My guilt from the sidelines

Like a moth drawn to the fire, I can’t stop myself. And I warn the reader that this blog doea not have anything directly to do with science, or life in science–although it does have to do with life. And equality. Or a lack of it.

I moved to Israel in 1983. I was recruited to the military, and after some time, I thought to myself “If I ever get out of this uniform, everything will be okay. For anyone who survives the military, living in Israel should be ‘a piece of cake.'”

Then I realized there were reserve drafts, and I hated this as well. Within 10 years, I was able to get discharged (I’ll leave the circumstances purposefully enigmatic)–and I thought that from then on, life would be easy.

I was wrong. Among all the great achievements in Israel, scientific and otherwise, there remains a growing sense that medieval forces are taking over the country. That equality is being rejected. On various fronts.

Recently, some of us were grappling with the issue of how to leave a legacy–or lasting impact. Well, I am again appending an article written in the Israel daily “Yediot” by one woman who has made a lasting and lifelong impact. Her name is Shulamit Aloni, and she was the head of one of Israel’s political parties devoted to human rights, freedom, equality, tolerance and much more. She was Israel’s very best Education Minister for a time as part of a coalition years ago. She is a tireless fighter for the right’s of women and for freedom against religious coercion.

As I read this little article that Shulamit wrote, I could feel my guilt at abandoning her to the struggle. But I do not want my own daughter helplessly stuck in this atmosphere.

Judaism against women

Op-ed: We must fight Jewish radicalization, which views women as lesser human beings

Shulamit Aloni

Last month, Anat Hoffman of the Reform Movement (a non-orthodox and tolerant religious movement that has equality for women and is shunned by the orthodox in Israel-SC) proposed that I board one of the previously gender-segregated bus lines and examine the attitude to women. These are the bus routes where the High Court of Justice ruled such segregation is illegal and must be annulled (the orthodox believe women and men need to be segregated on buses, in lines, everywhere-SC).

I boarded the Route 418 bus from Ramat Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem. The bus was full, and I, an elderly woman over 80 years of age, sought a seat. The men did not appear ill to me yet nobody offered his seat (hardly surprising-SC).

I finally found a free seat at the front of the bus. I sat down and immediately heard someone yelling: “Women to the back of the bus.” They screamed but I smiled and continued to sit. Emotions were high but eventually the bus driver said: “Stop it. Let her sit wherever she wants.”

This segregation is disgusting. It is a shame that the Egged bus company cooperates with this for some profits. However, the problem is not Egged. After all, Egged is subsidized by the State and must serve the entire public, regardless of ethnicity, creed, religion or gender.

We are currently experiencing the revival of radical, zealous rabbis who seek to elicit power. They challenge the government and Knesset, brainwash their students and present themselves as an alternative: The rule of the Torah (the Bible-SC). This radicalization is fed by money, political power and the weakness of ministers and Knesset members who seek to curry favor with the religious public.

This is not a new phenomenon. It started when politicians began to make pilgrimages to rabbis.

Judaism never espoused the need to distance from women. After all, God created both man and woman in his own image. The segregation we are witnessing is the producing of prejudice and power struggles.

A crazy country

I learned from various rabbis, such as Shlomo Goren, who followed historical precedents of a “conditional divorce” to prevent women from becoming Agunot (A woman who cannot remarry for religious reasons-SC). Together we managed to prevent injustices done to many women. Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen was also a special man, and when I approached him with the problems of couples who could not get married he spared no effort and smoothed over the issues elegantly.

I meet successful women at the highest level of every field. I admire their rational, practical devotion to the targets they pursue. I also view the women of Kolech, Israel’s first Orthodox feminist organization, as wise, educated and incredibly clever. Yet I feel that we live in a crazy country. Everyone woos women but they are not given rights. We want them to be pretty, healthy and make a living – yet we also want them to shut up. Only few appreciate and truly care for their rights.

The Israeli public has tired of struggles for changing legislation for the sake of human rights. Yet now of all times – when winds of change are blowing and people are enlisting to the cause of a more dignified life for all of us – we must not forget the notion of equality for the entire population. We must care for others, allow every group and individual to express themselves, and respect each other.

