability of their isolationist policies.  

First of all, the Israeli government's slow winnowing of benefits to larger families (a policy begin by current Prime Minister Natenyahu when he was Ariel Sharon's Finance Minister), by itself has had little effect on the Hareidi population's willingness to make internal changes.  

But add to those polices the global financial down-turn which has shattered the model by which a significant portion of the Hareidi population subsisted, at least in part, on largess from more affluent Hareidi communities and organizations abroad… and suddenly you have a community that is extremely motivated to find new ways to support itself.

So for a number of reasons, the proportion of Hareidim in Israel who want to join the workforce has taken a noticeable jump.  The problem is that translating the desire to work into actually going to work requires a clearing a legal hurdle:  According to Israeli law, you can't legally get a job without having done military, or some other approved national service.  

One could argue that this law isn't applied uniformly / equitably across the board to Israel's Arab population (or even to some segments of Israel's secular draft dodgers), but that's a discussion for another day.  I won't fall victim to the same sort of topic blending that I complained about above.

For whatever reason, the Hareidim have begun to be stirred from their isolationist slumber, and are starting, albeit slowly, to be show up in the IDF and the civilian workforce.  It is a trickle at present… but with the right encouragement, it could swell to a torrent.

I would argue that this is a good thing.  There is a lot of work yet to be done, and the numbers need to grow exponentially… but you can't complain that a segment of the population isn’t carrying its load… and yet continue to make them feel unwelcome when they show up to shoulder their share.

Like those U.S. Navy combat ships that saw the first female officers and sailors serving aboard them, the IDF has a period of adjustment ahead of it.  And media reports incorrectly portraying religious soldiers' unwillingness to listen to female voices in song as a desire to outlaw women singing in the IDF is not helpful (to say the least).

Retired Israeli judge Tzvi Tal said it far better than I ever could when he offered the following to an interviewer this past week on that topic:

"I think this matter of women's singing is strange. No one forbids women's singing. There is a group that thinks that for religious reasons, it must not listen to women's singing. So why force it upon them? Why do the 'champions' of freedom of expression and the 'champions' of minority rights want to force this [singing] upon a minority?" … "Who said that [female soldiers] must not sing? Let them sing until they are blue in the face." … "Let's say that another minority in the army says that it refuses to hear women's singing – the Druze or Circassians, for instance. Would anyone force it upon them? Does service in the IDF compel people to listen to singing? Service in the IDF demands self-sacrifice. And this, these [religious] soldiers are willing to give."  [source]

I couldn't agree more. 

For many religious (not just Hareidi) soldiers, hearing a woman sing is as overtly erotic as a Playboy pinup.  You can argue all you want that they need to toughen up and join the modern world.  But in doing so, you are also saying that those women who began serving on U.S. Navy back in the 80s should also have 'toughened up' and acclimated themselves to the testosterone-laden environment they were so keen to join.  

The difference is that, unlike the navy example I gave earlier… the IDF isn't saying that in order to make religious soldiers feel more comfortable female singing should be eliminated from all gatherings and ceremonies.  No, they are simply saying that anyone who might have trouble listening to it should not be forced to do so (and should be quietly excused).

Sadly, one wouldn't know that from the news coverage and public discussion of the subject.

In fact, this has been the defacto policy for decades in the IDF.  It only became a cause célèbre for the media when a secular commander in an elite IDF naval officer's course decided to break with the accepted status quo and ordered several religious cadets to remain in an organized event where women were singing.  The cadets followed their conscience instead of their commander's orders, and as a result, were dismissed from the course (most have subsequently been readmitted).  

I tried having this discussion with one of my coworkers, and was shocked to have him start talking to me about the ultra-religious who were attacking less religious school children in Beit Shemesh, and others who were trying to force women to sit at the back of public buses.  He even tossed all religious settlers under the proverbial bus due to the criminal actions of a few teenagers who had recently thrown rocks at an army officer.  

No amount of persuasion on my part that such actions were as illegal as they were non-representative of the larger populations to which the perpetrators belonged, had the slightest affect on the bile being spewed by this gentleman.  All he knew was that these problems were being caused by 'those religious fanatics', so he felt justified in attacking the entire group.

When I asked him how he would feel if I asked him to take personal responsibility for the leftists who had injured scores of soldiers and police officers over the last few years at daily protests over the route of the 'separation fence', he waved me away with a dismissing hand.  

I asked him if he felt that the criminal acts by Anat Kamm represented him?  I even asked if he wanted to be held responsible for the nearly daily acts of violence carried out in Tel Aviv and Natanya by rival crime gangs?   

After his initial dismissal, my questions fell on deaf ears.  He considered my questions ridiculous (which, of course they were)… but could not make the intellectual leap to see that his blanket accusations were equally silly.

