Bambi Sheleg, a giant of Israeli journalism, a woman of courage, keen intelligence, and unyieliding commitment to truth and justice, died today at the age of 58. Her presence will be fiercely missed. Below is a profile I wrote about her six years ago for The Forward.
In June 2006, the Supreme Court of Israel handed down one of the most important but barely publicized rulings in the history of the Jewish state. The decision to cancel the Law for the Privatization of Prisons halted a process that would have abdicated an unprecedented amount of state authority — that is, the correctional system — to private bodies. Remarkable in this story is not only how quietly the law nearly took effect, but also how the Supreme Court came to its conclusion. The decision was credited to a magazine, Eretz Acheret (“A Different Place”), in particular the April-May 2006 issue, titled, “Can the State abdicate its role as responsible for the correctional system?”
COURTESY OF BAMBI SHELEG
Against the Grain: Bambi Sheleg (above) started the magazine Eretz Acheret. The latest issue (right) is titled ?Art Outside of Tel Aviv? and examines artistic trends in the city.
Bambi Sheleg, the soft-spoken founder and editor-in-chief of Eretz Acheret, recalls this event fondly. “It was an incredible moment,” she said humbly of the victory. “This is why we founded the magazine, to influence the social agenda in Israel and offer a deep analysis of the issues critical to Israel’s identity.”
Sheleg, 52, a mother of three who is married to writer Yair Sheleg, was born in Chile and moved to Israel at age 12. Her family is Religious Zionist, and she began her journalism career as a writer and editor at Nekuda, the magazine of the settler movement. At a certain point, though, she started having doubts about her ideological home. “I was in the religious ‘camp’,” she said, “but sometimes I felt that I connected more with people outside my camp.”
Her sense of inner turmoil came to a head with the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “I asked myself, ‘How can it be that the divisions between sectors in Israeli society are so strong that they can bring someone to commit murder?’” she recalled. “And I realized that, as a member of the media, I was contributing to the problem. In fact, I was the problem.”
Following the assassination, Sheleg quit her job and began developing a vision for an alternative media in Israel, one that is not ratings based but rather not-for-profit, replacing the journalistic “If it bleeds, it leads” thirst for violence with an ethic that seeks to build connections between people. “In the mainstream media, radicals get all the attention,” she explained, drawing a diagram of a pizza pie to illustrate her point. “Israel has all kinds of sectors — Jews, Arabs, Haredim. See here, where the crust is? Those are the radicals in each social sector… The rest of us are much closer to one another than to...
Some people look at this photo and see the beauty of diversity at the Olympics. Maybe. But I also see something else. I see women in two different cultures trapped in their cultures' demands about women's bodies and appearance. Opposite cultures, same problem of sexual objectification.
On the right we have women athletes who, no matter what their physical and mental accomplishments, are forced to abide by rules intended to maximize their sexual appeal to gazing heterosexual males. The beach volleyball athletes have been among the most objectified, photographed from behind, valued for their cleavage and skin, commented on for sexual appeal of their skin rather than for their athletic prowess. You are more likely to come across a photo of a volleyball player's behind than one of her slamming the ball.
On the left we have a different form of sexual objectification from a radically different culture, one similarly controlled and dominated by men who view women primarily as sex objects. In the culture on the left, the response to this outlook is to maintain extreme, maximum coverage for women. It is the opposite response to the same position of men believing women are primarily objects to look at, the same men controlling their culture by maintaining norms of women's body cover/uncover.
Both of these women have overcome their positions as sexual artifacts to achieve a place in the Olympics. That is incredible. Doubly incredible -- like Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels. Women often have to work within the rules of their cultures in order to achieve their dreams for this life. Sometimes that is doable and sometimes it just isn't. So this is a picture of women choosing to abide by the rules of their cultures, no matter how sexist and misogynistic, and succeeding in overcoming these excessive obstacles in order to great things and to be great.
