[Kimmy Caplan] conceded that among some groups there was a new “zealousness” and “stricter demands” relating to gender separation and modesty but insisted that those trends did not manifest themselves in Haredi news coverage…“The question is what you’re looking at. We’re looking at a society comprising dozens of groups. You cannot say as a blanket statement there is a radicalization, you cannot say as a blanket statement that there is no radicalization… the fact that in Haredi homes there is internet and people are going with ‘nonkosher’ cellphones – that’s radicalization? It’s the exact opposite. It’s rebellion.”
Above: left, Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar; right, Kimmy Caplan
The Times of Israel has a misleading news analysis which tries to claim that the censoring of photos of females by haredi publications and the like is nothing new, and that there is no push to the right to speak of in the haredi community in Israel. Even more so, the analysis – written by the Times of Israel breaking news editor – reports there is a "stormy internal haredi debate on these issues" (the quote belongs to the haredi public relations professional but it isn't countered by any other reporting).
The Times of Israel relies heavily on Bar Illan University's Professor Kimmy Caplan (a Modern Orthodox male, BTW), who has made a career of minimizing haredi misbehavior, and another Orthodox Israeli academic, Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar of the Department of Communication at Sapir Academic College. Both claim that censoring out images of women in photos by haredi publications is not a new thing. Therefore, they assert, there is no haredi lurch to the right.
Neriya-Ben Shahar even goes so far as to claim that censoring out images of women from haredi publications is "a very old phenomenon" – even though she earlier admitted it began in the 1950s and did not become almost universal until the 1990s.
For his part, Caplan is even more foolish:
“What radicalization? That Shas established a women’s committee [on which Bar-shalom sits] is radicalization? It’s the exact opposite of radicalization… that Adina Bar Shalom heads a college for women – although there were Ashkenazi rabbis who came out and said that it must be closed and that it’s forbidden to do – radicalization? No.”
He conceded that among some groups there was a new “zealousness” and “stricter demands” relating to gender separation and modesty but insisted that those trends did not manifest themselves in Haredi news coverage…“The question is what you’re looking at. We’re looking at a society comprising dozens of groups. You cannot say as a blanket statement there is a radicalization, you cannot say as a blanket statement that there is no radicalization… the fact that in Haredi homes there is internet and people are going with ‘nonkosher’ cellphones – that’s radicalization? It’s the exact opposite. It’s rebellion.”
Caplan – a historian – apparently doen't know to know (or, more likely, isn't honest honest enough to say) that in the late 1800s until WW2 it was quite common for haredi yeshiva students read works of secular philosophy and literature and other forbidden publications. That, too, was "rebellion.” What Caplan should be arguing is that "rebellion" always existed, but it has now shifted from sneaking into a public library or secular bookstore to read the latest works of Marx, Freud or Darwin or surreptitiously buying and reading a secular Yiddish newspaper, to using the Internet to read anonymous comments from fellow haredim about whose rebbe's shtreimel is bigger. The "rebellion" is not new, its delivery method is and, if anything, the intellectual level of that rebellion has significantly dropped.
Caplan is comfortable setting the start point for his timeline where it best suits the conclusion he appears to have first drawn. He shoots the arrow at the side of the barn and then draws the bullseye around it.
In a 2014 interview with Ha'aretz, Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar describes herself this way:
As a believing woman, you should be able to identify with that feeling.
Yes, but I am a believing woman in a modern society, in academia, and I live with unimaginable conflicts.
Doesn’t belief facilitate your life, as an organizing principle?
Not exactly. You know, I teach radical feminism, and when I explain to my students how men control women through body and dress and sexuality – the question always comes up about how I can reconcile this with my style of dress and way of life – and the answer is that I can’t. I am conflicted. That’s why I call myself a “feminist observer of the precepts.”
And not “Orthodox” or “Haredi”?
No. I uphold the precepts rigorously, and I am a rigorous feminist, and the two clash every morning when I put on my head covering. There is masculine coercion of the female body here, but I am religiously observant, so I will do it and overcome myself. I choose to live with this dissonance. It’s a lot easier to live with a dissonance than to choose to forgo. Would I forgo my deep religiosity? My family? My way of life? So I don’t make a choice.
But you did choose belief, the head covering.
I wear a head covering and I live radical feminism, but if I were told to choose between religion and academia, I don’t know what I would do.
Arguably, what Neriya-Ben Shahar is doing is giving in to cognitive dissonance, shading the truth to protect her faith and her personal feminism while in reality hurting the very women she professes to care so much about.
Both academics are wrong – so evidently so that one must question if are deceiving themselves (as Neriya-Ben Shahar likely is) or intentionally trying to deceive us.
A few key points:
1. Photos of haredi rabbinic leaders with their wives and daughters were published by haredi papers and magazines in Europe before WW2 and in America and Israel immediately after it.
2. As Israeli haredi papers began to stop publishing photos of women (as early as the the late 1950s, in some cases), the still published things like diaper ads with female babies and photos of very young girls in ads for dolls or kindergartens.
