Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. This is, in effect, its long-standing public-relations slogan. If you’re not Jewish (I am for the record) and have no personal investment in the fate of the world’s only Jewish nation, your commitment to liberal democracy should, goes the thinking, place you on Israel’s side. And there is something to it, or rather, there was.
As Yoav Fromer pointed out in Tablet, Israel’s new right-wing coalition government has made it more difficult to portray Israeli democracy as liberal. The more theocratic things get, the less Enlightenment-ish, whatever the religion the theocracy upholds. Israel is not a full-on theocracy, but is shifting dangerously in that direction. In The New York Times, Roni Caryn Rabin reports that while Israeli law continues to uphold gender equality (kind of), daily life in Israel now includes incidents such as a bunch of men not letting a woman onto a train car, because it was, in their view, men-only.
“Bus drivers in central Tel Aviv and southern Eilat have refused to pick up young women, because they were wearing crop tops or workout clothes,” Ms. Rabin wrote. “Last month, ultra-Orthodox men in the religious town of Bnei Brak stopped a public bus and blocked the road because a woman was driving.”
Anti-Zionists use the term “pinkwashing” in reference to what they view as Zionist propaganda, wherein the fact that Israel has Pride parades and gay rights and whatnot (unlike other countries in the region) gets used to somehow mask the state’s oppression of Arabs. It’s a convoluted argument, but one that would in any event not much matter in an Israel of the future, where LGBTQ people are no longer protected, and where same-sex spaces will be the result of religious-based sex segregation and not the desire of, say, gay men to gather in a Tel Aviv nightclub.
Some critics of Israel oppose the glamourization of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, the young Israelis, men and women, who do the country’s mandatory (but with religious exceptions) military service. Well. The Jerusalem Post reported on a recent case where “female soldiers were humiliated by an ultra-Orthodox family who got on the same train as them.” Per their story, the riders “called them ‘the IDF’s shadows of death’ and shikse (a derogatory term for women who aren’t Jewish) and asked aloud if dogs are allowed on the train.” That’s certainly one way to show your gratitude for solders’ sacrifices.
What’s important to understand here is that this is not a matter of religious communities running their schools and synagogues how they see fit. This is not, in other words, me sitting here complaining that ultra-Orthodox congregations are really falling behind where drag queen story time’s concerned, or asking them to pop trigger warnings onto the Torah. No, this is about access to public infrastructure such as trains, buses, and roads, in a country that supposedly prides itself on being a beacon of liberal democracy.
The detail in Ms. Rabin’s article I found most upsetting: “some public libraries post separate hours for girls and boys.” While the world’s liberal democracies are debating what “girl” and “boy” even mean, and coming around to the idea that some people identify as neither, this is, apparently, where some of Israel is at.
It might be tempting for some to imagine this anti-woman, anti-liberal turn is specific to Israel, and to ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Well, sorry to report, but this is the moment we’re in more generally.
A “backlash” to feminism, like the one Susan Faludi described in 1991, is under way, with the United States overturning abortion rights, and with a broader cultural rejection of the sexual revolution. Human Rights Watch cites examples of backtracking on women’s rights in countries including China, Poland and South Korea. So much for linear progress.
Per no less an authority on trends than Glamour magazine, “Misogyny Is the Biggest – And Most Unflattering – Trend of 2023.” And it is, it is! I recently found someone arguing that universal daycare is to be blamed for why young people today are (among other things) mentally ill, transgender, and obese, an argument whose numerous issues I cannot possibly unpack here (these are real “where-to-begin” times), but the point is that there is anti-modernity and anti-feminism in the air, with polling to back up the vibe. “Reject modernity, embrace tradition,” goes the meme, and populist leaders worldwide are leaning into that.
It seems possible to me that Israel’s rightward shift will not wind up alienating the Jewish state on the international stage, seeing as it just means Israel has gone trad at the same time as everyone’s at least flirting with doing so. If the tide has turned toward anti-liberalism, Israel may do just fine. Israelis themselves, women especially, will suffer.