In this beautiful post, my favorite modern-day Jewish sage Amichai Lau-Lavie shares his interpretation of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Amichai reminds us that, “Each night offers an opportunity for focus on one form of darkness that we may want to name – and do something about,” and invites us to join him in giving new intention and meaning to our annual candle lighting ritual.
Amichai’s reflections resonate strongly with me as a documentary filmmaker. Much of my work is dedicated to shedding light on various social issues to help bring about change. Most recently, my attention has been focused on the issue of gender segregation in Israel that is being increasingly suggested and enforced by the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish population, particularly in Jerusalem. Many Haredis believe that any presence of women in public space breaks religious standards of “modesty.”
This issue plays out in Israeli society in many ways, ranging from subtle pressures to blatant violence. In terms of subtle pressure, images of women have slowly been removed from advertisements on public buses because ads featuring women are so often vandalized by Haredi extremists, making it not worth the advertisers’ investments to place women in ads. The company who manages the ads now wants a deposit of 50,000 shekels from anyone posting images of women, to cover potential damage.
Unfortunately, Haredi actions do not end with mere vandalizing. Recently, a 50-year-old woman was badly beaten by a group of Haredi men when she refused to move to the back of a public bus that is informally segregated because its route goes through a Haredi neighborhood.
Damaged ad in Jerusalem. By Sebastian Scheiner/AP.
One of Battle For Jerusalem’s protagonists, Rachel Azaria, has lately found herself in the center of these controversies. As both a modern Orthodox, observant Jew and an elected member of Jerusalem’s City Council, she has always been in a uniquely threatening position to her Haredi counterparts. You may remember my post from this past July when Haredi council members blocked her ascendancy to the Deputy Mayor position. In October, the Mayor stripped Rachel of her municipal committee leadership positions after she went over his head to the High Court of Israel to oppose gender-segregated sidewalks in a Haredi neighborhood. By the way, the court ruled in Rachel’s favor.
Rather than taking the hit quietly, Rachel has thrust herself into a highly visible position of leadership among women and men who publicly oppose gender segregation policies. And they’ve already had some success, including a recent campaign to get images of women back into advertisements in public spaces. This campaign was spearheaded by the “Jerusalemites” movement, a community-based social change organization that Rachel founded when she ran for office in 2008.
Even some ultra-Orthodox women are beginning to take a stand, claiming that there is no source in Jewish law that demands men and women to be strictly segregated in every day life. When I spoke with Rachel recently, she sounded optimistic. “Two years ago,” she told me, “the story would have been that gender segregation is getting worse. Today, the story is that women are fighting back.”
There are still plenty of battles ahead, but Rachel Azaria and several Israeli civil rights organizations will be lighting the way for those of us interested in supporting the cause of fair gender representation in Israeli public space.
If you are one of those folks, I recommend following the excellent news feed of Religion and State in Israel which rounds up articles on these matters daily from around the globe. Also be sure to check out the work of New Israel Fund, Hiddush, and Israel Religious Action Center, all which deal with democracy and religious pluralism in Israel and have been active in opposing gender segregation.
For my part, I will continue to illuminate these issues throughout the production of Battle for Jerusalem, Jerusalem Unfiltered, and beyond, and I hope you’ll continue to support the projects and keep checking in on our progress. Meanwhile, Happy Chanukah! May there be light in your lives!
Posted by lizfilm