3. It is only over the past decade or so that publishing ads like that became forbidden.
4. The move to exclude those photos and the earlier move to stop publishing photos of women entirely was largely driven by Hungarian-type hasidic publications – i.e., Satmar's Der Yid in Brooklyn and Edah Haredit-influenced publications in Israel. The Israeli Hamodia, which is controlled by Gur hasidim, who are infamous for their bizarre sexual restriction and marginalization of women, was actually more liberal on the issue of publishing women's photos and, as the Times of Israel piece notes (but without explaining the affiliations and the politics), once it stopped publishing photos of women's faces, it for a time replaced them with drawings of women's faces.
5. The most common way of dealing with a news photo that contained women used to be not to publish it at all. If the need to publish it was great, the photo might be published, but with the woman's face blacked out.
6. But as the access to airbrushing and later photoshop grew easy and cheap, haredi publications began altering the photos in increasingly sophisticated ways without the permission of the photo's copyright holder and almost always without noting the alterations had been made – like, for example, the photoshopping of the White House Situation Room photo that removed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the photo – a story FailedMessiah.com broke. Neither Caplan or Neriya-Ben Shahar bother to mention this key point or that its effect is to truly alter history in ways that are truly undetectable for most haredi readers.
So, what do we have?
The Israeli standard of not publishing photos or even sketches of female faces, even if those faces belong to 3-year-old girls, is a Hungarian hasidic innovation. It has no wider historical support and was certainly not the standard in Lithuania, Belarus/White Russia and large parts of Poland before WW2.
Similarly, the current US, British and Belgian haredi standards are also Hungarian-driven.
The refusal to publish photos of little female children is a recent innovation and is, again, Hungarian driven.
There are other academics who could quite easily point out the flaws in the arguments of Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar, but the Times of Israel apparently didn't bother to ask them.
The point of the article, openly stated, is to show that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's daughter Adina Bar Shalom is wrong.
Bar Shalom recently lashed out at the exclusion of women from haredi public life and noted that when a Shas publication published a Yosef family photo that censored the females, her father was shocked and adamantly opposed and said that if this keeps up, soon all women will be forced to wear veils.
Yosef was the preeminent Safardi halakhist of his generation (and, most say, of the past several hundred years), a man with an unmatched photographic memory and wide knowledge of Jewish texts of all kinds. For him to be shocked by the censorship says much about the lack of a halakhic basis for that censorship. And because Yosef was certainly familiar with haredi publications in his younger days, what also shocked him was the dichotomy between then and now.
I've heard similar thoughts expressed privately by Ashkenazi haredi rabbis, some of note, as well.
So how could Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar make this clear error?
As I noted above with regard to Caplan, because their starting point for measuring change was set – by them – after most the major changes had already taken place.
In other words, in 1980 I could have argued that America had always been a promiscuous society because anyone who looks can see what took place in the late 1960s in San Francisco. To say open promiscuity is a recent phenomenon is obviously false. But that argument would be specious. Open promiscuity was not at all common in 1938 and it certainly was very uncommon in 1898, and to say that sexual mores were evolving and becoming less restrictive at a rapid pace would be much closer to the truth than arguing things had been this way for a long time.
Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar use (or fall prey to) this selection bias and reach conclusions many older haredim like Bar Shalom would find laughable.
As for the claim that there is a vigorous debate about this censorship of women (and of related issues of restrictions on women), that too is clearly false.
There are haredim who discuss these things and haredim who oppose the censorship and exclusion of women from public life, and some of these haredim are men.
But these discussions are held in the shadows, not openly in public. They're whispered in conversations at Shabbos tables and posted as anonymous comments on haredi blogs and in closed WhatsApp groups.
The number of haredim participating in this "stormy internal haredi debate" is miniscule compared to the haredi population as a whole, and the penalties haredim face if they are caught advocating positions their rabbinic leaders oppose are so great, few are willing to risk it.
Women regularly suffer from the increasing climate of delegitimation of women in haredi communities – a fact Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar also fail to note.
Even if these two academics were correct, all they'd really be saying is that the haredi press has been bad to women for a longer time and at a more constant rate than Bar Shalom and others who suffer from it believe.
However, both Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar minimize that suffering by omitting mention of it.
The only person quoted in the article who actually admits the truth is a haredi, Shmuel Drilman, who is the director of the haredi public relations advocacy nonprofit Dosim, which works to counter what it says are negative stereotypes of haredim in the media.
"…[M]any [haredim] recall that the Hamodia paper, which today doesn’t mention the names of women in engagement announcements, in the past featured photos of women as a matter of routine; while the supporters [of this censorship] claim that this [censorship] is the common denominator that allows even the most stringent [haredim] to read the newspapers, and that as there is a decline in modesty standards in the general public, we [haredim] must continually increase [modesty] by us,” Drilman said.
So two prominent haredim, one opposed to the censorship of women and one supportive of it, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's daughter Adina Bar Shalom and Dosim's Shmuel Drilman, know the censorship is increasing and that it has no historical basis.
The bottom line is that the actual evidence supports them and refutes Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar. The official standards of the haredi community have moved increasing rightward over the past few decades.
Perhaps if Caplan and Neriya-Ben Shahar looked at the evidence in its actual context rather than in a fairy tale context of their own making, they'd notice that.
And that would be excellent advice for the Times of Israel, as well.