ToI podcast'Not just oddball feminists talk about the patriarchy'

What Matters Now to women’s justice lawyer Susan Weiss: The rise of theocracy

While Israel has never been a feminist Barbie Land, with the current right-wing, heavily religious government, a veteran activist and attorney is seeing a clear turn for the worse

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

This week, a Tel Aviv bus driver shouted at 20-year-old passenger, Romi Inbar, for wearing a tank top, which he considered to be immodest, telling her repeatedly to put a shirt on. “You can’t walk around like that,” the driver said.

She told Israeli television that the whole bus remained silent except for a mother who told the driver that Inbar can wear whatever she wants. She said she felt totally humiliated and she posted what happened to Instagram so it wouldn’t happen to others.

The bus company apologized, but this is hardly the first time such public shaming of women has happened in today’s Israel. The fact that Inbar has spoken up and gone public with her story is the glass half full here.

But, according to this week’s What Matters Now guest, attorney Susan Weiss, men are increasingly emboldened to marginalize and sexualize women — even as avenues for the protection of their rights, such as the Supreme Court, are being shut.

“We do have this dichotomy in this country, we have this situation where women can be fighter pilots but they can’t get divorced,” said Weiss.

The founder of the Center for Women’s Justice joined The Times of Israel this week in Jerusalem to analyze how the status of women has changed since the current right-wing and highly religious government has taken office. Spoiler: it’s not good.

We also talk about the new “Barbie” movie and what message Weiss took away that makes her feel bold.

So this week, we ask attorney Dr. Susan Weiss, what matters now.

The following podcast interview has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Susan, thank you so much for joining me here at the Nomi Studios in Jerusalem.

Dr. Susan Weiss: It’s my pleasure to be here with you always.

So this week we have heard from our Environment Minister Idit Silman that she would like to open two national parks in sex-segregated hours. And so I ask you this week, what matters now?

To protest against the sexualization of women, which is now one of the agendas of the new government.

The last time we spoke was in December before the whole judicial overhaul legislation was rolled out, and we talked more about the looming override clause, which is actually not so much on the table right now, but at that point, you had written an op-ed and we discussed different spheres in which you projected possibly, maybe, could be, women would be affected. And so one of those spheres was actually gender segregation. What are you seeing on the ground now?

So for example, the Knesset decided to have a conference on the right to segregate, which was for us astounding actually because women’s groups, including the Center for Women’s Justice, asked to participate in that conference and we were refused. And so there was a conference on the right to segregate in the Knesset itself and they did not allow the women’s groups who opposed segregation to be present there.

Israeli protesters wearing costumes from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ participate in a rally against Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bills at Beit Yanai Junction on March 23, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

This is just emblematic of the situation that is becoming more mainstream, would you say?

It’s doublespeak, it’s word games, it’s dissimulation. It’s the same way you call a terrorist, you’ll call him a freedom fighter, or a freedom fighter a terrorist. And that’s what I feel is going on, that we’re having this dissimulation, all this confusion. And one of the most important things I think we can do is to parse it out and to critique what’s happening so that we really understand that what’s happening is the sexualization of women and the fact that they’re not considered agents or objects equivalent to men. And the state is taking part in that. So I think it’s important for us to emphasize that all the time.

I think there are many people in this situation with the national parks, for example. We’re talking about two little national parks outside of Jerusalem. And Silman proposed that this sex segregation would be outside of normal working hours. So who cares? What does it matter?

I think we’re being sucker-punched every day. That’s how I’m feeling. “Oh, a little bit. It’s not so bad. Oh, just the little override clause. We’ll make just little adjustments here and there to all sorts of laws and that’s not going to hurt anybody.”

But I think if you look at it in the whole picture of what’s happening here, I think that the whole notion of family values. [Noam MK] Avi Maoz has set up a special body in the government for family values, which is actually a body that is against homosexuals, and it’s keeping women in their “proper roles,” which is in the home and in the bedroom. And I think that’s very scary. What’s happening is all part of that.

Minister of Environmental Protection Idit Silman speaks during an Interior and Environmental Protection Committee at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But on the other hand, we feminists, and I definitely consider myself a feminist, want to be able to have equality as women. And so what about those who would say that there should be religious equality and those who just really cannot bathe at the same time as a person of the opposite gender is bathing, what about them?

That’s fine, I agree, but only in private spaces, not in public spaces. I think in public spaces, it has to be clear what the policy of the government is, which is equality, and it’s not segregation. We wouldn’t segregate black people from white people. We wouldn’t segregate Jews from non-Jews, and we shouldn’t segregate men from women, not as a policy of the state. So if you want to go to a private pool and swim only with women, then that certainly is your prerogative. And if the pool can justify it financially, then let them do that. But the state should be promoting a certain value system, and that value system should be one of equality and freedom and human rights, and not one of separation and segregation and discrimination.

