Sunday, March 6, 2016

2016.03.06 A Woman Unseated But Undaunted

Renée Rabinowitz, a lawyer with a PhD in educational psychology, is the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against El Al Airlines. Her experience of discrimination provides a test case for liberal advocacy groups dealing with disputes about religion and gender in Israel’s public places—including the wild blue yonder. In December Dr. Rabinowitz suffered the unpleasant experience of being asked to move her seat on a plane because an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male passenger did not want to sit next to a woman—for religious reasons. (New York Times, “The Saturday Profile”by  Isabel Kershner, 2/27/2016)

“Despite all my accomplishments—and my age (81) is also an accomplishment—I felt minimized . . . For me this is not personal. It is intellectual, ideological and legal. I think to myself, here I am an older woman, educated. I’ve been around the world, and some guy can decide that I shouldn’t sit next to him. Why?” 

Is having escaped the Nazis in Europe  as a child not sufficient credential to entitle Dr. Rabinowitz to honor, divine and human, forevermore, gender or no gender? With feminists I believe that the personal is political.
When we were in Israel in 2012 we noticed the ultra-Orthodox Jews, also called Haredi or Hasidic. They lived in cloistered communities yet stood out, mostly because of their dress: black suits/coats/long skirts, head coverings for women, and black fedora hats and long dreadlocks for the men. Ultra-Orthodox men hung out in clusters in public places and walked hurriedly, scurried you might say. We were instructed not to bother them or make fun of them, a bad habit that helped to keep Jerusalem boiling. I was obedient, but did gawk a bit.

God, according to Isaiah 66:2, refers to the Haredi: “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, the one who trembles at my word.” (Haredi in Hebrew.)

Now I would not mind being honored in such a way by my God. I would even tremble. These religious people are as sincere as I am in wishing to please God and live in reverent humility. However, their culture of separatism is easily confused with elitism and seems the very opposite of right-sized humility. I’d respect modest dress codes but wouldn’t expect to be invited by a flight attendant to change my seat because my female gender was offensive.  

Dr. Rabinowitz is not alone in questioning such exclusions. The advocacy group needed her case to show that El Al had internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman’. When any biblical mandate is internalized it gets under your skin, becomes unconscious—toxic within and dangerous from without. I am quite sure that it is no sin to be born a woman, although I can find that in holy writ.

Reading about this case, I thought of Rosa Parks, another woman unseated but undaunted, arrested in 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. Parks spearheaded the civil rights movement in Montgomery Ala. against racism and segregation. Racism and sexism are closely linked and both are matters of public safety and health, not to mention religious spirituality.  When President Obama unveiled Parks’ statue to stand in the Capitol building, he said:  “In a single moment with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America and change the world.  . . . She takes her rightful place among those who shape the nations course.”

One day there may be a statue of Dr. Rabinowitz  in Jerusalem where she moved from the U.S. about ten years ago. She says she is not anti-Haredi and one of her grandchildren is of that persuasion. “The idea of having a Haredi population is wonderful, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.” There are prejudices she does not like in her beloved land. The El Al flight attendant engaged the Haredi man in a conversation about the seat/gender issue. “The flight attendant treated me as if I was stupid,” Dr. Rabinowitz said, “but that’s a common problem in Israel if you don’t speak Hebrew. They assume they can put one over on you.”

Under pressure from lawyers, the airline offered a $200 discount on Dr. Rabinowitz’s next El Al flight. They argued that the flight attendant had explained the whole thing and assigned the plaintiff a “better” seat. Oy!

With time to ponder these things in her heart, Dr. Rabinowitz agreed to litigation. “This whole idea that you cannot sit next to a woman is bogus.” She cited orthodox scholarship to support her point of view.  “When did modesty become the sum and end all of being a Jewish woman? Our heroes in history were not modest little women.” Dr. Rabinowitz cited the biblical warrior Deborah, the matriarch Sarah and Queen Esther to name a few. I would add the New Testament  Mary—faithful Jewish woman, mother of Jesus, mother of the Church, blessed and holy— to her list. She pondered Christ in her heart and questioned God—no modest little woman. 

Pondering things in one’s heart can be dangerous, liberating—or both.