About a month ago I left Israel for a 10-day vacation, only to discover upon my return that it had become a different Israel. Gender segregation, an issue that NCJW has been involved in for years (e.g., Women of the Wall, the segregation on public buses, and the rights of agunot) had become front-page news with the story of Naama, a young child in Beit Shemesh taunted for her “immodest dress” by ultra-Orthodox zealots. Suddenly, it was the piece of news about which everyone — from Hillary Clinton to Prime Minister Netanyahu — was speaking.
My own daughter, an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, was on her way home on leave when she was spat on and called names by an ultra-Orthodox zealot at a bus stop in Jerusalem. This is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that now, finally, the secular population is realizing that such incidents are not only about what “they” do in their own communities, but rather a symptom of the political system that has allowed religion to become part and parcel of civil government and civil society. The request of Haredi soldiers not to have to listen to women soldiers singing in an army choir is a perfect example of a system — put into place with good intentions — that has gone wrong. What if secular soldiers refused to listen to the Kiddush (blessing over the wine) at Friday night Shabbat meals? Or, if Druze soldiers demanded bread to be served alongside matzah on Pesach? Would that be respected as well?
I remembered when many years ago, the Ponovitch Rav, the great spiritual and intellectual leader of Lithuanian Judaism (the non-Hasidic branch of Haredi Judaism) came from Israel to Miami, where I grew up. My father went with my mother, both without head coverings, to pick him up at the airport. My mother, out of respect for the Rav, who was then old and frail, immediately took a seat in the back of the car, in order to allow the Rav to sit up front with my father. “Absolutely not,” declared the Rav, “I would never separate a husband and wife.” And so the great Rav sat in the back of the car with my mother in front alongside my father.