Let Freedom Sing: Feminism Under Fire in Israel

The intellectual and cultural rot of religious fundamentalism continues its 21st century spread. This is in Haaretz today:

Secular and religious cabinet members engaged in a heated discussion over the issue of women’s rights in Israel on Sunday, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weigh in and urge further dialogue.

The public debate over the exclusion of women from public spaces has recently come into view with the refusal of religious soldiers to attend official Israel Defense Forces events which feature women’s singing. . . . [D]eputy PM [Dan] Meridor said: “I don’t understand this wave of extremism [overtaking the religious public],” adding that “generations of soldiers served in the army and there were always female soldiers in military musical bands, and no one seemed to object.”

But a conservative member of the Israeli cabinet, Shas’ Nahari, said the following:

“We must respect the religious public who finds women’s singing offensive.”

A female member of the Israeli cabinet, Limor Livnat, framed the debate, I think, correctly. She called the exclusion of females from full public participation what it is (violence against women):

Lately, there has been a worrisome deterioration in the status of women in the public arena. The exclusion of women is also violence against women – women need to get on buses from the back door, posters depicting them are banned or otherwise burnt, they cannot sing before men nor mourn for their loved ones at funerals.

She also added that the Orthodox:

[D]eprive women of the most basic rights in a democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and the right to dignity.

This is really serious. When the gains of two centuries of feminist struggle come under such brazen assault, it’s time to dust off the feminist label again, and own it for ourselves without apology.

I am a feminist.

Does it then follow that I don’t respect religious conscience? To the contrary, I do respect it, and insist on the integrity of conscience in this manner: the religious objector need not participate in a public social function in which he finds the presence of women objectionable.

But that’s it.  He can’t make her go away. No one gets the right to silence others on the grounds of “offense.” That would be a violation of the woman’s freedom and conscience.

So, if you don’t like women flouncing about in the culture, withdraw into a counter-culture. Start a commune where everyone voluntarily abides by your rules. But don’t pretend that the integrity of your sensibility must hold sway over others, like you’re special. You’re not. Males are not better than females, and the idea that God has a Chosen People and Favored Land is almost certainly make-believe. God may not even exist. Grow up and deal with the ambiguities of your own existence and let your fellow human beings—male and female—find their own paths of conscience through this vale of tears.

That’s the minimal requirement for global civility in the 21st century.

Let freedom sing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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