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No women, please: Why this famous Israeli rabbi’s benefit concert was cancelled

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Published: 8 November 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

CONSERVATIVES WANTED TO portray the issue as a plot by radical feminists to force their extreme views on the public. Apologists would frame it as a conflict of values. At a minimum, some supporters insisted, the commotion was an unforgiveable attack on a man who has dedicated his life to saving the lives of others.

But the most recent Israeli brouhaha was not about a conflict of values; nor was it a putsch by over-zealous feminists or a cruel assault on a saintly man.  This incident was, and is, about the normalisation of the exclusion of women from public space in Israel.

A concert for singer-songwriter and composer Shlomo Artzi, Israel’s biggest rock star, set for November 20, had been designated as a tribute to Rabbi Elimelech Firer and a benefit for Ezra Lamarpeh, the non-profit medical support organisation that he heads.

Ezra Lamarpeh provides referral services and aid to seriously ill patients – no matter what race or religion and at no cost.  In 1997, in recognition of his special contribution to society and the State of Israel, Firer was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honour, and he received honorary doctorates from the Weizmann Institute (2002) and the University of Haifa (2008).

President Reuven Rivlin was scheduled to appear, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was supposed to perform. Artzi was not going to sing, but more a dozen of Israel’s most popular singers and groups were.

But then, on October 31, less than a month before the event was to take place and long after the performers had signed on, Israel’s Channel 12 revealed that Firer, who is an ultra-Orthodox Jew, had requested that no female singers be included, due to his strict interpretation of Jewish law, according to which men are forbidden to hear women sing.

One by one, performers, including the IPO,  cancelled their appearances, making it clear that they had not known that women would not be allowed to appear on stage. And indeed, Ezra Lamarpeh’s website made no mention of the absence of women.

On Monday evening, organisers cancelled the event.

Supporters have argued that in a multi-cultural society, groups such as feminists, who pride themselves on their liberal worldviews, should have been more tolerant of a different, even contradictory, world view.

But this argument creates a symmetry between private religious observance and the public exclusion of 51% of Israeli society. There was no symmetry here, just as there is no symmetry between privately-held racism (despicable as it may be) and the public refusal to hear the voices of people of colour.

Furthermore, this concert was not a private religious observance.  It was intended to be a public event, and tickets were sold to the general public. Women were not going to be allowed to sing – but they were certainly asked to contribute. The concert was to have been held in Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium, which is partially funded by public funds and was offering its venue for free.

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I am saddened that the fundraising event for a worthy cause has caused pain and rancour. But I am even more saddened that the organisers didn’t think twice about excluding women.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is, in part, publicly funded. And Rivlin was not scheduled to participate as a private person, but rather as the President of the State of Israel and all of its citizens (which, to state the obvious that isn’t obvious to all, includes women).

Firer has saved countless lives of Jews and non-Jews, men, women and other genders. I am sorry that he was shamed; he does not deserve it. Public issues should not be played out on the back of one individual, and Firer should not have to carry the burden of gender equality, which he theologically rejects, on his shoulders.

But at the same time, one individual should not be allowed to dictate public norms, either. And even in a multicultural society such as Israel – or, perhaps, especially in a multicultural society such as Israel -- the public sphere cannot be used to express norms that contradict the values of human equality and dignity, whether for theological, ideological, or political reasons.

I am saddened that the fundraising event for a worthy cause and a generous man has caused pain and rancour.  But I am even more saddened that the organisers of the event, including the artistic director, Haim Shemesh didn’t even, in Shemesh’s own words, “think twice” about excluding women and didn’t think that he should have made that fact known to the performers and the public.

It seemed normal to the organisers to expect that women as a group should be flexible in the face of inflexibility and should accede to their own exclusion. In Israel, it has become normal to exclude women from public life. And this normalisation is the reason that, for the good of women and all of Israeli society, we have to constantly be on guard.

If the organizers had “thought twice” and realised that excluding any group from the public sphere is not normal in a progressive, multicultural society, they could have come up with a different format to honour the rabbi. A way could have been found to honour the rabbi without forcing women to pay a price.

Indeed, before the cancellation of the event, a group of feminist women had circulated a petition calling on men and women alike to honour Rabbi Firer by making a donation to Ezra Lamarpeh in his name – while demanding that women be included in the program.

For the first time in Israeli social history, opposition to gender exclusion in the public sphere came not only from the women who were excluded – but from the men and institutions who were supposed to be included in the event.

This is progress. Perhaps in the future, events based on the exclusion of women won’t have to be cancelled because they won’t even be planned. In a truly multicultural society, solutions can found – once leaders recognise that there is a problem to be solved.

Haredi medical charity raises NIS 1million after concert nixed over female singer ban (Times of Israel)
Public uproar led to cancellation of fundraising concert for medical support group Ezra Lemarpe, so thousands of Israelis took to crowdfunding site Charidy to show support

Photo: Rabbi Firer receives the Israel Prize from Shimon Peres

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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