This year, I took a special interest in the documentaries from the Middle-East at the Berlinale. First I was thoroughly impressed by the peaceful Palestinian resistance against the new Israeli fence in the film Budrus. In the film, we see women breaking through the circle of soldiers and lying down in front of the bulldozers – to save their old olive threes. Many young Israeli activists also go to the West Bank to support their protests. Another impressive film is Still Alive in Gaza, about the period of hopelessness following the Israeli invasion one year ago. Also Gay Days, about the flourishing gay and lesbian community in modern Israel – a film that is light years away from Israel Ltd., (at IDFA last November) showing how Israel “brainwashes” young visiting foreign Jews. Another one to mention from Berlin is A Film Unfinished by Shtikat Haarchion, about the Nazi archive reels unearthed from a Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, complete with close-ups of filth-encrusted, starving Jews, cordoned off without food, medicine or, (unbeknownst to them) a future. This one reminiscent of the violent Israeli repression of Gaza – another present-day ghetto.
At the Berlinale, the strongest criticism of Israel from a Jewish-Israeli is made by 48-year-old Anat Yuta Zuria with her documentary Black Bus. She addresses the hundreds of thousands living in ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Judaism, particularly in Jerusalem: the women have to cram themselves into the back third of the buses; they must not be a source of annoyance to the men at the front.
These men, dressed in black suits, wide-brimmed hats and skullcaps and holding the Torah in their hands, look away from the women. They are taught to be disgusted by them. Their husbands often use a certain type of cloth with a hole while practising their twice-monthly sexual duties. As one woman in the film puts it: “does he think I am his toilet?”
Jewish gender segregation has increased in the last decade: Some grocery stores now have different opening hours for men and women. One current proposal is to allocate separate sidewalks in the Orthodox sector. Women have no real freedom of speech. A driver license is out of the question – they could drive away …
In Black Bus, director Zuria follows two young women who managed to break out of the ultra-Orthodox environment. The blogger Sara Einfeld started anonymously writing sarcastic and revealing stories on the Internet about repression at home. She became a cult blogger, but was revealed and thrown out on the street. The other woman, photographer Shulamit Weinfeld, took pictures of the repression on buses and in the streets. She was also seen and subsequently disowned by her family.
These two protagonists suffered severe psychological problems as a result of their expulsions and both made serious suicide attempts. The film director found Shulamit at the hospital, and convinced her to continue taking photographs. Different Orthodox women also talks about mechanical and cold-hearted families, who in stead of expressing love for their children are more concerned about appearances and rituals.
Shulamit tries once to enter the front of the bus only to be thrown to the back, and later having an argument with some angry Orthodox men who call her a slut. Photographs of these scenes are now uploaded on Internet.
The similarly brave director, Zuria, told us in Berlin that she was unable to get into the Orthodox environments, but managed to locate people who had been expelled. As she tells me, they often used a hidden camera – whenever the camera was visible, crowds of people would shout at them. Twenty minutes of normal filming was the maximum period of time possible.
Zuria’s film won an award at the Haifa Film Festival, achieved cult status within the Orthodox community, (who are actually not supposed to watch TV) and triggered heated debate in Israel.
Gender apartheid is an old phenomenon – also well known in Islamic cultures. But as a “democratic” Western country in the Arabic Middle-East, these 600-800,000 ultra-Orthodox people make up a substantial part of Israel’s population, and nearly half of Jerusalem. the majority of them support hard-line, right-wing political factions.
Unfortunately their politics of colonisation outside Israeli borders has already been exposed without consequence. What about the unidentified colonisation of the women inside their own communities – a colonisation that makes all democratically-minded sick at heart?
To lighten our hearts, let me remind you, the reader, of two alternative directions Judaism is taking among the 13 million Jews worldwide: Liberal (reform-oriented) Judaism is mostly to be found in the US – with 1.3 million members. They have a more liberal view on women, who can be rabbis, and sit together with men in the synagogue. They decide which rituals they will follow, and are tolerant towards other religions. But perhaps most interesting is Reconstructionist Judaism, which subscribes to a modern European, critical way of thinking. The teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan form the foundation of their principles – such as his statement that to believe in God is to: “eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society.” They do not regard the Jews as a particularly “chosen” people. In the natural development of humanity towards self-fulfilment and a higher morality – God is not interfering! And in contrast to the ultra-Orthodox Jew who tries to keep Judaism “unsoiled” by women, in order to clear the way for the return of Messiah, the reconstructionists demands total equality of rights for women.
It’s hardly surprising that they as jews have little interest in moving to Israel.