In short, we all seem to see our own camp as a richly diverse heterogeneous mosaic, while we see those we dislike (or simply don't understand) as belonging to a monolithic, homogeneous block possessing the attributes and intentions of its most deviant and subversive members.

I've written this today, not because I have a suggestion on how to get the media to stop mixing unrelated subjects and inciting baseless suspicion and hatred between the religious and non-religious segments of Israeli society.  I have written it because sometimes the only way to begin to solve a problem is to identify it and begin calling it by its proper name; In this case, Bigotry.

Posted by David Bogner on January 8, 2012 | Permalink


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I must say that was a bit nervous as I started reading this — you and I have had our differences over the years, particularly with regard to the Charedi world… Thank you so much for a balanced and fair perspective on this issue.

p.s. It's good to see you back in my RSS feed ;-)

Posted by: stam.scribe | Jan 8, 2012 11:40:30 AM

I just want to be clear. According to your analogy: Haredi men = Women. Women singing in official army ceremonies = pornography in public workplaces / sexual harassment. But just as the Navy decided what to outlaw and what not to, so has the Israeli army. And were a woman to decide ON HER OWN that a particular environment was offensive to her, but the Navy brass disagreed and said that it met their standards of conduct, would the Navy allow her to recuse herself as a matter of policy? I doubt it. And going back to the Israeli army for a moment, please tell me where does it end? Is not the sight of a woman in pants problematic? So what about allowing religious soldiers to absent themselves any time an immodestly dressed woman is present? What about following the orders of a woman? Is that not against halacha, according to some opinions? So should soldiers be able to disregard orders from female officers? Or do you just create all-male units to avoid the issue altogether? And if so, do you think the American Navy would have created all female units in order to accommodate the women they were hoping to integrate into the service? Or let's say that we were trying to integrate the underrepresented Appalachian redneck into the American army, but they couldn't handle being in any unit with blacks or latinos or Jews, would you accommodate that as well? Ultimately, leadership of an organization determines what is and is not to be treated as tolerable. And by extension, it is intolerable for one not to tolerate that which the leadership has ruled is tolerable.

Posted by: Andy | Jan 8, 2012 12:23:29 PM

Andy... You have built a classic straw man and then easily destroyed it. Any analogy is going to be flawed. If you try to latch on to something I said as an example in order to prove your case... you will win. But we will all lose. You have also offered a bunch of 'what if... ' scenarios which are not rlevant... at least at this point. There's a great line from 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' where the father of the family is asked what they will do if all their reletaives from Poland were to suddenly show up at their door. the father says something to the affect of, "I can't deal with relatives who haven't landed yet".

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 8, 2012 12:46:13 PM

The law of men not being able to hear women sing is not made-up - it's part of Halacha, as much as any other part of Halacha that we keep, like the Rabbinic laws in terms of Shabbos and Kosher. The fact that we have "toughened up" so much as a society that most men don't find women singing erotic is not the fault of the orthodox who still keep this law and are sensitive to it.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 8, 2012 3:10:07 PM

First, there's a serious error in your article... The's NO law in that requires that a job applicant has to have served in the IDF... In fact, it's illegal for an employer to ask what the prospective employer to ask the applicant about their military background!...

Second, I agree with your position that people (religious or otherwise) should NOT be forced to act against their convictions... In other words, as an example, religious soldiers should not be forced to hear a female singer...

Posted by: Shtrudel | Jan 8, 2012 5:30:17 PM

There are so many excellent points made in this essay that all I can do is say "Spot on!" to the entire thing. Your examples worked for me. But then, preaching to the converted isn't much of a feather in your cap. :-)

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jan 8, 2012 5:36:30 PM

As a white South African I have to disagree vehemently with your attitude to affirmative action, after suffering under 17 years of Black Affirmative action , the government is actually realising that it aint working so instead of dropping it they have tightened the screws even more and basically making it difficult or even impossible for an employer to employ a non-black.The response from whites has been a surge in young white entrepreneurs which is frustrating the whole process because what the government really wants is not lots of well off black but lots of impoverished whites, well off blacks would not vote for the government.Regarding the number of children that a family has, it is quite simple "you breed em , you feed em"

Posted by: Joe | Jan 8, 2012 5:57:27 PM

The best way to deal with Haredi participation in the IDF might be to form separate units for those who want it, and then gradually integrate as more experience is gained on how to accomodate large numbers of Haredi in the IDF.Leaving singing aside, it must be made clear to all that women have an indispensable role in the war fighting abilities of the IDF which will never be compromised. The Israeli justice system seems to have a problem punishing law breakers on the left and right, creating an atmosphere of permisiveness in society. As the Haredi integrate more with Israeli society, compromises will have to be made by both sides in education,the IDF,and the work force; demonizing the other side is never a good solution.

