Life is not a museum

Some tensions here.

Miriam Shear’s day quickly turned ugly when she was ordered by a religious man to move to the back of the bus, a common practice on many routes serving the religious population…[She] refused politely when he demanded her seat, pointing to several others nearby. He yelled and spat on her. Incensed, she spat back. In the 20-minute scuffle that followed, which was joined by four other men, she was slapped, pushed out of her seat and onto the floor, beaten and kicked…Shear’s case, which has gained notoriety here as a kind of religious Rosa Parks incident, is cited in a petition to the Supreme Court to review the segregated bus policy, in what is seen as a test case in balancing the rights of a minority’s freedom of religion against the basic human rights of all.

I am already very leery of that phrase, ‘the rights of a minority’s freedom of religion,’ and its cognates, and I get more so all the time, since they keep expanding and explanding and encroaching more and more on all other rights. To be blunt, I don’t think a minority (or anyone) should have ‘rights of freedom of religion’ except to the extent that such rights don’t encroach on other people’s rights. That’s a lot easier to say than to spell out, because what does and does not encroach on other people’s rights is, to put it laughably mildly, contested. But that’s my basic stance, all the same.

‘…when people are being sprayed with bleach on the street because their clothes are not considered modest enough, when women are being beaten on buses, when these things are going on and the rabbinical leaders say nothing, there is an appearance that it is condoned,” Ms. Shear said in a telephone interview from her home in Canada, emphasizing that she respects Haredi values but regards the violence as a tragedy that cannot be ignored.

Well, she has something of a problem then, whether she realizes it or not. It’s very very difficult to do both; perhaps impossible. It’s hard to ‘respect’ values and resist their real-world instantiation at the same time. If you decide to sign up to (or never decide to sign off from) a set of very conservative religious beliefs and rules, it becomes very difficult to justify resisting any of them. That’s because that’s how very conservative religious beliefs and rules work: they are given, they are a product of authority, they are dogma; change, flexibility, critical thinking, adaptation are not the goal and not valued. This means that people who ‘respect’ the overall picture are at a radical disadvantage if they want to select a few of the rules and beliefs to refuse.

[S]ecular passengers have reported being harassed or kicked off for what other passengers deem inappropriate dress, and even modestly dressed women have been verbally abused for refusing to board through a rear entrance and sit at the back…[T]he bus question is part of a growing trend of what observers say is an increasing drive for religious purity in some parts of Haredi society in the face of growing Western and secular influences…[R]eports have emerged of so-called bleach patrols trolling the religious neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, throwing bleach on the clothing of women they deem to be immodest…More serious is a new rabbinical ruling that has ordered an end to postsecondary degree programs for Haredi women, even within ultra-orthodox educational institutions.

Familiar stuff. Growing Western and secular influences. Oh dear; what to do? Crunch women some more. Squeeze them harder and harder and harder until there’s nothing left – just a husk. Just a dry empty weightless husk. The only safe woman is an emptied-out woman.

“There is a very strong feeling of attack from the outside world,” said Tzvia Greenfield, a Haredi woman and former left-wing member of the Knesset who holds a doctorate in political philosophy…The question for liberal thinkers is to find the right equilibrium between these two main concerns: women’s rights and human rights on one hand, and the right of the group to maintain its way of life.”

Well, that’s not the question for this liberal thinker (meaning me). The question for this liberal thinker is why Greenfield is concerned at all about ‘the right of the group to maintain its way of life’ when that way of life depends so heavily on squashing and controlling and bullying more than half of its members. What’s to maintain? What’s to be concerned about? Not all ways of life are good for all members of the group, so what’s all this curatorial fretting about maintaining them? The hell with them. The way of life of slaveowners was not worth maintaining; why maintain the way of life of any group that has no truck with equality or justice or rights except for the privileged sector of the group?

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