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Don’t worry America, when it comes to misogyny, Israel’s behind you

Americans, learn from Israel: When you face aggression, do not demure; stand your ground and meet it head-on

The canon of Jewish humor includes a volume on Israelis’ bad manners. Here’s a sample: “An interviewer approaches a Russian, a Pole, an American and an Israeli: “Excuse me,” she says, “What is your opinion about the meat shortage?” The Russian says, “What’s an opinion?,” the Pole says, “What’s meat?”, the American says “What’s a shortage?”, and the Israeli says “What’s ‘excuse me?’”

Practically conceding the stereotype of Israeli rudeness, Israelis, in turn, love to mock American politeness. They scoff at our thank you notes, the ‘it’s so nice to see you’ to people we can’t stand, the ‘sure, no problem’ to favors we resent.

Israelis, they say, tell you what they think. They might get in your face, but the anger passes as quickly as it starts — no grudges.

So with lots of experience of Israelis telling me how it is — no filter, you might assume I could have seen this coming. No, sir.

Last week, I got into a cab in Tel Aviv with close friends visiting from DC.

The cab driver, in Hebrew, asks them where they are from. My friends answer “Washington, DC.” The driver says, “Who’s better Trump or Clinton?” One of my friends says, “Clinton.”

The driver says, “I disagree. It’s very dangerous for a woman to be president.” I ask him, “Why is it dangerous?” He says, “Why? Because of menstruation.” Wait, what? Did I him hear him right? I ask him to translate the word he used — machzor –– a cycle. He’s quiet. He doesn’t know the English word, but is suddenly too sheepish to explain — can’t bring himself to say “blood,” or hormones,” not even “Aunt Flo,” or “code red” or “having the painters in.”

So I clarify, “You mean women are hormonally incapable of political leadership?” “Bediyuk,” [Exactly], he says. “They get angry, crazy during their periods. It’s dangerous.” Sensing the silent outrage, he says, “Look, I tell you what I think; that’s how I am.”

Let’s put aside that Hillary Clinton is presumably postmenopausal. Let’s not ask how testosterone, the male hormone, worked for President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.

But I would like to know this: In a country where anger fuels daily encounters, where — if you’re going to talk in these terms — you might say the whole population seems consistently “premenstrual,” how exactly are “anger” and “craziness” in women different?

In the US, in the midst of Donald Trump’s misogynistic campaign against Hillary Clinton, much has been written about the double-edged sword women face in American public life: When they are assertive, they risk being seen as unattractive attack dogs. When they stand in the background, they risk being written off as unqualified.

American career women often try to resolve this tension by treading lightly. They preface their suggestions with “I was just thinking,” or “I like your idea of …[inserting their own idea] so they don’t overstep the prescribed feminine boundary. The smaller the man and his ego and the younger and more attractive the woman, the more demure she needs to be, the more qualifiers she adds.

But what are the rules in Israel where American-style insincerity and misplaced politeness aren’t effective? Where the male ego does not appear to have room for inflating?

I asked a few of my accomplished Israeli women friends, including one of their mothers who is a renowned educator and political activist. Women in Israel, they say, are more willing to fight fire with fire when it comes to chauvinism in the office. “The case of Moshe Katsav changed everything for women at work,” a friend said — referring to the 2010 conviction of the Israeli president for raping and sexually harassing numerous women who worked for him. Where in the US, the foundational narrative of a woman going public with the sexual discrimination she suffered at the hands of a powerful male public-figure boss — Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings — was a defeat, in Israel, it was a success.

Still, this does not mean that Israeli women readily take their complaints to court. In fact, despite a very progressive sexual harassment law, a 2015 report by Israel’s Ministry of Public Security found that 98% of victims of sexual harassment did not report the incidents to police. Instead women are implementing a new strategy to be heard — social media. In the last six months, three high profile male public figures — Member of Knesset (MK) Yinon Magal, Cabinet Minister and MK Silvan Shalom, and award-winning actor Moshe Ivgy — each voluntarily stepped down from their position within days of sexual harassment claims by women published on Facebook or in the media. As police and courts can exhibit the same sexist norms that gave rise to the women’s complaints, some women have found their social networks to be more hospitable and effective at exerting pressure.

Americans continue to be stunned by Trump’s overtly reactionary, racist, and misogynist campaign. It’s un-American, all around — not only the substance, but the style. The hyperbolic half-thoughts, the surety of nonsense, the self-aggrandizement. Who talks like that?

How do you talk back? If there is a lesson to be learned in Israel — you do not demure. You meet the aggression head-on, in a platform where you’ll be heard. Israelis don’t call it “going negative,” but standing your ground … Otherwise, what are you, a friar [sucker]?

If Trump wins the presidential election, many American Jews say they’ll make aliyah. If they do, perhaps they will find that this election cycle was good practice for life in Israel.

About the Author
Shelley Klein is spending this year in Tel Aviv with her family. She recently completed her tenure as Executive Director of Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In prior years, she was the National Director of Programs for Hadassah. Shelley received a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a BA in Politics from Brandeis University. Shelley’s permanent home is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
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