Posted by: ED | Jan 8, 2012 7:20:56 PM

Just to try to clarify the issue of going to work without having done military service... it's not that there's a law preventing work in that situation... the issue is that in order to avoid military service you need an exemption. This exemption requires you to be learning in kollel full time and does not allow you to work. If you go to work, the government will find out about it, since your employer must file tax and Bituach Leumi for you. This will be proof that your exemption is no longer valid and thus the army will cancel it and draft you. So this system tends to be a strong motivator for kollel students to not work.

Posted by: Nachum | Jan 8, 2012 8:21:06 PM

The military exemption explains why Charedi men under age 24 without children don't work. It doesn't explain why so many Charedi men over age 24 with 2 children don't work. And it doesn't explain the chronic underemployment among most Charedi men throughout their entire lives.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 9, 2012 6:16:37 AM

I have been reading about the issues you discuss for a while, and yours is the most intelligent, balanced take on the topic that I have yet seen. Spot on.

Posted by: psachya | Jan 9, 2012 4:37:14 PM

I've been gone for awhile. Damn, you are an excellent writer. Thought about submitting this somewhere? I can't believe Jpost wouldn't publish it.

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | Jan 10, 2012 11:35:25 AM

Mark- obligation for army service is determined based on a person's status when it first becomes relevant, i.e. at 18. They can them postpone the service in 6 month increments if they are a kollel student. So the 24 year old with 2 kids still officially has to do full army service if he either leaves kollel or tries to work.
He can becomes officially exempt at age 28. By that point it's often too late, since someone under great financial pressure has a harder time investing time and money in professional courses, training, etc, and most of the menial work they can do at that point still won't be enough to live on anyway, so there is little incentive to work at that point.
The main historical reason for the reluctance of chareidim to join the army is lack of trust and fear of secular coercion, which unfortunately has a strong historical basis. Anti-zionists won't serve for ideological reasons, but that's not true for most chareidim.
Making sure that army service is a viable option for the chareidi community is really important for chareidim, for the Israeli economy, for the army, for everyone.
We need to do everything possible so that respect and accommodation (instead of rampant bigotry, as David so precisely defined it) become the rule here so that we can all live together and succeed together.

Posted by: Yosef | Jan 11, 2012 1:21:24 AM

-- For many religious (not just Hareidi) soldiers, hearing a woman sing is as overtly erotic as a Playboy pinup. You can argue all you want that they need to toughen up and join the modern world. But in doing so, you are also saying that those women who began serving on U.S. Navy back in the 80s should also have 'toughened up' and acclimated themselves to the testosterone-laden environment they were so keen to join. --


It seems to me that there is NO moral equivalence here at all. The moral thing is not to treat women as sex objects. The US and Israeli military expectations serve the same moral purpose. Both taking down pin ups and insisting that haredi men have a healthier view of women reduce the sexual objectification of women.

The things you call the same serve contradictory moral purposes. Men toughening up by learning not to view women's voices as sexual _decreases_ the sexual objectification of women. Women toughening up by laughing off and never protesting pin-ups or disrespectful jokes _maintains_ or _increases_ the sexual objectification of women.

Considering that the Haredim are arguing for this in the name of religion AND are excusing their behavior by claiming it is respectful of women (it isn't), neither moral result nor the sexual objectification of women are side issues here.

Posted by: Beth Frank-Backman | Jan 17, 2012 7:54:47 AM

Beth Frank-Backman ... What you fail to explain is why the religiously observant Jews in the IDF have to 'toughen up' and adapt rather than the system. It seems to me that the rules they are trying to follow have far more substantial weight and provenance than some army manual that states that events with singing build morale. Please think before you engage your keyboard.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 18, 2012 3:19:26 PM

-- What you fail to explain is why the religiously observant Jews in the IDF have to 'toughen up' --

I should think that would be obvious.
But if you need an explanation, it might go like this:

"Kol Isha" is fundamentally a prohibition against looking or hearing a woman for sexual purposes. Many poseks believe it is possible to hear and look at women if you are doing it for non sexual purposes.

Jews are responsible for doing teshuvah when they do something that is wrong. Viewing women as sex objects is wrong. Hence a male who has difficulties with that should be working on teshuvah. If that means "toughing up" so be it. But generally, it just means a change in attitude that focuses on all the other aspects of women: their intelligence, their dedication, their vision, their awareness of emotional dynamics, etc, etc.

By contrast, the woman who is upset at being objectified by pin-ups on board a ship hasn't committed any sin. She is being sinned against. Therefore she has no responsibility for teshuvah or toughening up.

Posted by: Beth Frank-Backman | Jan 18, 2012 9:18:15 PM

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