In the alternate reality that emerged from some ultra-Orthodox news reports in recent months (with a little help from Photoshop) there are no female ministers in the new government, Kanye West made an Israel visit solo, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel refrained from attending the million-man Paris march after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
The various Haredi papers at the heart of these incidents – which garnered both international and local media coverage — have defended the editorial decisions to wipe out the women’s faces, citing the modesty considerations and religious sensitivities of their readership.
Critics have charged that the practice is part of a systematic elimination of women from the public sphere and the incidents have largely been framed as a worrying marker of a new kind of radicalism in the ultra-Orthodox community, prompting some dire predictions.
Yet Israeli researchers and ultra-Orthodox social activists maintained this week that the censorship of women’s faces in the Haredi press is a longstanding tradition dating back “decades.”
Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of the late Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef and founder of the first academic college for Haredi women, sounded the alarm last week about the disappearance of women.
“If a man cannot look at a woman and say ‘What a healthy and handsome woman the Almighty has created,’ then I do not know what is happening to us,” she said. “And I fear that if this continues, we will have to veil our faces.”
But experts were dismissive of fears of a new, rapidly deteriorating strain of extremism portending the “return of the burka.”
“Suffice it to say that this is nothing new; Adina Bar Shalom is all wrong on this,” said Prof. Kimmy Caplan of the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University.
The status quo for ‘decades’
“No Haredi newspaper — that I know of at least — from the [British] Mandate era until today publishes photos of women,” Caplan said.
“You could say that it’s a radicalization from the start that this policy was enforced… but since this was in place from the start, there is nothing different here, nothing new here. It is exactly the same. Exactly.”
Caplan said the Haredi press, more than other newspapers, filters news content to suit its value system, refraining from coverage of rape and prostitution, and using euphemisms for the word “pig.” “Therefore, it advocates the right of the public not to know, the right of the public not to see, because – let’s put it this way — various ideological and educational values override the public’s right to know.”
The reasons behind censoring women’s faces from photos is twofold, Caplan said. First, it’s based on rulings by Haredi religious leaders, and second, it’s a form of symbolic protest against women holding political roles — a move he likened to the decision by UTJ members to be called “deputy ministers” rather than full ministers, despite holding the responsibilities of ministers, because they don’t want to be seen as part of the Israeli government.
“There is an across the board ideological opposition, among most Haredi groups, to women as public representatives – whether in the Knesset, in the government, in the local authorities, in every area. And to put a picture is essentially, indirectly, to legitimize the phenomenon,” he said.
Dr. Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar from the Department of Communication at Sapir Academic College told The Times of Israel that the “phenomenon of erasing or blurring out the photos of women in the Haredi press is not new at all.” Photos of female Knesset members in previous governments or on judicial panels have been blurred out in the past, she said, and in one recent case that received much media attention, the shoes belonging to a woman were given the Photoshop treatment.
“In fact, for decades no photos of women have appeared in the Haredi press,” she said, adding that in her research on Haredi news reports in the 1950s, “there were a few photos of women, and then they disappeared.”
But there is a history of using drawings of women in the Haredi press in lieu of photographs, she noted.
“Drawings of women appeared for many years in the women’s magazine of Yated Neeman, ‘Bayit Neeman,’” she said. “But in the early 1990s it got a new competitor – the “Bayit Shelanu” magazine by Hamodia – which took pride in the fact that it doesn’t even have sketches of women. Yated Neeman fell in line, and the drawings of women disappeared.”
Today, photographs of baby girls up to the age of three are featured in the women’s magazine of Mishpacha, she said, “and it should be noted that these are photos of babies. Photos of women simply don’t appear.”
As for Bar-Shalom, Neriya-Ben Shahar maintained it “is a nice sociological explanation, to say it’s a new sign of radicalism, but this is a very old phenomenon.”
Caplan was even more pointed in refuting Bar-Shalom’s fears of radicalization while stressing his respect for the “smart and wise” woman.
“What radicalization? That Shas established a women’s committee [on which Bar-shalom sits] is radicalization? It’s the exact opposite of radicalization… that Adina Bar Shalom heads a college for women – although there were Ashkenazi rabbis who came out and said that it must be closed and that it’s forbidden to do – radicalization? No.”
