SACRED goes to court to defend womens’ rights to be heard

SACRED, the advocacy arm of the Progressive movement, has joined a court case against the South African Jewish Board of Deputies over a decision to ban female voices at communal events such as Yom Hashoa, the Holocaust Memorial Day. In recent years, communal bodies meant to represent the community as a whole, have followed the SAJBD’s lead and banned women singing. SACRED has attempted on a number of occasions to engage with the SAJBD over this issue and been ignored. It is common practice in Jewish communities around the world for women to join in the singing at Yom Hashoa events. This week SACRED joined with a Cape Town Jewish communal leader, Gilad Stern, who has made a High Court challenge to this discrimination.
SACRED chair Rabbi Julia Margolis and executive director James Lomberg have issued a statement: “There was no problem with women singing at communal events until the Orthodox Chief Rabbi walked off the podium in protest against a young school-girl singing a memorial song. SACRED holds the strong view that in communal events that are not religious in nature, a ban on women singing constitutes unfair discrimination and is both unethical and against the Constitution of South Africa and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. “The denial of voice is a most fundamental attack on the very worth and dignity of women in our community. It is particularly upsetting where such a ban is put in place in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day, which should stand for all time as a warning against the perils of discrimination. Women and men suffered equally in the Holocaust and to refuse to allow women to sing is an affront to the memory of the victims of the Shoah.
“In Holocaust memorial events around the world, women and men sing as part of the commemoration and Orthodox rabbis across the world do not object: this includes both Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel.
“In the past SACRED has attempted to engage with the Jewish Board of Deputies in this regard, manifesting our strong discontent with the position adopted. Unfortunately, all our letters, meetings, petitions and protests have fallen on deaf ears.
“We have been informed very clearly by SAJBD, that ‘in the interest of ensuring maximum communal unity,’ woman singing will continue to be banned. In other words, the SAJBD has adopted the position that women’s voices must be excluded from Holocaust ceremonies in order to encourage the participation of men who object to their singing on religious grounds.
“It should be noted that many religious Orthodox people and authorities do not agree that listening to women sing memorial prayers at a Holocaust ceremony falls within the scope of the religious prohibition of ‘Kol Isha’ whose exact application is disputed.
“Several years back SACRED stated that exclusion of the voices of half of the Jewish community cannot be a reasonable compromise. Instead, it proposed that it be made clear to participants at what point women would sing in the ceremony so that those who wished to remove themselves from those parts of the ceremony could do so. Our attempt to reach a compromise was, unfortunately, rejected by the SAJBD.
“SACRED has submitted supporting documents to the Cape High Court. We have received several requests to hold back the process, and we remain – as we have always been – open to negotiation to settle this matter. Indeed that has always been our preferred option.
“Serious offers of negotiation by the Board of Deputies were not forthcoming until Mr Stern began legal proceedings. We stand by our basic, simple and just demand – that all voices will be heard in our midst.”

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