Israeli Women: the Discrepancy Between the Religious and the Secular

March 8, 2012
Israeli Women

Israel is a potpourri of international opinions, debates and speculations, yet with all its coverage, its impossible to experience the essence of the nation without living within its borders. I grew up in an Israeli household, with Israeli food cooking in the kitchen and Israeli music floating from the stereo, but until I moved here at the age of seventeen I had never truly understood what it meant to be a part of this multi-faceted culture and lifestyle.

One of the most striking aspects of this newfound consciousness was discovering how Israel, as a tiny, diverse nation, deals with her internal issues in the face of other Israelis. The issue of women is one that is often overlooked in Israel, engulfed by subjects that are deemed more internationally relevant. By disregarding this truth, Israel and the world have been neglecting a phenomenon that has been gradually gaining momentum: religious zealots who have dictated their own moral standards and, until recently, have gotten away with it.

The history of Israel’s treatment of women is well documented: immediately after gaining independence in 1947, legislation was passed guaranteeing women equal rights in work, education, health and social welfare. Women have been gradually progressing and flourishing in the field of politics, education and even military, where conscription is mandatory for both sexes. Laws protect the rights of women for equal opportunity and, officially, Israel strives to ensure that equality.

Israeli women have been gradually progressing and flourishing in the field of politics, education and even military.

However, human nature sometimes leads people to act in opposition to what is officially documented, and Israel is no exception. Established as a Jewish nation, the country was and is built on a medley of diverse cultural ideologies, and still today, each preserves their own moral guidelines within their respective private spheres. While institutionally women are treated as equals to men, the cultural and religious facets engrained in society reveal a somewhat different reality.

Israel is radically separated between the small ultra-orthodox and the much larger secular communities, and until recently each has lived in relative ignorance of the other.

However, a couple months ago the secular society was shocked by an event accidentally caught on camera: In the ultra-orthodox community in Beit Shemesh, an 8-year-old, modestly dressed religious girl was spit on and verbally harassed by a group of male residents who deemed her dress inappropriate. Why? She was wearing sandals.

The community had even established “modesty patrol.”

The tension created by these ultra-orthodox men and the orthodox community in their neighbourhood was fueled by the erection of a religious – not ultra-orthodox – all-girls school in the city. Long before the video leak, young girls and women had been harassed and marginalized in the community, forced to walk on gender-separated sidewalks and cross the street if they happen to come across a synagogue. The community had even established “modesty patrol,” reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother infringement on people’s natural right to act, speak and dress as they desire.

Though obviously not condoning this type of behaviour, the Israeli government had opted to turn a blind eye to these medieval activities. Forced into action by society’s uproar, police were later pelted with rocks as they entered the community to remove illegal signs denoting gender segregation.

While the vast majority of Israeli society has voiced disgust at these discoveries, it doesn’t change what has obviously been happening – or not happening – right under our noses. By marginalizing the ultra-orthodox minority we are by default allowing them to act as they deem fit, and while official change may take place under the law, it doesn’t change a deep-rooted mentality of inequality and segregation.

Israeli Women: the Discrepancy Between the Religious and the Secular

I’ve been living in Tel Aviv for the past five years, a city where equality and tolerance of all cultural aspects are ubiquitously embraced. While the forwardness of Israeli men may sometimes be irksome, it’s easy to turn them down with a firm ‘no’ (and watch them turn right around to the girl sitting behind you) and go on with your evening.

Since this incident surfaced it’s been readdressing the issue of women in the secular society, as men and women alike are coalescing into one strong stance for equality and gender rights throughout the nation.

Today, women are standing up straighter and looking deeper into the eyes of those who dare defy them, because we know we have the benefit of the nation to back us up. A few weeks ago, a woman was nationally commended for refusing to move to the back of the bus at a religious man’s order.

Demonstrations are packed with both sexes, equally distressed and adamant that change is implemented and understood. What’s striking about this issue is that it’s become everyone’s prerogative, everyone’s fight. The power of the majority is evident, and with that the hope that, eventually, Israel’s laws will be carried out notwithstanding individual interpretation.


Photo credits for Israeli Women: the Discrepancy Between the Religious and the Secular by Gili Kerev. Have you traveled to Israel? How was your trip? Email us at [email protected] for information about sharing your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.

About Gili Karev

Gili Karev moved to Israel after high school.

3 thoughts on “Israeli Women: the Discrepancy Between the Religious and the Secular

  1. June 22, 2012

    The ability to think like that shows you’re an eeprxt

  2. Apel
    March 10, 2012

    What an appropriate article published in the week we celebrate the international Day for Women. Gili Karev has captured the on- going problem of women in many Western countries, where on the surface there is equality, but scratch a little and you will find a slightly different picture. Great article, write more!

  3. Meira Applebaum
    March 9, 2012

    Gili tells it exactly as it is. Life in Israel can be pulled in many directions. But most of the time it is a harmonious commumity of many different sects. Isralis all want the same important goal …. peace.
    Disputes between “brothers” will be achieved in time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *