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Posted at 06:26 PM ET, 12/01/2011

In Israel, women’s rights come under siege


Women are forced to board public buses from the back and stay there. Billboards with images of women are defaced. Public streets are cordoned off during religious holidays so that women cannot enter.

Saudi Arabia in the misogynistic grip of sharia law? Sadly, astonishingly, infuriatingly, it is Israel under the growing influence and increasingly assertive demands of the ultra-Orthodox.

Of course, Jerusalem — where all these events took place — is not Riyadh. Israeli women work, drive, vote, serve in the military — indeed, in combat roles denied to women in the U.S. military. And, unlike the situation in Saudi Arabia, these restrictions are not government-sanctioned, let alone government-imposed.

But it is hardly comforting to be able to say that women remain better off in Israel than in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, and particularly in Jerusalem, an ultra-religious minority has sought to impose growing constraints on the less observant majority.

As the numbers of these ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, have multiplied, so have their political influence — religious parties form a key part of the governing coalition — and the scope of their demands.

“In the past two years or five years, it’s just deteriorating,” said Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg of the liberal New Israel Fund, which has launched a campaign to combat the “erasure” of women from public advertising. “The Haredi are having more and more say about how our lives are in Israel.”

●During the dancing that marks the traditional end of the Simchat Torah holiday this fall, female soldiers were asked to leave the main event. Dancing on one side of the arena, separated from the men by a long table, was deemed to not be separate enough.

●Ultra-Orthodox male cadets walked out of a separate ceremony that featured singing by female soldiers because, the men claimed, hearing women’s voices would produce “impure” thoughts.

●Despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned enforcement of separate seating, women on publicly funded bus lines that serve Haredi neighborhoods sit in the back — and those who fail to comply have been threatened.

●Some religious neighborhoods feature gender-segregated health clinics, playground hours and grocery store checkout lines. An Orthodox radio station banned female announcers, interviews with women and songs by female vocalists.

But the restrictions are not confined to religious neighborhoods. An annual parade to celebrate the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem has been segregated, with separate marches by gender and separate sidewalks for male and female onlookers.

A Jerusalem dance studio was told to lower the window blinds to obscure the view of women rehearsing. In Ashdod, a mostly secular city, the orchestra dropped a female singer from its lineup after complaints from religious subscribers.

Israel is and should be a Jewish state. Religious entanglements that would be unthinkable and unconstitutional in the United States — establishing the Sabbath as an official day of rest, requiring that kosher dietary laws be observed in state-owned establishments, maintaining a separate system of state-funded religious schools — have been in place since Israel’s creation.

Likewise, it is reasonable for Israel to meet the needs of religious Jews by exempting from compulsory military service religious men studying in accredited institutions and religious women who pursue national service. And clashes over rules governing religious places are inevitable — most fraught of all, the Western Wall, or Kotel, the sacred remains of the ancient temple.

But there is a point at which demands for accommodation go too far, interfering with the rights of other citizens to pursue a different, more secular course. Preventing women from praying on equal terms at the Western Wall is bad enough. Even worse is when it’s not just the Kotel anymore.

The paradox of Israeli society is that women have long been in positions of power. The heads of the two opposition parties are women, as is the chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court. Israel is the only country to draft women into the military. And there has been some gratifying pushback. After the military incidents, 19 reserve major-generals wrote Defense Minister Ehud Barak a letter warning of “damage [to] the fundamental values of Israeli society.”

As Israeli officials well understand, the treatment of women in Israeli society is not a matter of purely domestic concern — it is also a national security issue. American taxpayers, and American Jews in particular, will not tolerate Jerusalem as Riyadh-lite. A truly Jewish state must accommodate the full rainbow of its citizens, not simply take dictation from a black-hatted minority.

By  |  06:26 PM ET, 12/01/2011

 
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