Women’s voices cannot be stifled any longer
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.