Friday, July 25, 2008

Women Knesset Members Silenced—in the Knesset

While the Israeli Knesset is the perfect place for power plays, this particular kind of power play was inappropriate even there.

When the Knesset choir sang “Hatikva” in honor of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit last Monday, women members of the Knesset choir were deliberately excluded so as not to offend Haredi Knesset members.

Female MKs joined forces Tuesday in protesting what MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) described as an anti-democratic decision to exclude women from the choir that sang “Hatikva” at the conclusion of British Premier Gordon Brown's Knesset appearance on Monday.

The choir in question was the official Knesset Choir, in which Solodkin, as well as MKs Zevulun Orlev (NU/NRP), Orit Noked (Labor) and Colette Avital (Labor) are active members.

On Tuesday, Avital collected the signatures of all 17 women MKs on a letter protesting the decision to exclude women from singing to avoid offending the sensibilities of haredi MKs.

“At the time, in the plenum, I didn't even understand what had happened,” Solodkin said Tuesday. “We began to sing ‘Hatikva,’ and I heard only men’s voices in the choir. I looked and saw our choir director leading all of our male choir members... When I heard how it sounded, I understood. Without women, the ‘Hatikva’ is different.”

Solodkin said she then asked some of the men in the choir what had happened, and they told her that they had been given a briefing before the performance, informing them that women were excluded from singing in the plenum because of the presence of haredi MKs.

I admit I don’t understand the logistics of this at all. The women MKs are members of the choir, so why didn’t they just join in when the singing started? Did someone turn off their microphones? Were they told to stay in their seats when the men went up to the platform to sing (if the men indeed did so)? Did they not know that the national anthem was going to be sung on this occasion? Something is missing in the article, but one thing is clear: there is a despicable power play going on here.

The Knesset is not a Haredi synagogue any more than the Western Wall plaza is. And the Western Wall plaza has been turned, for all practical purposes, into a Haredi synagogue rather than a place of prayer for all Jews. (Witness the modesty ushers in the ever-shrinking women’s section, the unchallenged presence there of male workers while no female workers are ever permitted to set foot in the men’s section, and the fact that the new indoor space for women provides them no access whatsoever to the Western Wall itself, but rather keeps them behind the men, separated by a partition of one-way glass.) The Knesset, the governing body for all Israelis, religious or not, Jewish or not, must not follow this disgraceful example.

Funny, but I don’t recall the Haredi MKs being so concerned with Knesset decorum before. What exactly is their problem? Are they concerned that the singing of the national anthem by women MKs at an official ceremony is going to make them think lewd thoughts? Do they really think that the next step after a mixed choir in the Knesset is a visit from the Vice Squad? Well, then, what’s next? An official dress code for women MKs? Requiring them to participate in sessions from a separate room, via closed-circuit television, because their presence in the plenum is considered a violation of modesty? Not having women MKs at all? Unfortunately, in the current climate those possibilities don’t seem all that ridiculous, even though they should.

But of course, this is not about modesty, just as the shameful political muscle-flexing at the Chords Bridge had nothing to do with modesty. It has never been about modesty. It is about power, and those who say otherwise are either deceiving others or deceiving themselves.

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