Thursday October 23rd 2014

New Bill Attempts to Enshrine Western Values

by Sagit Levi

The Ministerial Law Committee is expected to discuss a piece of legislation on Sunday that would define “exclusion of women” as a criminal act.

The bill, proposed by Member of Knesset Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog (Labor), is being criticized by political analysts as an attempt to enshrine Western values and cultural norms in the state of Israel despite demographic trends indicating a steep decline in the population that identifies with these values.

As of 2010, less than half of Israel’s children are enrolled in secular schools that promote Western values while the majority are taught in the Ultra-Orthodox, National-Religious or Arab educational streams.

Given the fact that birth rates in the country’s more traditional sectors are astronomically higher than among secular Israelis, several notable members of the country’s pro-Western ruling elite have expressed opposition to organic democracy in favor of legal action to preserve the state’s contrived Western character.

Using the pretense of championing women’s rights, Herzog explained Saturday that “the phenomenon of women’s exclusion” has recently been growing and needs to be stopped.

The lawmaker cited recent incidents, including objections by religious soldiers to participate in ceremonies in which women sing on stage and the controversial gender segregation on buses in Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, as proof that legislation is necessary to protect Israeli society from transforming into a fundamentalist state.

“The democratic regime in Israel has been based since the state’s inception on a delicate status quo between the right of women to complete equality of rights and the sensitivity to Jewish tradition,” he said. “While there has been great improvement in the world as regards the presence of women in the public sphere, in Israel the opposite trend is growing and women’s space is becoming more limited.”

“Acts that exclude women from the public sphere are present everywhere,” he added. “They include the ban on women’s singing in public, the separation of women in public transportation, the ban on women’s faces appearing on advertisements, the exclusion of women from the [rabbinical] family court system and the separation of women on sidewalks.”

It is not clear whether Herzog’s bill would be applied to Muslim traditions that separate the sexes in various situations, or only to Jews.

It is also unclear whether women have a right to decide that they prefer to be separate from men, for religious or other reasons,  in certain situations.

Alternative peace activist Yehuda HaKohen attacked Herzog’s bill as antagonistic to the country’s more traditional sectors and as an obstacle to Jewish-Arab reconciliation.

In an interview with Indy News Israel Saturday night, HaKohen called the legislation a “desperate and anti-democratic attempt to impose foreign values on Israel’s traditional society.”

“The irrational drive of Israel’s ruling class to turn our country into a Western fortress in the Middle East not only negates our authentic indigenous culture but also creates unnecessary obstacles to peace with our neighbors… ‘Western’ Israel, with its identity crises and arrogant atitudes toward the other peoples of our region, has not succeeded and cannot succeed in becoming an organic part of the Middle East.”

“Only an Israel that proudly embraces its own authentic culture, which shares many similarities with the cultures of our neighbors, is capable of achieving peace with the Arab world.”

When asked if he sees a need to protect the rights of women through parliamentary legislation, HaKohen answered that gender roles are subjective and differ according to culture.

“There are strong women throughout the Middle East who don’t feel oppressed by their societies because they don’t subscribe to a Western definition of gender roles. Traditional Hebrew culture honors and respects women while Western culture generally exploits and objectifies them. The real threat to our women is the imposition of a foreign standard that devalues the roles females have traditionally played in our society.”

“The bigger issue is cultural imperialism,” he added. “And the arrogant assumption that Western culture is superior to the cultures of indigenous peoples. This is especially tragic when its actually a segment of the indigenous people in question that actively seeks to adopt foreign values and impose them on the greater society.”

Regarding the specific examples of gender inequality Herzog cited as catalysts for his bill, HaKohen maintained that the incidents were intentionally sensationalized by the media.

“For thousands of years, Jewish cultural norms have frowned on men watching women sing,” he said. “And there is clearly no security-related benefit to forcing soldiers to participate against their will in events that feature female singers… And while I personally may not see a need for separating men and women on buses, a large number of both men and women who actually live in the neighborhoods in which those buses travel have been adamant in their insistance that this is what they’re most comfortable with.”

“People like Buji Herzog need to get over their Eurocentric arrogance and start coming to terms with the direction in which our country is heading. Anti-democratic legislation like this not only insults the Jewish people’s ancient culture but also the proud cultures of the other Middle Eastern peoples.”

Herzog was exposed by WikiLeaks last April for making derogatory statements in reference to then-Labor leader Amir Peretz’s Moroccan background.

In a meeting with United States officials in January 2006, Herzog was reported to have called Peretz an “inexperienced and aggressive Moroccan” while assuring the Americans that the Labor party’s list of candidates also included Ashkenazi Jews in order “to balance out Peretz’s Sephardi background.”

The term “Ashkenazi” refers to ethnic Jews who lived in most of Europe during  the nearly 2,000 year exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel. “Sephardi” generally refers to those Jews who spent the exile in Spain, the Middle East and North African countries.

The Ministerial Law Committee considers bills before they are presented to the Knesset and legislation endorsed by the committee receives coalition support and are likely to pass.