But it doesn't address the deeper problem. In neither of these cultures are women allowed to prioritize their own comfort or desire. Women in both cultures -- secular and religious cultures -- are molded from the age of zero to be conscious of being watched and gazed upon. In neither secular or religious culture are women and girls allowed to just *be* with their bodies, to dress for *comfort*, to choose based on their own inner feelings and a sense of their own contours rather that on proscriptions of the men dominating their cultures. This is a problem worldwide, the absence of legitimacy for women's comfort and women's desires and women's body autonomy. And so with all the different types of inspiration that this picture generates, it also generates a very strong outrage that women still have to put up with this.
Portrait of women in the world, 2016.
Some days I think, all am I doing in life is unlearning all the wrong things I was taught growing up. So much of what I was taught -- about people, about women, about relationships, about money, about being Jewish, about Israel, about race, about motherhood, about sex, about how to live my life, about what is really important -- turned out to be profoundly wrong. I think I've spent the past 25 years reteaching myself how to live.
This is okay when the process is spread out over a few decades. After all, change is hard, so doing it gradually can be better than ripping the bandaid right off. But I think that the election is particularly painful because it is about this, about realizing that so much of what we thought was correct was really not correct at all. That maybe the American version of freedom and democracy has not turned out to be the greatest one on earth in practice. Income inequality, gender inequality, racism, verbal violence, physical violence, sexual violence -- these are some big stains on American culture. America really is not doing so well in a lot of ways, and in fact has a poor record on lots of vital issues: America is the only western country not to have parental leave, it is one of the few that has still never had a woman president, and in fact it comes 97th in world in terms of representation of women in the legislature. 97th in the world! And look how hard it is to advance women -- as I read this week, one of the most qualified candidates ever to run is running against one of the most unqualified candidates ever to run, and the race is close! So this election is forcing a lot of Americans to face the fact that the "great America" of the past may have been a myth. Like Happy Days, it never really existed. That is a tough reality to stomach. And the realization that so much of what we were brought up on to believe to be true was actually racist, sexist and xenophobic. At least the way I was brought up.
I think about this so often vis a vis Hillary Clinton. She was completely vilified in my house when she came into the public eye in the early 90s. She was proof that working women were a plague on American culture. She was held up as the model of the cold, heartless, selfish, ugly, bad mother. She was that ridiculous feminist trying to be a man. Why can't these women just accept their own difference, I would hear. (Which was a euphemism for, why can't women be satisfied as unpaid, unfulfilled housewives?) You don't have to be a man to be equal, we heard. You can be equal and different. This, as I listened to members of my family describe how a woman cannot be a lawyer because she is too emotional, or how a woman...
In Canberra, Australia, after I gave a talk at the Jewish community about gender and religion in Israel, I dialogued with the community Rabbi Aron Meltzer (pictured here) about the women in the Jewish community generally. A man in the audience then got up and said, “There is no such thing as Orthodox feminism.” He argued that Orthodoxy and feminism cannot coexist, that any woman who is still Orthodox cannot possibly be feminist, and that only by joining the Reform or Progressive movement will women ever find equality. Community president Yael Cass reminded the guy that even the progressive movement still suffers from sexism and gender inequality. And I pointed out that leaving Orthodoxy is a very painful choice for many women for whom orthodoxy is their whole lives. I also told him that he needed to be nicer to Orthodox women (and possibly women generally – after all, a man telling a woman that he is more feminist than she is, well, that’s already suspect.) I also quoted my friend Dr Susan Weiss who likes to say that we are all compromising with the patriarchy – Orthodox women, Jewish women, women running for president – we are all compromising.
Then a woman named Sarit raised her hand and said that actually she would like to see the Orthodox minyan become more accommodating to women. (The small community holds two services, one Orthodox and one Progressive.) The rabbi said he fully concurred, as others in the audience nodded in agreement. The rabbi talked about having two young daughters and about his concern about their engagement with the services. Another woman disagreed, saying she is very happy to stand in the back and cut the cake for the Kiddush while the men do all the ritual work. But Sarit responded that this kind of disengagement feels wrong for her. The rabbi encouraged the discussion and said that the new structure in planning will have a partition down the middle and will explore other ways to encourage women’s involvement.
I went over to Sarit after the event to congratulate her on speaking out and leading the change. She said, “Oh, I’m not a leader. I’m not going to do that.” I found that surprising and perhaps not surprising, given the kind of Sheryl Sandberg-esque descriptions of women’s lives, especially those who hesitate to ‘lean in’. I told Sarit that she doesn’t have to call herself a leader or any other label, but that she should just keep speaking out about what she wants. She was hesitant.
