At the mass demonstrations in Israel against the course of the right-wing religious government coalition, women dressed as “maids” are increasingly appearing, an allusion to the women in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel: In a United States governed by Christian fundamentalism, they serve as handmaids to men as birthing machines.
It is Prime Minister Netanyahu who has been alarming secular-minded Israelis with his right-wing-religious government coalition for months. In order to make the alliance possible, he made extensive concessions to the ultra-Orthodox partners. The coalition agreements stipulate that Netanyahu will work to change anti-discrimination laws in order to pave the way for religiously motivated gender segregation.
There are increasing reports of attempts by religious fundamentalist forces in the country to restrict women in public spaces. These are an expression of a deep cultural divide between the country’s secular majority and an ultra-Orthodox minority. Although this only represents 13 percent of the population, it is represented by influential political parties. Because of its large number of children, it is also the fastest growing group in Israel; within four decades, it is estimated that it could make up a third.
Just recently, half the country was outraged by an incident on a bus. A group of young girls in jeans and tank tops were being lectured by a bus driver. On video, the man can be heard saying: “You live in a Jewish state, you have to respect the people who live here. I’m sorry that they taught you in your kibbutz that it was okay to walk around naked. This is a wrong education that you have received.” He asked that the girls cover themselves with their bath towels and sit at the back of the bus. Their male friends had to stay in the front. He later explained that the young women should be happy that they were allowed to ride at all. The bus driver’s wife went even further and later explained that if she had been there, she would have shot the girls without further ado.
Certain ultra-Orthodox groups have been pushing gender segregation for years. For example, they cover pictures of women on hair dye labels in supermarkets, and there are different queues for men and women in front of bank counters. Parts of the new government support the project. The new Environment Minister Idit Silman has started a pilot program: bathing will now be gender-segregated at two state-controlled bathing areas.
In the eyes of many women, the status quo that has existed since the founding of the state and thus the social contract is at stake. Gender segregation has already become established in some areas. For example, in public universities that accept ultra-Orthodox students. Courses there are already separated by gender.
Liberal Israelis no longer want to tolerate the discrimination of religious fundamentalists. Thousands of them demonstrated in the city of Bnei Brak, which is dominated by devout residents, for the preservation of women’s rights. The organizers accuse the government of wanting to “change the liberal character of Israel and transform it into a more religious, discriminatory, unequal country” with the controversial judicial reform. This can be seen, among other things, in initiatives for gender separation and the exclusion of women from public spaces.
Israel was once considered a pioneer in equality. Even when women did not even have full suffrage in all European countries, the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 guaranteed them equal rights. Important decisions of the Supreme Court confirmed this in the years that followed, for example with the obligation of the Israeli armed forces to make the pilot course also possible for women. Women have been fighting in Israel’s army since 1948; the German army only allowed them into combat units in 2001. Israelis now also fly the F-35, the world’s most modern fighter aircraft. A new bill was also introduced in the Israeli parliament that would expand the powers of rabbinical courts. The marriages of Jewish couples can already only be annulled by rabbis. In the future, clergy should also be able to decide on civil law issues, such as labor or contract disputes. Since their courts follow the Jewish prohibitions and commandments of Halacha, women are not permitted to serve as judges there.
Prime Minister Netanyahu apparently felt compelled by the outrage in the country to make a statement in which he emphasized the current legal situation as correct. He doesn’t plan to change it. “The State of Israel is a free country where nobody will restrict who can use public transport or dictate who sits where.” Anyone who disregards this will be held accountable. The Prime Minister acted as if there were no efforts in this regard in his government.
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