He conceded that among some groups there was a new “zealousness” and “stricter demands” relating to gender separation and modesty but insisted that those trends did not manifest themselves in Haredi news coverage, as Bar Shalom argued.
The situation was far from monolithic, he said. “The question is what you’re looking at. We’re looking at a society comprising dozens of groups. You cannot say as a blanket statement there is a radicalization, you cannot say as a blanket statement that there is no radicalization… the fact that in Haredi homes there is internet and people are going with ‘nonkosher’ cellphones – that’s radicalization? It’s the exact opposite. It’s rebellion.”
New media, new debate
The rise of Haredi news websites in the past decade — already a questionable endeavor in some quarters of the ultra-Orthodox community where internet is forcefully opposed – has the fledgling media outlets grappling with how to adapt the standards of the print media, to different results.
The B’Hadrey Haredim site, for example, was responsible for the photoshopping out of Israel’s new female ministers, while the Kikar HaShabat and Haredim 10 websites featured the photo intact. (Kikar HaShabat — which is co-owned by the Ynet news website — generally does publish photos of women but excised Kim Kardashian with a conveniently placed receipt a few months ago saying she was a “pornographic symbol.”)
After the outcry, Behadrey Haredim defended its decision in a statement, saying: “Behadrey Haredim is the largest Haredi website in the world – emphasis on Haredi. Therefore, it does not publicize photos of women on our homepage, unlike other websites that claim to be ultra-Orthodox.”
“The Haredi press has never and will never include photos of women. The basic right to freedom of expression doesn’t stop at the entrance to Bnei Brak,” the mostly ultra-Orthodox city in central Israel, it said.
Caplan maintained that the news websites reflected a shift away from the censorship of women “to some degree,” while noting that the websites as a whole still remained conservative. “Kikar HaShabat, as far as I know, won’t publish photos of Bar Refaeli,” he said, even if some photos of women were allowed.
“It’s no secret that there is a younger generation there, people on the Haredi spectrum who are more open, less bothered by other things, “ he said, adding that there were several unsuccessful calls from rabbis within the ultra-Orthodox community to shut down the sites.
“Of course there are changes, but at the end of the day there are still …. things the Haredi internet sites won’t publish,” he said.
What did change, he added, is that while the ultra-Orthodox newspapers have some partisan loyalty to various factions (Hamodia is identified with Agudat Yisrael, Yom L’Yom with Shas, Yated Neeman with Degel Hatorah etc.) “The internet sites don’t identify themselves ideologically [with a particular political camp].”
And while Bar Shalom said last week that many people within the Haredi community are opposed to the eradication of women in the media but are afraid to speak up, there has in fact been a smattering of Haredi dissent from some of its social media savvy activists.
The women behind an unsuccessful campaign during the last election to introduce a female candidate in the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ parties condemned the practice in a Facebook post, while noting it was “not a surprising phenomenon, nor new.”
“The accepted norm in the Haredi print media is that there are no photos of women. There are no drawings of women, no caricatures, or sketches of women, no words about women, and in some newspapers there are also no names of women,” said a statement from the “No Representation, No Vote” group.
The Haredi sites who do so want to “earn their Kashrut [stamp] by erasing women,” it said.
“Sliding into the realm of the absurd, it is sometimes amusing, mostly infuriating. In any case, there are those who are trying to create a new reality or an alternate history in which women are not even in the kitchen – they are simply gone.”
Shmuel Drilman, the director of the Dosim NGO, which works to counter negative stereotypes of the ultra-Orthodox in the media, said the elimination of women in Haredi publications has not seen any recent changes, with the exception of Behadrey Haredim, whose new owner, Meir Gal, decided two years ago to stop publishing photos of women. “Beyond that, the dailies haven’t published photos of women for many years already,” he said, though he added that Hamodia, at some point, did.
“There is a stormy internal Haredi debate on these issues, in which many recall that the Hamodia paper, which today doesn’t mention the names of women in engagement announcements, in the past featured photos of women as a matter of routine; while the supporters claim that this [censorship] is the common denominator that allows even the most stringent [of readers] to read the newspapers, and that as there is a decline in modesty standards in the general public, we [Haredim] must continually increase [modesty] by us,” he said.