The next night, my last night in Canberra, I went out to dinner with some of the amazing women of the community, including Yael, Sarit, and others (Anita Shroot, Barbara, Judith Eisner, and Di Hirsch). As this is the country’s capital, the community is composed of extremely intelligent, professional, serious and smart women. Over vegan Vietnamese food, we talked about challenges of dealing with naysayers and haters. I shared some of my experiences with anti-feminist men and...
Here is an excerpt of an essay I wrote for the ABC Religion and Ethics column in advance of my NCJW Scholar-in-Residence tour of Australia that commences next week:
There are some strange things happening around the world when it comes to gender. And I'm not just referring to the Queen of England driving around the Saudi prince in a Range Rover, just to prove that women can drive.
I'm talking about the American presidential elections.
The current American campaign is likely to be a race between the Neanderthal and the feminist, or between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In this bizarre reality, there currently seem to be roughly the same amount of people who believe that it is time for a woman to be president as there are those who believe that women are merely valued for the perkiness of their breasts.
It is difficult to reconcile this dual reality, what I call the Clinton-Trump paradox. How can it possibly be that two completely oppositional views about the status of women have equal weight in the public mindset? Yet, this is the reality not just in the United States but in many places around the world.
These two trends seem to coexist - one being a drive to advance women's economic and political opportunities, and the other a drive to send women back to the Playboy mansion.
Inequality in Israel
I see this paradox here in Israel, where I have been conducting research on gender issues in society for over a decade. On the one hand, there have been some interesting strides towards gender equality. The Knesset has a record 32 (out of 120) women legislators - a steady increase over the past 20 years - including many powerful feminists who are dedicated to advancing gender equality. Israel has had a female Supreme Court justice, a woman heads the Bank of Israel, and Israel was one of the first countries to have a female prime minister (although that was in 1969 and hasn't been repeated).
The army, a notorious bastion of militaristic male machismo, has opened up many interesting roles for women - and in fact remains the only country in the world where all 18 year old young men and women have mandatory conscription.
Israel has some of the most progressive feminist legislation in the world: mandatory 14 week parental leave, free state-funded child care from age three, a prohibition against firing pregnant women, and far reaching laws against sexual harassment. And interestingly, to its shame and credit, Israel is the only country in the world where a former president is sitting in jail for crimes of rape. It's a shame that a president can be a rapist, but enormous credit that he was caught, tried, convicted and treated just like every other sexual predator.
On the other hand, many indicators show Israeli women falling behind. Women make a paltry 66% of what men make - a figure that hasn't moved significantly in over thirty years, placing Israel at seventy-first in...
Israel was one of the first countries to elect a female head of state – Golda Meir – but that hasn’t happened again since 1969, the year I was born.
Israel ranks 53rd in the world out of 135 on the Gender Index of the World Economic Forum – ahead of the Arab states, but way behind most Scandinavian and European countries. Other countries that might be of interest : (see chart on the right)
Iceland is number 1
Rwanda is 6
Philippines is 7
Nicaragua is 12
France at 15
Namibia is 16
South Africa is 17
UK at 18
Latvia is 20
US at 28
Canada at 30
Israel’s ranking on gender has gone DOWN over the past decade – in 2004 Israel ranked 35…
Motherhood and fertility
Israel offers paid parental leave of up to 14 weeks, for men or women.
Israel has free childcare above age of three
It is illegal to fire pregnant women in Israel or to make pregnant workers do any lifting
Israel literally pays women to have babies
Abortion is legal under certain conditions, but all women who seek abortions have to be evaluated by a panel.
A heterosexual married woman in her childbearing years usually cannot get a legal abortion without a medical reason unless the abortion panel declares her effectively insane.
A woman who wants an abortion because she doesn’t want to have children also has to be declared by the panel mentally unwell.
Abortion is free for secular teenage girls, but religious girls in national service have to pay for it.
On the rank of economic equality alone, Israel ranks 71st out of 135 countries.
