MK Merav Michaeli
MK Merav MichaeliFlash 90

Two genderist MKs from Labor – Merav Michaeli and Stav Shaffir – fired off an angry letter to Education Minister Naftali Bennett Thursday, alleging that a joint Unity Day ceremony held by a yeshiva and a non-religious school was “degrading and humiliating” to women.

Unity Day was marked throughout Israel for the first time Wednesday, at the initiative of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, in memory of the abduction and murder of the three yeshiva students – Gilad Sha'ar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah – and the unity that was felt throughout Israel after their abduction.

The reason for the MKs' ire was a joint decision by the yeshiva and the school, not to feature girls' singing on stage – in keeping with a halachic precept that is widely accepted among leading rabbis, which looks askance at performances by women before male or mixed-sex audiences.

The controversy erupted around Wednesday's Unity Day event, which was held jointly by high school yeshiva Mekor Chaim, located in the Gush Etzion area, and the Dror Experimental Educational Center, a large non-religious high school in the Lev Hasharon Regional Council area in central Israel.

Two of the murdered teens - Naftali and Gilad - were students at Mekor Chaim.

'Degrading and humiliating'

Some parents of students at Dror turned to MKs Michaeli and Shaffir, both from the Zionist Union, who in turn called on Bennett to intervene.

“How can we celebrate a day of unity while degrading and humiliating half the population?” Michaeli asked in a letter sent to Bennett on Tuesday.

According to one of the parents who complained to the MKs, Shabtai Kaminer, a suggestion was made that a girl the Dror School's choir accompany him on stage, but this idea was vetoed by the yeshiva, because the choir includes girls and the audience includes the yeshiva boys.

However, Ariella Ben-Ari, the principal of the Dror school, said in a Channel 10 television interview that the decision was made in cooperation with the yeshiva administration and at the yeshiva's request, but denied vehemently that any threats were involved, and explained that the whole idea of the ceremony was that people with different beliefs learn to live with each other.

"If we continue to sing to ourselves and talk to ourselves," she asked, "then where is the meeting? With ourselves? Do we need to convince the convinced?”

Amir Ben Gal, the yeshiva’s principal, who was also interviewed by the television program, said that the yeshiva indeed told the high school that it would feel “uncomfortable” with female singing in the ceremony. 

'The girls' feelings are hurt'

In the letter to Bennett, Michaeli noted that the Supreme Court has banned what genderists term “the exclusion of women from the public sphere.”

“If the issue is of hurt feelings, the feelings of the girls who sing and women in general are hurt no less than the religious feelings of men,” she argued. She added in a televised interview: "The event centers on unity. Are we only honoring unity between men?"

Shaffir, who went to high school at Dror, said on Wednesday, “It is not permissible to exclude women from the public sphere under the guise of unity. I expect Minister Naftali Bennett, who will be hosted at the ceremony today, to intervene immediately and condemn this worrisome phenomenon in his speech.”

Kolech, a New Israel Fund organization that describes itself as “Orthodox feminist,” also weighed in, saying: “We feel a sense of missed opportunity when, specifically on this day, we again see the blatantly unnecessary exclusion of women.” It called on Bennett, and on the male and female educators in the state-religious education system, “to let go of their perceptions of exclusion and division between those of differing opinions and genders.”

The Education Ministry said that “The character of the event was determined, through agreement, between representatives of the participating educational institutions and the representatives of the Dror High School parents' association.

Yeshivat Makor Chaim was established in 1985 under the visionary leadership of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Even Israel) and is defined as “neo-hassidic.” The Dror Center serves over 2,000 students in 7th to 12th grade from 18 communities, a few of which are religious. 

Herzog's trouble with unity

Labor Party head MK Yitzchak Herzog also had trouble living up to the idea of Unity Day when he and Minister Bennett jointly taught a civics lesson to Israeli student on Monday.

“In the election, lines were crossed,” he said. "Bennett's party claimed that I, Tzipi Livni and Professor [Yossi] Yonah are anti-Zionist and I believe a red line was crossed. Besides that, these things constitute libel. These are things one cannot forget.”