Photoshopping Women’s History

When Brooklyn-based Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Judaism) newspaper Di Tzeitung published the now-iconic photograph of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the U.S. national security team watching the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, something was missing: images of the two women who were present in the White House Situation Room.

Failed Messiah was one of the first to catch the digital alteration. That blog has since found another Hasidic newspaper, De Voch, that also removed Sec. of State Clinton and Director for Counter-terrorism Audrey Tomason from the photo.

Di Tzeitung responded to The Washington Post to explain why the photograph was altered:

In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.

As Sociological Images pointed out, this isn’t the first time an Orthodox newspaper has digitally manipulated a photograph to hide or remove women. In 2009, Israeli newspaper Yated Neeman removed all the women from a photograph of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet.

The ultra-Orthodox newspapers explained that photos of women are “sexually suggestive,” and that’s why they must be photoshopped. With his usual wink, Stephen Colbert said,

I’m with the Hasids on this one. There’s nothing more sexually suggestive than a woman killing a terrorist.

Added Gothamist,

De Voch‘s photoshop job is pretty amateurish—Clinton is transformed into a dark shadow and a gravy stain on Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough’s sleeve—but at least no Orthodox Jews will be led astray by her lusty Siren call.

But seriously, Rabbi Jason Miller, columnist at The Jewish Week, writes:

I’m not sure how Der Tzeitung [sic] determined this was a racy photo. Perhaps they just don’t like the idea of a woman with that much political power. Der Tzeitung edited Hillary Clinton out of the photo, thereby changing history. To my mind, this act of censorship is actually a violation of the Jewish legal principle of g’neivat da’at (deceit).

In an interview with CNN, Di Tzeitung publisher Albert Friedman explains that “Jewish laws of modesty” prohibit Di Tzeitung from printing photographs of women, but Shmarya Rosenberg of Failed Messiah says, “There is no Jewish law mandating the removal of normally clothed women from pictures like this.” Rabbi Miller agrees.

The Situation Room photograph was originally posted on The White House’s Flickr with the following disclaimer:

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Clearly, removing two people from the photograph constitutes manipulation of the photograph, and in their apologetic statement, Di Tzeitung also said:

We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department.

Whether Di Tzeitung really is afraid of women in power or not, the newspaper has effectively erased two significant public figures from an important political and historical moment they were a large part of. Writes Leah Berkenwald of the Jewish Women’s Archive blog,

It is the denial of feminism–the denial that women have a place beside men in the “Situation Rooms” of our government, our communities and our own lives. It is also an insult to men, suggesting that they are nothing more than animalistic sex machines unable to concentrate if a woman is present. It also represents the denial of the GLBT community by suggesting that all men desire women, and vice versa. Basically, it’s an insult to everybody.

Original image from Flickr user The White House


Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a feminist, an avid viewer of every Real Housewives series and very into Britney Spears.