Ikea under fire for male-only catalog in Israel

No women are present in a recent Ikea catalog targeted to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol
The cover of a recent IKEA catalog target to ultra-Orthodox Jews. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

The cover of a recent Ikea catalog targeted to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

JERUSALEM (RNS) Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has sparked an uproar in Israel with the publication of a catalog without women.

In an effort to appeal to the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jews and their increasingly stringent modesty norms, the niche catalog Ikea Israel released this month depicts Orthodox men with side curls and boys wearing yarmulkes in domestic settings — at a table set for a Sabbath meal, in a study with display cases lined with religious books. But not a single woman or girl.

The move was a departure for the retailer, whose catalogs normally offer an idealized glimpse of diversity. In America, Ikea started featuring gay couples in ads already back in the 1990s, prompting calls for boycotts by religious conservatives.

The regular Israeli Ikea catalog distributed nationally looks like the one distributed in other countries, with both sexes and no identifiably Jewish content other than being in Hebrew.

A recent IKEA catalog target to ultra-Orthodox Jews concentrates on male products. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

A recent Ikea catalog targeted to ultra-Orthodox Jews concentrates on male products. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

Ikea’s retail manager for Israel, Shuky Koblenz, expressed regret over the women-less publication.

“We realize that people are upset about this and that the publication does not live up to what IKEA stands for and we apologize for this,” he said in a statement sent to RNS. “We will make sure that future publications will reflect what IKEA stands for and at the same time show respect for Haredi community.”

The ultra-Orthodox — also known as Haredim — make up about 10 percent of a population of 8.5 million.

Koblenz said the brochure had been “customized specifically for the Haredi community in an attempt to reach this minority community in Israel with commercial messages.”

Writer Miriam Metzinger, who once led an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, said Haredi consumers, who tend to have large families, are important for Israeli retailers because they need “low-cost furniture, given their birthrate and income level.”

No women are present in a recent IKEA catalog target to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

No women are present in a recent Ikea catalog targeted to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Photo courtesy of Sam Sokol

It’s not the first time the company has waded into trouble in the Middle East. In 2012, Ikea apologized for photoshopping out photos of women from catalogs distributed in Saudi Arabia.

In Israel, critics say efforts by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to keep images of women out of advertisements and segregate men and women on public buses and other public places amount to a human rights violation.

Sam Sokol, a modern-Orthodox reporter for IBA News who has long followed ultra-Orthodox trends, said the catalog “is part of the growing trend of purging the images of women from ultra-Orthodox publications and is presented by its proponents as being consistent with religious tradition … but it’s actually misogynistic market segmentation.”

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

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  • Maybe blame the discriminatory customers, not the merchant forced to cater to their absurd demands.

  • The merchants don’t have to cater. And moreso they can help stop these sexist violations (same with Starbucks) – no more of either.

  • “The merchants don’t have to cater.”

    Consumers run an economy. Not the merchants. This is why consumer revolts, boycotts, and other such tactics actually WORK. If this was not the case that the consumer dictates the product produced by the merchants, then these tactics would not be effective. Consumers have the power in the current system.

    “And moreso they can help stop these sexist violations”

    No they cannot. What do you want them to do, put out a magazine that no Haredi will buy?? What will that solve?? The Haredi will turn to furniture makers that adhere to their sexist demands OR they will make the furniture themselves. A merchant attempting to discriminate against customers to alter their behavior will just result in that subset of customers becoming more insular.

    Boycotts only work when the customers do the boycotting. If a big enough group of people refuse to do business with a merchant until merchant does X, then that merchant will either do X or suffer a loss to their income. But if, say, McDonalds refused to serve anyone who wasn’t a Democrat, Republicans would just start shopping at Burger King.

    Likewise if Ikea DEMANDS that the Haredi stop being sexist in order to get sold furniture, then the Haredi will just go somewhere else to get furniture. Ikea loses money from the business they lost, the Haredi stay just as sexist as they once were, with only a minor reduction in the choices they can make to get furniture.

  • That is disgusting to me as a Jewish woman and I’d like to see Ikea furniture burned in a public bonfire of the inanities.

  • A Haredi customer will buy a picture of a family where the woman is serving a Shabbat dinner and the man of the house doing the kiddush.

  • I tend to think there is a possibility that IKEA did the male-only catalog just so they could get publicity for apologizing for it.

    Would the orthodox Jews accept pictures of women in a mail-order catalog if the women were not the type who are always straining to be ‘sexy’? Wouldn’t pictures of normal, everyday women behaving normally be OK? Oh, maybe not if she is sitting next to a man not her own husband on a bus (gasp)! What do these orthodox Jewish women do when they need an oncologist and nearly all these are men? What if she needs a gynecologist or even a dentist?

  • Most orthodox individuals think this is ridiculous and would most certainly not object to modestly-dressed women; however there is a lunatic fringe that is pushing this issue and more and more people seem to be drinking the Kool-Aid. But as for Ikea, if you want to sell something, you have to make it appeal to your customers, and a very large proportion of people buying furniture in Israel are Orthodox Jews, both young couples starting out, and new immigrants.

  • Sounds good to me. If the Haridem are only 10% then why bother about them. I remember seeing a crowd of men terrorizing a group of young girls trying to get on a bus. They were dressed modestly – a sweater, below-the-knee skirt and blouse. I guess it takes 20 or 25 men to scare little girls just because they want to go to school. And they did not wear a wig or scarf to cover their hair. Big whoop! Big heroes!

  • A modestly dressed woman sitting on an Ikea sofa next to an obviously Hasidic Jewish man with a boy and a girl quietly coloring wouldn’t be enough for these overgrown latency aged boys??

  • Isn’t it possibly condemning one’s daughter to a life of poverty by segregating her, if her husband or father ends up being unable to provide for her? And the young women buy into this? Why? Does this happen in NYC or only in Israel? Do these Orthodox want the NYC Subway to have segregated seating for women?

  • I don’t know what they want. Most Orthodox people are fairly normal, based on my experience. A major rabbi in the previous generation decided that according to Jewish law there is no problem with sitting next to a member of the opposite sex on a public conveyance . I don’t know where the meshugas about modestly dressed women in pictures comes from. It is sick, in my opinion.
    As for your first question, in the ultra-orthodox world it is actually quite common for women to be breadwinners in families where the husband studies full time in yeshiva or where he is a poorly paid yeshiva teacher or where his poor secular education confines him to a low-paying job. This was the case in Eastern Europe as well; women were often shopkeepers or small craftspeople (tailors, etc.).