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.
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.”
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)