Separate-Sex Sidewalks and Civil Rights

Tomer Appelbaum via Haaretz

This year, like last year, the neighborhood of Meah Shearim posted signs indicating that during the Sukkot celebrations, men and women would be directed to separate sidewalks. Civil rights or anti-haredi activists, depending on your perspective, petitioned the court, which ruled that the sidewalks belong to both sexes equally. The ruling was not enforced.

After the holiday, a group of civil rights activists entered the neighborhood and were greeted with food and rocks thrown from the balconies.

But is it right for outsiders to interfere? Reader Henya writes on the Mother in Israel Facebook page:

And if people belonging to a certain community prefer separate streets or buses it is silly and cruel to force them together for the sake of imagined equality.You as me how I know, simple – I happen to have the same values. If I could I would live there.

And Julia adds:

With all my liberal inclinations aside, I understand the intention of the haredi residents to impose some “social order” on Succot. It is not an easy holiday (similar to Purim) to maintain the “normal” gender separation. These holidays are great times for people to mingle, and that is very threatening to their normal mores. People are happy, there’s music, there’s no set schedule– its a recipe for disaster 😉

A similar scenario is playing out in New York, where a bus company that runs a public line in New York City requires women to sit in the back.

Both instances of sex-separation are clearly illegal. And in both cases outsiders discovered the violations and set out to enforce the law.

This raises important questions, like how far society can take religious tolerance? Do we know that all of the women in these communities are happy with the situation, as Henya suggests? And if they are all happy, should it matter?

Unpious, an ex-hasid, argues that until Hasidic women speak up, nothing will change.

What do you think?

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  1. I don’t have any answers, though my liberal inclinations finding this disturbing, but I just want to say that your blog is awesome for bringing up the discussion. Thank you!

  2. Ms. Krieger says

    Henya wrote:
    “And if people belonging to a certain community prefer separate streets or buses it is silly and cruel to force them together for the sake of imagined equality.You as me how I know, simple – I happen to have the same values. If I could I would live there.”

    The fact that this is a religious issue may be skewing our perceptions. Imagine yourself in the American South circa 1960. And imagine someone saying Henya’s first sentence to you. What kind of taste do you get in your mouth?

    “Separate but equal,” ugh.

    Many of Israel’s problems stem from its incredible tolerance of diverse values. Citizens must share certain basic ideals and values in order to form a cohesive nation, and Israel’s fractured schooling system and tolerance for gross variations in civil rights are weakening it. (I”m not just talking haredi/national religious/secular, I’m talking Jew/Arab Israeli and sephardi/ashkenazi/etc. too.) A country like Israel, with a massively diverse citizenry, needs to decide on firm bottom line of civil rights, freedoms, restrictions, and then inculcate this through a cohesive schooling system and the army.

  3. The main thing I learned from this post was that I’ve been missing out on all the fun on facebook all this time! 🙂
    I do believe in religious tolerance. That’s why I really don’t see any point in getting involved in sexist practices that take place in Haredi private spaces, e.g. women being expected to sit in the back of the family car and not to drive, separate seating at meals in the home or at simchas, etc, as long as the practices don’t get abusive or dangerous (e.g. child marriages, silencing domestic abuse victims).

    I think the Haredim would like you to think that this issue about the sidewalks is the same as those benign sexist practices in the home – things that the truly religious tolerant need to accept rather than intrude and impose their own values. That’s because they would like you to think that the sidewalks of Meah Shearim are the same as the insides of their houses and cars – they believe and want you to believe too that the sidewalks of Meah Shearim are the personal property of the Haredim who live in Meah Shearim, rather than public property built and maintained by taxpayers and belonging to everyone.

    The Haredim of Meah Shearim have tried to assert their ownership over the public domain in many ways before – insisting on modest dress on “their” streets, getting “their” streets blocked off to traffic on Shabbat. I think this is also what’s behind all the extremists in Beit Shemesh about building a school next to “their” neighborhood as if, like Yertle the Turtle, they are king of all that they see.

    So in my opinion, framing this incident as an question of religious tolerance vs. widespread application of liberal values, framing this issue as one in which what matters is whether Haredi women are oppressed by the mechitzot, is playing into the greedy hands of the Haredi power grabbers. This is an issue of who the public domain belongs to. Personally, I think it belongs to the public.

  4. Actually the issue is quite simple. At this time the sidewalks and roads are maintained by the State. The State pays for this maintenance through taxpayer dollars. This means that the rules while on those roads and sidewalks are those of the State. What the UO crowd wants to do in their own private places is none of our business but no civilized country would allow a group with discriminatory rules to enforce those rules in public places.
    What’s more, a good chunk of this is due to the UO crowd knowing that their fellow Jews will put up with this nonsense. There were no attempts by Chasidim in Poland or Russia to create separate sidewalks, even in the ghetto. They knew the authorities would react and they were scared of that. Here they are taking advantage of a society that tolerates them.
    If the fanatics in Meah Shearim want separate sidewalks let them negotiate a deal with the State whereby they assume sole responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of public areas. Then they can say “Well this is private property and these are our rules”. Until then, if they don’t like it let them hide in doors and pretend like it’s 1850 Poland again.