We are persecuted by people who are supposed to be men of letters who honor every human being. So I have news for them: A woman is a human being too.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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12 Responses to My guilt from the sidelines

  1. yehonatan says:

    Thank you Steve for the beautiful translation of Shulamit Aloni – with your permission I’ll link to it from our facebook page. Yeshar Koach!

  2. cromercrox says:

    Oy. Once upon a time I thought that the only thing that Israel and Iran had in common was that they began with the letter ‘I’. No longer. It’s such a shame that Israel is approaching its Rosa Parks moment.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Postscript – I think matters have become worse over the past quarter-century. I spent a summer in Israel as a student in 1985, and saw no sign of Ultra-Orthodox influence in daily life apart from in the Ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, which felt like a kind of living museum of the shtetl, and was generally seen by everyone else as a relic or a bizarre tourist attraction. I’m not sure I want to go back to Israel while it’s like that – and find it ever harder to support Israel’s existence until it rediscovers some of its old egalitarian values. As someone said recently – it might even have been you, Steve, on this blog – the religious radicalization of Israel is a bigger threat to Israel than its massed enemies, or even Islamic radicalism. I fear that unless something is done to reverse this trend Israel will simply collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Rosa Parks indeed–except this time the bus is going in reverse.

      I think many of Israel’s dirty little secrets have been hidden so well because of the life-threatening events (as opposed to life-quality-threatening events).

      As a tourist in Tel Aviv, one might still not appreciate the gravity of the situation today (and many in Israel, unfortunately, do not). When you live there, you obviously become exposed to so much more. For example, some months ago it was necessary to transfer a huge electrical transformer from Tel Aviv to the south. A huge thing, that apparently took up 3 highway lanes. It was originally scheduled to be moved between midnight and 8 am on a Fri. night/Sat. morn. When the religious got wind of this, forget it. The politicians collapsed to their demands, and the general population had to put up with sitting for hours and hours in traffic (that’s already bad).

      Then there’s daylight savings–or lack of it. The religious soldiers who walk out of any ceremony where females perform. At the same time, the army forces secular and non-orthodox soldiers to be forced to listen to “lectures” given by messianic rabbis whose sole aim is to indoctrinate.

      Want to get married in Israel? Only via the orthodox rabbinate, which requires the bride to meet with the rabbi’s wife. What for? The bride gets a lesson on what to expect on the night of the marriage. Yes, you read correctly–in 2011, secular Jews are forced to endure this. The rabbi’s wife also gives important instruction about the bride’s menstrual cycle, and informs her that dough will not rise if she bakes when she is “impure.”

      I could go on and on. It’s a sensitive topic for me. Philosopher Asa Kasher of Tel Aviv University once discussed democracy and noted that it’s a common misconception for people to think that it simply means “Majority Rules.” He discussed how basic rights of minorities need to be addressed in a true democracy. Despite the influx of a million largely secular Russian Jews into Israel in the 1990s (which I had hoped would offset the natural and discouraging demography), the religious Jews are set to become a majority in a few years down the road. Ironically, holding on to the occupied territories (and ultimately being forced to give citizenship to several million Palestinians in a binational state–if that’s what ensues) may be the only way to avoid Jewsih orthodox rule.

    • At the risk of annoying Henry by mentioning the topic, I personally think that a good part of the underlying reason why the left in other countries (especially in Europe) has become progressively more and more unhappy with Israel over the last three decades is the drift of Israel towards a less secular and less egalitarian society. There is also the progressive rightward shift of Israel towards a political landscape that sometimes seems, to outsiders like me, to resemble the US more than anything else, with all the nominally secular major parties variously hostage to the need to placate, or at least not to fall foul of, the religious lobby.

      Continuing this theme, when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, and hearing about Israel from family, friends and the media, the message I got was of a country whose founding ethos was secular, egalitarian, broadly socialist and even overtly collectivist – all things a traditional leftie would recognise and approve of. Until the rise of the Likud the leading Israeli poiltical figures were people from the left, like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir (the PM of Israel I remember most from my youth) and Yitzhak Rabin. The early Kibbutz movement (which was a reasonably popular place for people to spend gap years in the 70s, not limited to Jewish teenagers) also sounded more than a bit socialist-ish.

