Women’s voices can­not be sti­fled any longer

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

JEWISH WOMEN have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing loud. Over­whelm­ing. Bossy. Shrill. Per­haps that stereo­type ex­plains why some men will go to any lengths to shut us up. Their ha­tred for Jews comes with a side or­der of misog­yny, of­ten ex­pressed as threats of sex­ual and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence. An­tisemitic women, of course, are just as good at be­ing foully of­fen­sive. It’s just that they are not quite as likely to throw in a rape threat on the side (although some, hid­ing be­hind the anonymity of the key­board, do just this, it’s quite ex­tra­or­di­nary what prej­u­dice brings out in a hu­man be­ing).

The hate is noth­ing new. When I worked as a JC reporter in the 1980s, a fe­male col­league re­ceived a death threat through the post. The po­lice tracked down the man who sent it, he was pros­e­cuted and fined but did not lose his job, which was with an­other news­pa­per. Nowa­days, he’d have been on Twit­ter. So­cial me­dia has given the haters easy ac­cess to taunt vic­tims and a mega­phone to boom their threats to the world.

This week’s Sara con­fer­ence, high­lighted the abuse di­rected at Jewish women in pub­lic life. Once again we heard from Mar­garet Hodge, Lu­ciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, once more from Tracy-Ann Ober­man, all of them tar­gets, all of them brave and strong and un­bowed. And it was im­mensely cheer­ing that al­lies spoke up loud and clear — Theresa May, straight from a gru­elling ses­sion in the Com­mons cham­ber; Labour’s Yvette Cooper; the stu­dents’ leader Shakira Martin, who vis­ited Auschwitz last week It was im­mensely cheer­ing that al­lies spoke up loud and clear an­dreally gets the is­sues fac­ing Jewish stu­dents.

But what, I won­dered, of all the other Jewish women? The ones who avoid speak­ing out, be­cause they know what will hap­pen if they do. The ones who en­gage in daily cen­sor­ship, who side­step con­fronta­tion, who look on in hor­ror as the trolls go into at­tack mode, but who don’t want any part of that fight for them­selves.

I’m like that my­self, to be hon­est. I cer­tainly don’t want to be threat­ened. I’m on Twit­ter for all sorts of rea­sons — books to pro­mote! The Ap­pren­tice to mock! — and gen­er­ally I’d rather not stir up trou­ble for my­self. So, I don’t fight ev­ery fight. Would I get in­volved in pol­i­tics in the cur­rent, toxic cli­mate? No way. And what would I say if my daugh­ter — study­ing Pol­i­tics with So­ci­ol­ogy – ex­pressed on in­ter­est in be­com­ing an MP? I sus­pect I’d sug­gest a qui­eter life as, say, an ac­coun­tant.

Sti­fling and cen­sor­ing one’s voice be­comes a habit, one which can be cor­ro­sive. When women step aside from pub­lic spa­ces, those spa­ces be­come in­com­plete and un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Women do not ask for spe­cial treat­ment. What we do need is ac­tion to be taken so we do not feel un­fairly and of­fen­sively si­lenced.

And that can in­clude an un­der­stand­ing that women’s voices — and ac­tions — may well sound and look dif­fer­ent to the men that we are used to hear­ing from. Marie van De Zyl, pres­i­dent of the Board of Deputies has been crit­i­cised for the way she speaks, as well as what she says, and for favour­ing en­gage­ment, rather than con­fronta­tion when it comes to deal­ing with Jeremy Cor­byn’s front bench. Her way may well prove to achieve more than stormy point-scor­ing.

If there’s one story this week that un­der­lines the im­por­tance of mak­ing Jewish women feel con­fi­dent about be­ing heard, it is the re­port from Jewish Women’s Aid that abused Jewish women wait more than 11 years to take ac­tion — two years longer than on av­er­age. This ugly statis­tic shows up the stereo­type of the over-bear­ing Jewish wife as, all too of­ten, a com­plete in­ver­sion of the truth. Abuse in our com­mu­nity is not al­ways vi­o­lent. Women are bul­lied and con­trolled, si­lenced in their own homes.

This week­end I was priv­i­leged to take part in a friend’s bat­mitz­vah at the Lib­eral Jewish Syn­a­gogue in St John’s Wood. She has come late to Ju­daism, and em­braced it as a long-lost sis­ter, she leyned beau­ti­fully, and gave a fas­ci­nat­ing ser­mon about, coincidentally, the ways in which the Ma­tri­archs were, or were not, heard in their homes.

I read the haftorah — and re­flected af­ter­wards that it was the first time I had spo­ken up in shul since my own bat­mitz­vah, when I was 13. For boys, the sim­cha marked a be­gin­ning, for me it was an end. I’d side-stepped the ques­tion, al­lowed my­self to be­come less en­gaged with my Ju­daism. Now I won­der, what would have been dif­fer­ent, if my voice had been heard?

“Sing up, so the men can hear you,” my sub­ver­sive grandma used to say when we sat in the ladies’ gallery to­gether. We both knew that we were ex­pected to keep our singing quiet. Well, both within Ju­daism and out­side it, women are find­ing their voice. Loud? You’ve not heard any­thing yet.

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