Discrimination — separate is never equal. I really fear that this is something that will spread, and it has spread. So, for example, with the institutions of higher learning, now they’re encouraging more and more institutions of higher learning to allow for separation, of Haredi men who don’t want to study with women in the classroom. And as I read, actually, the Supreme Court case on that matter, I understood that they had to allow women to teach Haredi men. That was where they drew the line. In other words, they were allowing for separate learning, but women lecturers had to be allowed to teach men. But as I understand that that’s not happening on the ground.

That’s, of course, in a public institution such as the Hebrew University or Tel Aviv University, which is partially funded by our tax shekels.

I think almost all of the institutions get taxpayer money.

Of course, there are a couple of spheres that women are not allowed to enter anyway, and that is, of course, in the Rabbinate. No woman can sit on a rabbinical court. And do you see this getting worse in the past eight months?

Okay, much worse. Actually, there’s a law, I don’t know if it’s proposed or actually was passed already — a law to multiply the number of rabbis in the cities and to make them subject to the Chief Rabbinate. And so obviously, women are not getting any of those jobs. I’m not sure what those jobs do.

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court seen on August 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And one of the things that [attorney] Nitzan Kaspi-Shiloni from the office [the Center for Women’s Justice] has suggested is that this is going to actually harm liberal Orthodox women because the rabbis in the cities will have to be subject to the halachic determinations and decisions of the Chief Rabbinate. So if they say women can’t read from the Torah or women can’t read from the Megillah, then that’s going to affect the rights of liberal women.

But aside from the fact that it’s just buttressing the patriarchy more and more and more and more. And also there are laws that they’re suggesting to expand the authority and the jurisdiction of rabbinic courts which are only staffed by men. So there’s the law that suggests that rabbinic courts will be allowed to hear civil matters by agreement, of course.

Agreement, which means, “I’ll only grant you a divorce if you will sit in this rabbinic court and agree upon stuff?”

That also, right. But what happens is also I think it’s going to affect — that law, which would expand the jurisdiction of rabbinic courts into civil matters by agreement — will not only affect women getting divorced who might feel pressured, very readily pressured into agreeing that the rabbinic courts will hear all sorts that they may have not had to hear, or were [previously] being heard in the family court, but I think will also affect anybody who, including women, who want to sign contracts with companies that are maybe run by religious people, and [they] will be not forced necessary but will be recommended that they agree that any matter be adjudicated in front of the rabbi — whether it be labor matters or other types of matters. Or maybe someone will sign a rental contract with a landlord who will say: “Well, if we have any disputes, you have to go to the rabbinic court.”

So not only, again, are we giving taxpayer money to an institution that is inherently discriminatory, right? Because women cannot sit as adjudicators in that court, which I think alone is reason to close the rabbinic courts, now, as they stand as state institutions. Just think, how can you have a state institution that only allows men to be judges, only allows black people to be judges, or white people to be judges, or not Jews to be judges? We shouldn’t be supporting such an institution. That should be privatized. And similarly, we certainly shouldn’t be expanding the authority of that court at the taxpayer’s expense.

Everyone talks about, of course, the burden on the court and I imagine that’s one of the reasons behind this expansion.

The burden on the rabbinic courts?

No, on the courts in general. And so by transferring some of the, shall we say, petty cases over to the rabbinical courts that now have a lot more manpower, all of a sudden, maybe that takes the burden off the court.

If you want us to go into my critique of the rabbinic court, I would love to do that. But the rabbinic court is certainly not an efficient institution and its rules are very unclear. When you go into the rabbinic courts, you never know how you’re going to get out of it. And one of the reasons I opened up the Center for Women’s Justice and my previous NGO, which was Yad L’Isha, was because as an attorney, and I was representing women in the rabbinic courts, I felt that I had to charge them, right? And I couldn’t tell them how long it would take. I couldn’t tell them whether it would take five years, 100 hours, a thousand hours or two hours to do their case. And that’s just the reality in the rabbinic courts, because the rules are unclear. There’s no ending. So I would hardly think that transferring cases to the ribbon of court will promote efficiency in any way.

Rachel Stomel of the Center for Women’s Justice at a protest in March 2021 outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court on International Women’s Day. (Laura Ben-David)

You’ve been in the trenches for a long time.

Oh my gosh, yes.

How many years?

I don’t want to say.

Several decades?

Several decades, yes. It’s quite a bit.

I can sense, obviously, some bitterness but I think part of it is because you’ve seen so many cases of humans, and specifically women, just getting their rights trampled on throughout your decades of service, wouldn’t you say?

Well, the way I like to put it now is actually, it’s not just about women’s rights. Okay? The real problem is the structure of the state. And that’s really what is making me, so I don’t want to say bitter, but concerned, really about what’s happening today because I see all the work that I’ve done in the many decades that have passed as part of this whole threat to the democracy of the country.

