On my short, intense trip to Israel just before Thanksgiving, I tried to sense the mood of the country. Shortly after my six-week stay in May and June, the “tentifada” protests swept the country, decrying income inequality. By November that had settled down and people were mulling plans to close the gap, although young doctors around the country were on strike.
Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox extremists had burned mosques and defaced Christian and Muslim cemeteries with their “price tags.” Laws were being seriously considered to enforce loyalty oaths, restrict free speech, punish boycotters of goods made by settlers, establish right-wing control over the Supreme Court, and push back hard-won rights of women. One November episode was part of this trend.
I learned of it just before leaving, in the home of friends near an Ethiopian absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, outside Jerusalem. David, an obstetrician, was on the phone with my very pregnant oldest daughter on the other side of the world. Varda, a warm and sensitive soul raised on a Negev kibbutz, was not yet back from her nursing job at a local clinic, and their two sons—one returned from his travels after years in the submarine corps, the other soon to enter the army—were elsewhere around the house.
At their kitchen table I tried to parse the puzzles of Hebrew words in Haaretz when I saw a cartoon with words I understood. A Biblically enrobed woman with a lyre stood nobly, flanked by maidens, while two bent, scared, sweating boys in uniform, wrapped in talis and tefilin and carrying automatic rifles, ran away from them. The text read, “Oori, Devora, oori, dabri-shir!” Awake, Deborah, awake, utter a song!
When David was done taking care of my distant grandchild, I said, “For once I get the words, but I still don’t get the point.” He smiled: “This is really interesting.” Some rabbis had issued a strict ban against religious male soldiers hearing female voices in song. A woman’s voice, the Talmud says, is ervah, which means pubis. In other words, men can’t handle the enticement. When the commanders balked—many events in the army involve men and women singing—some rabbis held that even if a soldier were to be shot for it, he must walk away from a woman’s voice.
So the cartoon (it appeared in English too) presented a delicious paradox: one of the most sacred figures in ancient Jewish history, Deborah the judge and general, sings her joyous victory song as recorded in the Bible—a song heard back then by hosts of men—and two “modern” religious soldiers flee from her in terror.
The proposed ban irked David and his daughter Leehee. She just started medical school at Ben Gurion University after three years as an army paramedic, running emergency services for the IDF in the West Bank. David too was a bit busy directing obstetrics at Hadassah. But proud father and lovely daughter (not in the picture) made time to make a point, when women and men sang together on the futuristic “String Bridge” in a crowded area of Jerusalem. It was at 11 AM on 11.11.11. This kind of family, full of courage, intelligence, and dedication, is the heart of Israel, but people like them feel increasingly besieged.
In late December the ugly face of ultra-Orthodoxy appeared, not for the first time, in the form black-robed men with sidelocks spitting on a child on her way to a religious, girls-only school. Eight-year-old Naama Margolese comes from a normal Orthodox family and was dressed by her observant mother in clothes that would be considered extremely modest anywhere in the West. But in the radical Judeofascist culture of ultra-Orthodoxy she deserved to be cursed, spat upon and worse.
Yes, Judeofascist. If Islamofascism exists, so does Judeofascism. Burning houses of worship? Desecrating cemeteries? Muzzling the press and the courts? Loyalty oaths? Spitting on women and children in the street? Germany, 1930s. Will the Black Hats be Brown Shirts? Both were small minorities once. Israel is not there yet, but it may be on the path.
Naama won’t walk to school now, even with her mother. “When we used to go to school in the morning,” she says, “I used to get a tummy-ache and also scared.” Pro-democracy forces are massing in their community, Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem. But police action against the perpetrators is weak.
Israel was once in the forefront of women’s rights, with both sexes working and fighting side by side. Families were strengthened by these examples, and in many ways they were emulated abroad. Today the ultra-Orthodox are taking the country back to a dark age when women must mute and hide themselves from oh-so-sensitive men with hypersexual thoughts.
Let those benighted men learn to control their own lusts, and stop using this lame excuse to keep women and girls down and out. The civilized world increasingly sees them as brothers of the men in Pakistan who throw acid in the faces of girls on their way to school and the Afghanistan Taliban who rape and then jail or stone the victims for adultery.
Some Jews in the Jewish state are on the same road, marching backward through history. They restrict, oppress and hurt women because they fear them, and fear the feelings that women arouse in them, which they themselves are too weak to control. Shame on them, and on any government that fails to protect women and girls from their crimes—including the government of Israel.