Our Women, Ourselves

Jewish Light Editorial

All the progress that America and Israel have achieved in nurturing gender equality is now in severe peril, thanks to reactionary forces that threaten to drive us back toward the Dark Ages.

In Israel, it’s a cowardly fear of ultra-Orthodox Jews who find pictures of women in advertising to represent biblical heresy. Women have been removed from billboard ads for any number of products and services, and vandalism against public ads incorporating women has not been uncommon.

As bad as it is in Israel, it’s worse here, as voices seizing the political stage to thrust gender equality backward by decades, perhaps even centuries, are loud, pervasive and laced with the kind of vileness that gives one pause about the future of our society.

The comments last week of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), showing medical ignorance about women’s reproductive processes and legal ignorance about rape, heightened the public profile of the assault. By no means, however, were Akin’s comments an aberration; there’s pervasive support for a federal constitutional amendment that would make abortion illegal even in cases of rape or incest. As local politico Sharon Barnes says, “”If God has chosen to bless this person [the rape victim] with a life, you don’t kill it.”

Think this is only about abortion? You thought wrong: The bravura of the now-mainstream anti-women agenda is helping to bring the beyond-crazies out of the woodwork. In Charles Blow’s New York Times posting online earlier this week, he quoted from the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, who while denouncing the character of most women, said: “I think that one of the greatest mistakes that America made was to allow women the opportunity to vote. We should’ve never turned it over to women.”

Yes, you read that right. While his viewpoint may be part of the loony fringe, we have degenerated to a point at which those such as Peterson are being given legitimacy through face time on national news programs, talk shows and other public forums.

It is sadly ironic that religious and cultural zealots — yes, those same ones who are so frightened of the effect of fundamental Islamism in America, the same ones who put forth ridiculous anti-Sharia legislation to “protect” us from the threat of medievalism — are the ones who are themselves promoting a medieval agenda toward women.

Indeed, as Wesleyan University Associate Professor Jennifer Tucker wrote in the New York Times last week, Akin’s words have their roots many centuries before enlightened thought: “By the 19th century, legal opinion had shifted, at least in some courts. In 1820 an Arkansas appellate judge, in a definitive ruling, called the idea that pregnancy negated rape outdated: ‘The old notion that if the woman conceived, it could not be a rape, because she must in such case have consented, is quite exploded.’”

What is needed is relentless, forceful and public pushback. Israel’s Canaan Media, an ad agency which acceded to threats and violence for years, recently indicated it would post ads including women on buses for a nonprofit client that advocates for women’s rights. The Egged bus company, however, has chosen instead to remove all pictures of people from bus ads in the Jerusalem area.

On Monday in Haaretz, Allison Kaplan Sommer asked Israeli business leader Shari Arison — recently on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women, and owner of the parent company of Salit salt, which removed a woman from an Israeli Passover billboard ad — to show gender-based leadership:

“I ask you to use the power that you have at your disposal to do what you can (to) turn back this destructive tide that seeks to eliminate the images and voices of women from the public sphere in Israel. This effort is aimed at erasing the images of women, no matter how wealthy or powerful or important they are (as we have seen, even Hillary Clinton, number two on the Forbes list, is not immune from erasure).”

If we move away from enlightenment and equality, we will find our children living in a society in which literacy, health care, education, respect for the rights of all, and overall social stability take second seat to the frenzy of religious proselytization and ultimately, persecution.

By challenging Arison, Sommer poses the kind of question that we must ask of our leaders in the business, political and community leadership spheres. We have the wherewithal to beat back this attack on intelligence, science, fact-based education and ultimately, on half our population. We must insist and expect that our leaders speak out consistently and insistently to preserve the gains we’ve made for future generations. We owe that to our children — both boys and girls.