  5. Menachem Lipkin says

    While what they did was technically illegal. I think having the courts trying to impose a solution was the wrong tactic. Mea Shaarim is an insular, backward, misogynistic, community. They brainwash their flocks with a constant drumbeat of the “evils” of the outside world. An attack via the secular legal system only serves to bolster their paranoia.

    In my opinion, the proper response would have been a boycott of the community. There may have been a time 20-30 years ago that the things one could purchase there were unique. No longer. Other than to gawk at this living anachronism there is really no reason normal people have to enter this place. I live in Israel and haven’t set foot in Mea Shaarim or Geulah for at least 3 years and I see no need to ever have to enter those areas again.

    As long they keep their Islamic-like nonsense confined to their 4 amos I see no reason not to let them wallow in it. Once they try to project it out of their ghetto that’s when we have to smack them down.

    • Menachem, “smack them down?” This kind of language disturbs me–there is a real risk of dehumanization when the emotions are running high.
      As for boycotting, the obvious thing to choose is the kashrut certification. So many people, who do not identify as haredim, only eat Badatz and the Edah Haredit is the most common. It would actually be quite hard to boycott it.

  6. It’s interesting, I never thought of it as “discrimination” before. It was just something that was done in these religious circles.

    I do agree with Menachem (though I would be more mild in my wording) that if people want to keep certain stringencies, bevakesha, but once they try to impose these stringencies on everyone else, it becomes a problem.

    If the residents of these neighborhoods want to walk on separate sidewalks, they should make announcements in their communities, and their shuls and enforce it within their own community. Whatever the public at large does should not be their affair. Visitors who are sensitive to these kind of things will probably notice the gender segregation, and can choose to follow it if they like, but this kind of thing is silly to try and enforce. Just silly.

    It also breaks my heart to hear reports of so-called religious people throwing stones and food. This is not following the Torah, people. I just hate it.

  7. Well, I am of the mind that if the majority in the community request separate sidewalks, we could find a way to accept this. Do I agree with this? Absolutely no. But if the women in Mea Shearim are not complaining, why should we “liberate” them whether they like it or not?

    I, however, find Julia’s and similar attitudes troubling. Why is allowing men and women brief contact on a sidewalk, in full public view during Succot a recipe for disaster? Is she and those holding similar positions think that once adults, otherwise careful about mitzva observance, are left to their own devices, without separate sidewalks and a watchful eye of a rabbi, would all of a sudden turn into sexually incontinent animals? Simply because they walked past females on the street with music playing?

  8. Channa said:
    I do believe in religious tolerance. That’s why I really don’t see any point in getting involved in sexist practices that take place in Haredi private spaces,

    Do the people who say that they believe in religious tolerance really believe in this idea or is the tolerance only extended to haredim? If one really believes in religious tolerance, than why shouldn’t Reform Rabbis be allowed to perform marriages? Why can’t non-kosher meats be imported into the country? I can go on.

    • I support all those things too, and while I can’t actually speak for anyone other than myself, I can’t really imagine why anyone would say they support religious tolerance if they only mean they are tolerant of Haredim.

  9. I agree with all the posters who talk about public space where discrimination should not be tolerated.
    Two things I’ve been thinking about:
    1. the total sex segregation is, I believe, a relatively new phenomenon. My mother came from a chassidic background (her father had left chasidut but remained close to family) and always said that many of the stringencies were new. The “back of the bus” and “separate sidewalks” are, I believe, new concepts and part of what seems like a campaign to erase women from public life. this isn’t only misogynistic, it’s also dangerous. When women are hidden, many horrible things are hidden. And I agree with subwife that there is something perverse about thinking that men and women walking on sidewalks leads to sexual impropriety. Many years ago, a Satmar cousin visited my family (she stayed with my Orthodox parents while her husband was in hospital–and brought her own pots and pans to their kosher house). My mother took her to a mother’s day seudah shlishit at their shul & the Satmar cousin kept asking how people kept from having affairs since the men & women sat at the table together, many women with hair uncovered. . . . Just one anecdote but I see that kind of thinking behind the segregation.
    As to unpious: I think it’s a lot to ask the women of the community to rebel especially if they don’t see outsiders taking issue with what is happen. These women are oppressed and every effort a woman might make meets with strong opposition in her community. Of course women in the community enforce the misogynistic rules–it’s too scary to think of leaving the community for most. I don’t find the argument that they accept it at all compelling–just like women in plural marriage may accept it. That’s not the point. The point is the campaign to oppress women and, it seems, deny their existence. This is wrong. Discrimination in public spaces is wrong even if many in that community accept it. And oppression and abuse within the home (which is more easily hidden under these circumstances) is not a private matter and should also be prosecuted.

  10. Darth_Zeidah says

    “After the holiday, a group of civil rights activists entered the neighborhood and were greeted with food and rocks thrown from the balconies.”

    The very fact that these – erm – zealots had rock all prepared to throw from their balconies is clear evidence of premeditated attack.

    Moreover, if they had enough spare food to throw is clear evidence of conspicuous waste and prosperity. No more donations for them from me in future!

  11. I don’t think it is the choice of a community at large but rather the ability of certain power groups to make sure their agendas become that of the community. I would have less of a problem with ‘ seperation ‘ issues if other issues like midot , menschligkeit, becoming self sufficient , a kidush Hashem etc were on the agenda as well. Unfortunately thsese issues need ‘chinuch ‘ and intrinsic motivation. The agenda focuses on control and external motivation