From the Back of the Bus to Segregated Beaches at Brandeis University

By | Apr 16, 2013
Israel, Latest, Religion, Women

This weekend marked the fifth annual Gender and Human Rights lecture and conference at Brandeis University. Named for Diane (Dina) Markowicz, a student with a passion for social justice who tragically passed away while enrolled at Brandeis in 1976, the weekend program was started by Diane’s sister Sylvia Neil (who clearly shares the family gene for human rights activism) in her late sister’s memory. The program was also intended to honor Brandeis’s tradition of integrating scholarship and social action, where thinkers “who are self-consciously Jewish and proud use that identity to achieve human rights and justice for all.”

The keynote speaker, Israeli-born activist Anat Hoffman of Women of the [Western] Wall and the Religious Action Center of Israel, clearly embodied those ideals in her speech entitled “From the Back of the Bus to the Top of the Agenda,” which paid great honor to the life and goals of Diane Markowicz, while ruefully demonstrating that the crusade for women’s equality in Israel has sadly been passed on “M’Dor L’Dor.” In an inspiring, humorous, reflective, and at times maddening lecture, Hoffman enumerated the challenges facing her organization—which primarily focuses on allowing women’s prayer groups to wear ritual garments and pray with a Torah scroll at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem—and its various achievements (and disappointments) realized through the courts and civil disobedience since the group’s founding in 1988. Stressing to her Boston-based audience that “Israel is way too important to be left to Israelis,” she called upon women and men to join the “Freedom Fighters” for full equality before the law and the Jewish people for women.

Perhaps most interestingly, Hoffman’s talk illustrated the complexity of balancing gender rights against other competing interests, including rights for the disabled and members of other religious denominations, as well as matters of class and race. (Most poignantly and problematically, even concerns for national security, with Hoffman herself recently being labeled a “strategic threat” to the State of Israel for antagonizing more conservative Diaspora donors.) Her nuanced presentation demonstrated both the necessary tensions and unlikely alliances that have emerged in her unique struggle to achieve gender equality in Israel.

A full-day conference devoted to “Gendered Rites/Gendered Rights: Sex Segregation, Religious Practice, and Public Life,” constructively and creatively elaborated on the themes raised in the keynote address. While exploring other “headline news” battlefronts for gender equality in the Jewish community (including Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe’s important paper on segregated buses in Israel), other research treated more unusual and unknown battles for integration—and self-selected segregation—across time and space, including gender segregated beaches in Israel (NYU graduate student Shayna Weiss), Women’s Hair Covering in Talmudic Times (Rabbi Hillel Athias-Robles, Columbia University), Women’s Education in Satmar Circles (Rabbi Dr. Ilan Fuchs, HBI), and “Rape Spheres” in Medieval Ashkenaz (Dr. Merav Schnitzer, Tel Aviv University-HBI). The program also took a refreshingly comparativist approach, bringing insights from the Islamic tradition, the Catholic world, revolutionary Europe and American Orthodoxy to help inform this debate. One hopes that this conference will inspire new questions about the relationship between the law and cultural change, within the Jewish sphere and beyond.

While Markowicz herself never had the opportunity to complete her “rite of passage” at Brandeis, the keynote and conference did justice to her legacy, hopefully inspiring a new generation of activists and academicians to fully integrate gendered rites and rights.

Sara Hirschhorn is a post-doctoral fellow at Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. She earned her doctorate in History (Middle East) at the University of Chicago, where she wrote her dissertation entitled “City on a Hilltop: The participation of Jewish-American Immigrants within the Israeli Settler Movement, 1967-1987.”

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