Women make, on average, 66% of what men make, a statistic that hasn’t significantly moved in over three decades.
Arab women are on the bottom of Israel’s economic totem pole: According to the Adva Center, the average Jewish man makes 11,833 NIS per month; the average Jewish woman makes 7,414 NIS per month; the average Arab man makes 6,383 NIS per month; the average Arab woman makes 4,956 NIS per month – less than half of what a Jewish man makes.
The average monthly wage of women managers is 73% that of male managers.
Even though 65% of state workers are women, less than a third reach the level of senior management.
Of the 106 government authorities, only four have a woman director.
Only 1 in five hi-tech workers are women
In academia , 48.3 percent of Israeli women have 13 or more years of schooling compared to 45.4 percent of men.
Only one in every five Israeli professors is a woman.
Almost six times more men than women run their own businesses.
Of the 100 top traded companies, only six are run by women
Of the top 500 companies, only 5.4% are run by women, down from 8% in 2010
Only 4% of boards chairs are women, down from 5% in 2010
18% of members of the boards are women.
“Passover,” Arthur Szyk, 1948. Yeshiva University Museum.
There is no holiday that brings out the screaming in my head as much as Passover.
There are two sets of noise that take hold of my brain at this time of year: the pre-Pesach (Passover) trauma and the Seder night trauma. Or as I have come to experience it, the trauma created by women’s stuff, and the trauma created by men’s stuff.
Growing up, the pre-Pesach anxiety began as soon as Purim was over. We were only allowed to eat from a pre-determined collection in the kitchen, we were on a schedule around what rooms were already sterilized, and my mother’s mood went from the usual cold and cranky to the downright hostile. Nothing was ever right, we walked on eggshells, and life was insane and frenetic. Although I often wonder how many of my traumas are from religion and how many are from my particular family, in this particular case I have come to learn that this kind of thing was going on not only my own house but also in many Jewish homes around the world. Even women of privilege engage in the panic. (I’ll never forget the time, years ago, when a mother frantically came to pick up her daughter from a play date around a week before Pesach, saying, “Hurry, I have to rush home and watch my cleaning lady do the kitchen.”) Pre-Pesach insanity, it seemed, was the Women’s Way, no matter how you celebrated the holiday.
I’ve been living in Israel for over 20 years, and it is still astounding for me to watch how this culture takes over Jewish women’s lives, no matter what kind of religious observance they adhere to during the year. Conversations in shops, on the street, and online, revolve around Jewish women of all backgrounds managing the minutia of obsessive cleaning, shopping, and cooking. There seems to be an uncontrolled lust for women comparing themselves to one another—who started cleaning and cooking earlier, who is having more guests, who is more efficient, who is more creative, and ironically also who has more time-saving hacks. Facebook doesn’t help, by the way.
Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, I found this pre-Pesach cleaning-cooking-hosting-mania was compounded by the other assault on women’s bodies: clothing shopping. Our job, as religious girls, was not only to manage the kitchen, but also to look gorgeous as we did it. We prepared our shul and Seder outfits meticulously and expensively, down to the last perfectly-matching accessory. But let me tell you something: there is nothing quite as dysfunctional within the female experience as surrounding yourself with copious amounts of food and then forbidding yourself from eating it. Women’s and girls’ table conversation, once we finished serving, invariably revolved around calories, points, fat content, carbs, gluten, GI, cellulite, whatever. (Each year, the measures for what we should or shouldn’t eat changed, led by trends announced by The New York Times. This added to women’s competition...
Well, it's official: I'm going to Australia, as the NCJWA Scholar-in-Residence!! I will be giving talks on topics related to the status of women in Israel to groups in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra, as well as participating in the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival! And visiting Shira, yay, as well as some of the schools..... I have not been back to Melbourne since we moved back to Israel in 2005. That is a long time..... Looking forward to catching up and reconnecting with family and friends. Thank you Shirley Krause Glance and Di Hirsh for believing in me and making this happen. And to those of you who want to catch up, send me a note -- looking forward! May 18-June 3. Really really excited...
