Editorial: The Rights of Spring (and Winter)

It’s not common for citizens of Israel, a haven of democracy in a historically repressive region, to feel simpatico with those in surrounding nations. Yet as matters of gender equality move to the media forefront across the Middle East in the aftermath of Arab Spring protests, some elements in Israel are looking less Israeli and quite reactionary.

In parallel conduct across the Middle East, women are demanding an end to attacks, segregation and discrimination. Israel has seen substantial public protest, much of it centered around two ugly incidents.

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Naama Margolese, age 8, the daughter of observant Modern Orthodox Jews, became terrified of walking to her elementary school in Beit Shemesh after extremist Jewish men spat on her, insulted her and called her a “prostitute” because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.

Earlier this month, Tanya Rosenblit was riding a public bus from Ashdod to work in Jerusalem when an ultra-Orthodox man got on, saw her and told her to move to the rear of the bus. She refused and the man held the bus door open for 30 minutes so it couldn’t move. When a policeman also failed to persuade Rosenblit to move, the man alighted and the bus went on its way. For her resistance she has been dubbed by some the “Israeli Rosa Parks.” Yocheved Horowitz was another brave rider recently, intent on sitting in the front of an Ashdod-to-Jerusalem bus despite taunts from at least one male passenger.

It’s encouraging that a large swath of mainstream Israelis recognize the need for egalitarian public life and

have come out in droves to protest the cruel treatment imposed on girls and women by some who justify their brutish behavior as dogmatic adherence to God’s law. The Israeli public has seen enough of forcing women to sit in the back of public buses, erecting signs calling for the separation of the sexes on sidewalks and – most horrifically – physical assaults by ultra-Orthodox men who “found their school uniforms immodest.”

What’s more surprising, but just as welcome, is the parallel indignation being expressed publicly about blatant violence and discrimination toward women and girls in other Middle Eastern nations.

Massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have followed brutality against women in the form of assaults and so-called “virginity tests.” An Egyptian administrative court ruled last week that the Egyptian military violated the human rights of female demonstrators by subjecting them to such tests. Amateur videos have gone viral, documenting how Egyptian security forces have viciously beaten and stripped Egyptian protesters taking part in Arab Spring demonstrations.

And in the so-called “moderate” Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, some brave women staged a “drive-in” to protest the law. They were not only chastised by the Saudi regime for violating Islamic codes of decency but also warned that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity in Saudi society.

These examples may represent varying degrees of severity, and there’s no denying that in many ways Israel’s laws are light years beyond those of its neighbors in protecting equality, civil rights and personal liberties. What the protests seem to have in common, however, is a Middle East awakening in which women in multiple nations are demanding their rights and an immediate cessation to physical, psychological and emotional mistreatment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accused of being “soft on Jewish extremism” so as not to break apart his right-far right coalition, denounced the Beit Shemesh incident, said “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all.”

While Netanyahu’s strong statement is welcome, it must be followed by strong official action to assure that religious extremists do not commit hateful acts against females in the public context. When a girl of 8 is spat upon and called a “whore” by so-called “religious” Jews, the entire Jewish people and the very reason for creating an open and inclusive Jewish State are assaulted.

The example of the Taliban in pre-2001 Afghanistan presents a cautionary tale as to what happens when religious extremism runs rampant and unchecked. The Taliban forbade women from attending school and acid was thrown in the faces of schoolgirls who violated the ban. An unescorted female could be hit by men with large sticks on any street. Women accused of adultery were viciously mutilated.

We are guardedly optimistic that those women who live in regressive political climates across the Middle East are asserting their rights in a more assertive and public manner. We only hope that Israelis can continue to serve as a beacon for progressive change, and that those within Israel who are committing such abhorrent acts understand there’s no place for them in a democratic and civilized society.