Behaviour to com­plain about

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - David Aaronovitch

AT FIRST sight, you might imag­ine that it is a pic­ture ex­pressly cre­ated for the age of equal­ity. In a clean, Scandi kitchen-diner a young dad is pour­ing orange juice for his two young sons. Per­haps you’d look at the pho­to­graph and ask (al­most un­con­sciously), af­ter com­mend­ing the man for his so­lic­i­tude: “where is mum? Is she at work, per­haps, or gone for a run?”

The an­swer much closer to the truth is that she handed the jug of orange juice to her hus­band, took her daugh­ters, and hid in the next room till the pho­tog­ra­pher had left. The reason be­ing that she was not al­lowed to be seen be­cause any fe­male ap­pear­ance would have made the pho­to­graph un­fit for in­clu­sion in an Ikea cat­a­logue aimed at the Charedi com­mu­nity of Is­rael. Or so Ikea (who have three stores in Is­rael) thought. The re­sponse in Is­rael to this cat­a­logue has forced the com­pany to think again.

But I have to ad­mit that I found the cat­a­logue story quite stag­ger­ing in its im­pli­ca­tions. I’d fol­lowed the El Al air­line sa­gas of the men who wouldn’t sit next to women pas­sen­gers and mar­velled at the psy­chol­ogy of be­ing un­nerved by the pres­ence of a fe­male to the ex­tent of dis­rupt­ing a flight. But not to be able to look a pho­to­graph of a woman at all, that seemed to take us into the realm of what, if these were Mus­lims, we would call re­li­gious ex­trem­ism.

I know very lit­tle about this. And some­times, very oc­ca­sion­ally, this can be an ad­van­tage be­cause you see some­thing afresh as a child might. At some point in my youth, I met a Jewish man who told me he used to make money on Friday nights by switch­ing lights on and off for Ortho­dox fam­i­lies. He thought it was very funny. Then there was an eruv row lo­cally and I at­tempted to get my head around what it was about and I de­cided I couldn’t see the harm in it.

But the pictures? A cou­ple of years back, an Is­lamist out­fit be­gan hold­ing de­bates on cam­pus and of­fered the au­di­ence gen­der seg­re­ga­tion. I wrote ar­gu­ing against al­low­ing pub­lic meet­ings to be gen­der seg­re­gated on the same grounds that I would have ar­gued against racial seg­re­ga­tion.

The Is­lamists came back with their bat­tery of whatabouts. Toi­lets are seg­re­gated. Schools can be seg­re­gated. The women them­selves want to be seg­re­gated. And then the greater jus­ti­fi­ca­tion: that my er­ror was not to see that such prac­tices re­flected a dif­fer­ent no­tion of equal­ity to mine. Or, as one Is­lamist had it: “Scrip­ture cer­tainly, as­signs dif­fer­ent roles to men and women. But dif­fer­ent does not mean un­equal, equal­ity is not same­ness. In the Di­vine plan for cre­ation, men and women have dis­tinct, di­verse mis­sions, which work in har­mony, com­ple­ment­ing one an­other and bring­ing the di­vine plan to fruition.”

I cheated. That wasn’t an Is­lamist web­site, but an Ortho­dox Jewish one. The point it was mak­ing was al­most ex­actly the case made by Amer­i­can racial seg­re­ga­tion­ists when they cham­pi­oned “Sep­a­rate but equal” ed­u­ca­tion for blacks and whites.

I read on. I learned about the — to me — ut­terly bizarre and psy­cho­log­i­cally baf­fling code of taharat hamish­pacha and the no­tion of fe­male un­clean­li­ness or be­ing nid­dah. Laid down by some­one from the Jeanie Schot­ten­stein Cen­ter for Ad­vanced To­rah Study for Women were a se­ries of rules and guide­lines for de­tect­ing men­strual blood that made Leviti­cus look like a hippy away-day. If any Mus­lim group prac­tised this or taught it in their schools the Daily Mail would en­sure a par­lia­men­tary de­bate about it.

I sought the ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion. This was the ex­pla­na­tion I found for this de­mean­ing prac­tice: “You ask why we need to keep the laws of taharat hamish­pacha. The sim­ple an­swer is be­cause the To­rah says so, and, as is usu­ally the case, the To­rah doesn’t present us with de­tailed ex­pla­na­tions.”

You prob­a­bly know all this, reader. And may be ask­ing what busi­ness is this of mine and who suf­fers from it. With the ex­cep­tion of the anti-Zion­ist ul­tra­Ortho­dox nut­ters who turn up at an­tiIs­rael events to deny the Holo­caust or else to blame it all on Jewish heretics, the Ortho­dox tend to be po­lit­i­cally qui­etist and leave oth­ers alone, so where’s the dam­age?

Well un­til some­one founds Frum-Air to trans­port woman-averse men there are al­ways points of con­tact. But much more, how can you bring kids up to be­lieve, act out and be trapped in this stuff ? Seriously, if a mad Chris­tian sect did it, wouldn’t you com­plain?

How can you bring kids up to be trapped in ]QR\ \]^Þ/

David Aaronovitch is a colum­nist for The Times

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