Acting against type, the Israeli military canceled the promotion of an Israeli general after he was accused of raping a female soldier and sexually harassing another. Brig.-Gen. Ofek Buchris, a highly praised commander who received a citation for bravery during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and was reportedly shortlisted for the next chief-of-staff. He was about to become head of the prominent Operations Division when one of his alleged victims filed a complaint with the police. After polygraphs with both the accused and the complainant, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot recalled the nomination.
The prosecution told the court martial that the brigadier general is suspected of five counts of rape, sodomy and indecent assault over a long period. Buchris denied having sexual relations with the soldier and his counsel submitted to the court a polygraph. Nevertheless, the court was not convinced of his innocence.
“Sufficient evidence has been gathered to provide a basis for the suspicions against the officer,” the judge ruled, in a special court martial convened at Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Buchris was initially suspended for two weeks, but Eisenkot extended the suspension by another month while the investigation continues.
MK Merav Michaeli, a key feminist legislator from the Zionist Camp party who has been working on the issue of sexual violence against women for three decades, posted a vlog on Facebook describing the significance of these events:
“This is an earthquake for us. This is the best response to those who have been trying to blame the victim, again – even though she went straight to the police and not to a trial of public opinion or Facebook. It is the best response to those who conduct their own trial of public opinion against the victim. So it’s true that it is seems far-fetched to cancel an appointment ‘just’ because of an accusation. But it is also far-fetched to appoint someone to such a senior position while he has such a heavy cloud over him. True, it wasn’t long ago that being accused of rape wasn’t considered a ‘heavy cloud.’ Today, the Chief of Staff cancelled an appointment because of a rape accusation…… This is a huge step towards justice and equality. And it is a massive step in the fight against rape.”
One in three women in Israel experiences sexual violence in her lifetime, Michaeli added, and the rape hotlines in Israel receive 43,000 calls per year. The IDF says the number of sex crime investigations it has undertaken has been around 125 annually over the last two years, but thenumber of rape complaints has risen each year from five in 2013 to eight in 2014 to 12 last year.
Read more: http://forward.com/sisterhood/335857/in-earthquake-for-israeli-feminists-military-cancels-promotion-for-alleged/#ixzz430RtL3UC ...
Are sexist jokes harmless? The ball-and-chain jokes about wives and mothers in laws, the comments about women's body parts, the hardy-har-har about blondes who have no brains? Are these harmless or are they actually a form of abuse?
These are some of the questions that have come up since I wrote my piece two weeks ago about non-contact sexual abuse. Can jokes be abuse? But they are just so "normal"? How can that be abuse?
Consider this: What some of us may have been taught is "normal": a family sits around the table for shabbat lunch. the men of the family -- father, uncle, brother-in-law, all busy telling jokes are about women, about men and sex. about women's bodies, about women's dumbness or stupidity or lack of common sense. Meanwhile, the women are serving and the men are sitting. Men get to deliver opinions and women get to be servers. The house may even have a rule that men get served first. And at the same time, girls who are too opinionated are called "provocative", or "annoying", or "chutzpahdik" or "disrespectful". And their bodies are commented on during all this. Whose skirt is too short. Which women in synagogue wore skirts that were too short. Who gained weight or lost weight. Who should go on a diet. Who should be losing weight. Who "looks great". This is what is happening in the house.
Consider the experience of the 10 year old girl in all this. What is she experiencing about her body? About what it means to get attention? About what it means to be correct as a woman? What is going through her mind? What kind of relationships is she developing with her body? With her sexuality? With men? With power and voice? What is she internalizing? What kinds of relationships might she eventually have with boys and men? What kinds of body issues might she have?
Now imagine this: The girl desperately wants her smart, charismatic father to love her and admire her. She wants to be in his circle. she tried having opinions but got punished for that. so she tries another tack. she makes a sexist joke. She makes the kind of joke her father would make about, say, Kim Kardashian's ass. She knows it is considered funny, even if she doesn't really get why. But she is smart enough to know how to fit in and get some attention. The father looks at her, stunned, and then laughs in pride. Later he will say that she is his smartest daughter. Almost like a boy. She is like his vicarious son. She is so smart.
What has this girl internalized? Think about it.
When is a joke not just a joke but part of a culture of sexual abuse? Even when there is no actual touching involved......