And so perhaps, I thought I could contain the problem, where the problem was containable to the rabbinic courts. But actually, if you look at it in a broad scope of what’s happening here, there’s no constitution. Whatever basic rights we have have all sorts of holes in it. There’s no clause that protects the equality of women or the equality of all the citizens of the state. And I am very concerned about how the state is going to look for our children and our grandchildren because I deeply want the state to continue.

I just want to understand what you mean by the sexualization of women. How do you see this playing out?

What that means is women’s bodies have to be covered up. Women’s voices are erva, it’s nakedness. They’re there to service men, to be the wombs of men, to carry their children. And men are the ones that decide if they are divorced or not divorced. That’s all part of the underlying concept that’s going on here, which is that women are not agents, that they can’t make decisions, that they’re not in control, that they’re not on the courts. Okay, this is all part of that.

The religious courts.

Well, right. We’re talking about the theocracy that’s governing us now.

And how theocracy bleeds into our democracy — so far at least. I’ve noted at state functions, state ceremonies, that in the past, women would sing the national anthem, for instance, on Remembrance Day, and we’re not seeing that anymore.

No, women’s faces are being obliterated. What’s that about? Or girls aren’t in books for children. It’s all part of that picture that people will say: “No, no, of course not. That’s not true. Women aren’t only sexual objects. Look, women are also on the Supreme Court.”

Israeli soldiers stand still as the Memorial Day siren sounds during a ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 24, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

And we do have this dichotomy in this country. We have this situation where women can be fighter pilots, but they can’t get divorced. So the theocracy, in my opinion, is sexualizing women and their bodies and the democratic arm of the state is objecting to it.

Of course, you can’t obliterate the faces of women, okay? Of course, women have to be judges. Of course, women have to have the right to freedom and to decide when they want a divorce from their husbands. Of course, they should sit on the bench. All of these things, of course, are objecting to what I’m calling the sexualization of women and the infantilization of women and the view of women not as equal to men.

I think the word sexualization brings it to a different headspace for a lot of people. When you say infantilization, I understand that a little bit more because “we’re the men, we’re going to protect you.” But what you’re talking about in terms of sexualization, where singing the national anthem would be considered a sexually tantalizing song?

It’s erva, it’s nakedness.

Right, and now we’re in a situation in which the coalition is made up of a lot more religious factions than ever before, meaning the percentage is a lot larger. And so do you see anything so far that is worrying you in terms of more legislation rolling out, other than what we’ve discussed already?

Well, I see empowerment, actually, that’s what I see, an empowerment of the theocracy. And I can give you an example from a case that we have in the Center for Women’s Justice, but a simple case is one where a 14-and-a-half-year-old girl was thrown off a bus recently, okay? Because the driver thought she wasn’t being properly dressed — sexualized again, right? So if she wasn’t properly dressed, they threw her off. And I think that sense of empowerment is not only at the top level, but it’s in the buses, in the bus drivers.

I see it all over that the government is feeling empowered to do whatever they want. And if what they think is right is to enforce halacha, that’s what they’re going to do as they see it.

In May 2017, Zvia Gordetsky launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years. (Courtesy)

And I’ll give you an example of empowerment. So we have a case of a woman who wanted to get divorced by agreement with her husband, and she went to the rabbinic courts and she had gotten married in the rabbinic courts. She had been deemed Jewish enough to get married. And when she came to divorce, they wanted her to go through a Jewish roots investigation again.

And she said no for all sorts of reasons. She didn’t want to do it, and she just wanted them to do the get [writ of divorce] by agreement, which is what they would certainly do. And they refused. And we went to the Bagatz, and we went to the High Court of Justice and we asked them to order the rabbinic court to do the get. And one of the arguments that we had is they can’t keep changing the rules all the time. If she was Jewish enough to get married, she should be Jewish enough to get divorced.

And all the parties involved agreed that they would just do the get. And in all of the other cases that we brought in front of the Supreme Court, they usually resolve the issues, the individual issues, and everyone agreed that they would do the get for a client and they closed the case.

And then the rabbinic court has still refused to do the get. And she’s been waiting two years since she got to the rabbinic courts, by agreement with her husband to get the get. It’s been since February, since the rabbinic court, at least ostensibly agreed to do the get. But the rabbinic courts are now refusing to do it because they want a declaration of the Supreme Court in this particular case, which would effectively expand their jurisdiction over cases that they would deem that Jewishness is in question, for some reason.

So they’re insisting on a principled decision, whereas they usually will, in these types of cases, they’ll just be happy and quiet and they will resolve the individual case. But they’re emboldened. And basically, they’re telling the Supreme Court: “We’re the ones in control. We’re going to tell you what to do.” And this is at the expense of the citizen. And our client —

— Who agreed with her husband to get divorced. She’s not an aguna in the classic sense in that the husband doesn’t refuse the get, the writ of divorce, but —

She’s an aguna of the state!

