The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ultra-Orthodox Israeli newspaper Photoshops out female world leaders from Charlie Hebdo rally

The bar game “Photo Hunt” is so simple that drunkards across the nation can grasp it. The concept: Look at two pictures that seem identical, but are not. Then try to spot the differences between the two. It’s a fun game, sure. For a bar.

It’s rare that geopolitics would necessitate such ocular dexterity.

But that’s exactly what happened this week for the readers of ultra-Orthodox Israeli newspaper HaMevaser, who awoke to find an image from Sunday’s march to honor the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris splashed across its front page. At first glance, all appeared as it should. There was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There was French President Francois Hollande. There was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Then things got weird. A few faces were missing. A few female faces, to be exact. And those faces belonged to some of the most powerful women in the world, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That’s right: The Israeli newspaper had edited out all of the women in the photograph. In addition to Merkel, gone was Anne Hidalgo, the first female mayor of Paris. Gone was European Union foreign affairs and security chief Federica Mogherini. And gone was Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt — leaving behind a gloved hand, suspended in mid-air without its host.

How could this be?

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sect is pretty down on the whole images-of-women thing, citing the demands of modesty. For example, in late 2011, women’s faces vanished from billboards amid a mad scramble to scrub models from posters. In one advertisement, a woman showed off some cozy clothing — until her head disappeared from the image, leaving behind a floating arm and handbag.

Ultra-Orthodox newspapers generally avoid running images of women as well. Also in 2011, another Orthodox newspaper — Di Tzeitung, based in New York — deleted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from an iconic picture showing President Obama’s advisers awaiting news on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Also deleted from that picture was counterterrorism director Audrey Tomason. When the Guardian asked what happened, the paper cited a “long standing editorial policy” that readers “believe that women should be appreciated for who they are and what they do, not for what they look like, and the Jewish laws of modesty are an expression of respect for women, not the opposite.”

But this time, people aren’t taking it that way — even Israelis long-accustomed to missing women. “Sure, we Israelis can say this is par for the course with parts of the Ultra-Orthodox community — but it is rather embarrassing when at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage to take the stage,” wrote Allison Kaplan Sommer in Haaretz.

The photo editors at HaMevaser — which means “the announcer” — did an even worse job doctoring photographs than North Korea. As Mediaite pointed out, one man’s face was discolored, and another official was attached to a woman’s gloved arm. “Uh, that’s not a Photoshop, that’s a monster,” wrote Mediaite of the “terrifying image” of the “blurred-out face of Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga.”

No one from HaMevaser was answering questions on Tuesday, according to the New York Times, but if they were, they perhaps would have offered an explanation provided by ultra-Orthodox filmmaker Rama Burshtein. To him, the alterations should be viewed through a cultural lens. This wasn’t sexism. This was religion.

“It’s very, very, very, very, very hard for a nonreligious person to understand the purity of eyes,” Burshtein told the Times. “By us, men don’t look at women’s photo, period. As long as you don’t know that, then it sounds ridiculous, or changing history or events. But we’re not here to get the events the way they are. We are here to keep your eyes.”

Dozens of top dignitaries joined hundreds of thousands of people in the French capital Sunday to pay tribute to the victims of last week's attacks in Paris that killed 17 people. (Video: Reuters)