      So.. when did the change towards religious-isation come, and where from? Henry’s comment about the mid-80s suggests that, even after a good few years of Likud govt, Israeli society was still pretty much secular. Despite that, as a leftie I would naturally be tempted to link the rise of the religious lobby to the rightward political shift, as they also seem to run together in the US, for instance. Opinions?

      Now, I’m absolutely not trying to wind anyone up with this comment – even Henry. I appreciate that I am talking about a country that is not my own, so I’ve written this to see if any of it rings true with those who know more. I struggle to understand what has changed in Israel in the modern era, and why. The political and cultural shift obviously has knock-on consequences, not just for Israeli society, but for the rest of the region and the wider world, so I’d like to get a better ‘read’ on it. Is there a good book somewhere which discusses all this?

      • Steve Caplan says:

        “I personally think that a good part of the underlying reason why the left in other countries (especially in Europe) has become progressively more and more unhappy with Israel over the last three decades is the drift of Israel towards a less secular and less egalitarian society.”

        In this case (better mark it for the record), I tend to agree with Henry. There has always been a substantial degree of anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, and I also believe that this is deeply rooted in anti-semitism. Today some of this is masked and intermingled with genuine unhappiness with Israel’s militant right-wing, but European countries (pardon my lumping Europe altogether and making huge generalizations) have typically been very anti-Israel in policy (and very hypocritical).

        With regard to the rise of Israel’s religious to powerful positions—the country started out entirely secular. On the one hand, since 1948 there has been an increasing number of ultra-orthodox and orthodox moving to Israel. Since marriage is at a very young age, and typical ultra-orthodox families might have 8-12 children—you can calculate the exponential growth. Add to this the huge influx of “traditional” orthodox Jews from North African countries (who now actually outnumber the European descended Jews), and you simply have a fast-growing orthodox minority that will very soon be a majority.

        Henry is correct that holding the balance of power politically has allowed the orthodox not only control of Israel’s government, but economic power that has continued to spur their growth. If you don’t work and still receive gov’t stipends, you can continue to reproduce with impunity.

        One more comment: in Israel, left and right are entirely non-economic issues. The party that Shulamit Aloni ran when it was in its prime and held about 10% of the popular vote (mine included) was called “Meretz” (meaning energy). It was an aggregate of 3 parties who all wanted: 1) human rights, freedom from religious coercion, equality under law, civil marriages, etc. 2) negotiated land for peace with the Palestinians (and Syrians—although there was justifiably skepticism about the latter). However, from an economic standpoint, some were more socialist-inclined and others were avid capitalists. Those issues just seemed relatively minor (as odd as that may seem in a normal country) compared to the first 2 issues.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I personally think that a good part of the underlying reason why the left in other countries (especially in Europe) has become progressively more and more unhappy with Israel over the last three decades is the drift of Israel towards a less secular and less egalitarian society.

    No, Austin. The reason the Left hates Israel is because the Left hates Jews. The evidence for this is incontrovertible. The Left hated Israel when I was a lad, when the radicalization of Israel was not even a blot on the horizon. I was involved in setting up this website, dedicated to exposing the antisemitism of the Left, especially in British academia.
    Among the reams and reams of evidence I doubt you’ll find very much about the stranglehold that the Black Hats have on mainstream Israeli society.

    Why has Israel gotten like that? My theory is that it comes from Israel’s form of government, which is based on a kind of proportional representation in which governments cannot form without the participation of fringe political parties – in this case, parties formed by the ultra-orthodox.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Remarkable how European countries reacted to the last war in Gaza–a strip of land run by a gang of terrorists. “Stop Gaza genocide.” Where were all the protestors when the Gazan militants rained rockets on Israeli towns?

    The truth is that all of this terror and reprisals to cpounter the terror attacks leaves the orthodox in the shadows to continue the quiet take-over of the country…

  6. cromercrox says:

    Where were all the protestors when the Gazan militants rained rockets on Israeli towns?

    Well, quite.

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