Last week I traveled to the United States for the publication of my book The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom. It was a whirlwind week—I traveled to events and book signings across five cities in four states in 10 days. I signed lots of books, met some fabulous people, and heard from many people—men and women—who were deeply grateful for a moderate voice calling for an end to the religious extremism that is hurting women. That’s why what happened to me on the flight home to Israel was so shocking, and so upsetting.
The plane took off 20 minutes late because an ultra-Orthodox man was negotiating with passengers so as not to have to sit next to a woman—me—on the 11-hour flight. I asked myself if this was karma or poetic justice. After all, I had just spoken to hundreds of people about exactly these issues and the way women are made to feel like second-class citizens as a result. Part of me wanted to smile and hand out copies of my book. But I sat there silently for a long time, watching all this happen, witnessing all these men around me talking about me, mostly in Yiddish, but also in Hebrew and English, without looking directly at me. I sat there, torn between my desire not to make a scene and my feeling that If I don’t articulate, right here and now, how all this affects women, how this affects me, who will?
So, finally I spoke out. Right before the man found a replacement to sit next to me, I said, “Can I say something?” and without looking at me, he said yes. I said, “Imagine if instead of men and women, we were talking about Jews and non-Jews. Imagine how you would feel if a bunch of non-Jews were standing around saying that they can’t sit next to you because you’re a Jew, that they are willing to sit anywhere but next to you, because their religion won’t allow it, because you are impure or different, or whatever. How would you feel? How would you ever get over that insult?” I could feel my voice rising. After all these years of writing about this, after this whole tour where I went around listening to people and sharing ideas, I just couldn’t stay silent in the face of this humiliation.
I’m not sure whether it mattered. One young man very kindly said to me, “You don’t understand, women are holier than men.” I said, “That’s rubbish and it doesn’t excuse the insult,” and then I added that I spent 13 years in yeshiva and there’s nothing he could tell me that I haven’t already heard. Then the original man, the one who refused to sit next to me, muttered to another man as he was walking away, “She doesn’t understand.” I said, “I understand everything, and don’t talk to me as if I’m not here.” He ignored me, and all the other men turned their backs and did not respond or even look at me.
I sat down, put on my seatbelt, looked out the window, and suddenly started to cry.
At one point I said to the men, whose backs were turned to me, “I sat here for half an hour just absorbing the insult.” That’s what everyone expected me to do. That’s what women are accustomed to doing. We give all kinds of reasons—we say we don’t mind, we like sitting in the back of the bus, we don’t want to “be like men,” this is what God wants, we don’t want to make a fuss, we like their lives. So, we absorb the insult. We pretend everything is great. Maybe in some ways it is. Maybe we generally or genuinely love our lives. Maybe we are afraid of losing something if we fight for change. Maybe we are afraid of our own power. So, we smile and go about our lives and pretend that this doesn’t happen.
If there is one thing that I would like to change in the world, it is this: I would like women to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.
A version of this post originally appeared on Elana Sztokman’s blog, JewFem.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the outgoing Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and the award-winning author of several books on feminism and Jewish life, including (with Chaya Gorsetman), Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, which just won the National Jewish Book Council award in education.