Of the rabbinical court.

Of the state. That’s what everyone forgets: The Rabbinic Court is an arm of the state. So she is being held in marital captivity by the state. But this empowerment — and it can arise no matter what. You’re sitting in your office and you’re just doing what you’re always doing. All of a sudden, some religious state actor will decide that they can do whatever they want.

That’s really the fear that I’m feeling right now. Before I had this impending dread, now I have this sense of fear and helplessness and disconcertion. In other words, I feel like I’m in this dystopia where words don’t mean what they are. Like “democracy.” Both sides are using the term democracy to advance their causes, and they’re not really articulating what democracy is. And I’m feeling helpless. I feel that the government is doing everything to take off the checks and balances on them, and that’s taking various different types of forms, and then they can do whatever they want.

Israelis protest against the judicial overhaul implemented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

And if this government is a theocratic religious government that decides that a client can’t get divorced even though she agreed with her husband to get divorced, or if you want to just throw someone off the bus because they’re not wearing the right clothes, or you can’t allow a lecturer to teach men because the lecturer happens to be a woman. All these things are happening and there’s nothing to stop it. All of these human rights are being violated. All of these acts are being justified and violated without any gatekeeper to protect us.

Because the gatekeeper, until now, has been the Court of Justice, the High Court?

There are different types of gatekeepers, and they’re attempting to curtail all their powers. It’s certainly the Supreme Court, the High Court of Justice, and so they’re trying to curtail their power. They’re trying to change the laws, even those laws that have all the holes in them, they’re trying to change them. All the laws that, there’s now no reasonableness law, they can do unreasonable things, okay?

If our prime minister made an agreement that he could run, right, only because he would agree not to be involved in the judicial overhaul issues, and then he passes a law that allows him to do that, the Incapacitation Law [Recusal Law]. In other words, everything can be analyzed by the fact that they’re taking away the brakes on the government. The government can do whatever it wants, and I don’t know where that’s going to stop or end.

So let’s talk about the Barbie film.

I was going to see the Barbie film — but I actually went to see it because you encouraged me to do so. And the thing that kind of is in the back of my mind, is [actor] Kate McKinnon, okay? And she has this line there that echoed with me all the time. So Kate McKinnon says: “Till now, you can either be weird” —  like [the role] Kate McKinnon [plays], or me, right? Weird or brainwashed. Like brainwashed into thinking that you can only be a Stepford Wife, Barbie.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie in a scene from ‘Barbie’ (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP, File)

And then at the end, the women, the Barbies have agency and they go and they sit on the court and they decide whether they want to be mothers or whether they want to be astronauts.

So I think if you look at the feminist movement also, right? It was Catharine MacKinnon, ironically the same name, right? Kate McKinnon and Catharine MacKinnon. So one of the most important things was consciousness-raising. And I think that what you see now, and that’s an optimistic note, is the consciousness-raising of much of the Israeli population.

They’re not out there protesting by the hundreds of thousands for weeks on end, because they’re not conscious of what’s happening here. They’re not conscious of a lot of the things that I’m trying, I hope and managed to explain to you, which is that women are not handmaids. They are agents. They can decide, they can understand, they can critique, they can use their wiles in a sophisticated way and they’re not just props for Ken. Although in the movie, it seems that Ken may have been a prop for Barbie, but, okay, we won’t go into that.

Let’s do talk about that. And I thought that was kind of the more interesting narrative in the film, that Ken had to find his own power, and when he — spoiler — experiences the patriarchy that is reality, he all of a sudden thrives and finds himself. Just having that as a narrative thread in the Barbie movie I thought was very interesting.

Well, it was powerful. I think it was also part of the consciousness-raising. Don’t you think? That it was saying this isn’t just normal, that only men are in the boardroom. And even though a woman was the creator of Barbie, right?

Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler, left, gets a kiss from Kristi Cooke, an actress dressed as a Barbie doll, during the 35th birthday celebration for the doll at FAO Schwarz in New York City on March 9, 1994. (AP Photo/Robert Clark)

A Jewish woman.

A Jewish woman was the creator of Barbie, a not Barbie-ish Jewish woman, but it was all these men in the boardroom that were in control, and Ken liked that, right? Ken liked being in control. And our Kens like being in control of the rabbinic courts, and in control of the government.

And we’re not weird because we say that. We’re not just these weird oddball feminists who talk about sexualization and the patriarchy. Because the patriarchy is real, and the sexualization is real. And the more we can confront that and see that, I think the more we will perhaps advance. And I think we see half the population seeing that.

So I’m no longer weird. I am just part of the hundreds of thousands that are looking at things differently now and saying that the normal is not acceptable.

Susan, thank you so much.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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