Vice President Mike Pence is known – and appropriately criticized – for his rule of never being alone with a woman other than his wife. This “Pence Rule,” which treats women as “other than” in what should be a normal workplace setting, serves to limit women’s access to power and professional advancement.
Such attitudes are never acceptable. But especially in this historic moment, when women are rising up and sharing their voices and stories, claiming agency and equality, and pushing back against the societal forces that have for ages marginalized women, it is particularly unacceptable that the disenfranchisement and mistreatment of women is becoming more – rather than less – commonplace in certain settings.
The Vice President’s recent visit to the Kotel is an egregious example of this outrageous behavior toward women. During the visit, female journalists were separated from their male counterparts and forced to stand under a covered, fenced-off area at the rear of the compound. The covering was eventually removed so women could stand on chairs and get a view of Pence’s visit, but the female journalists were not given the same access or views as the male journalists. Rather than treating the women as professionals doing their jobs, an artificial separation was created that privileged men. Even worse, one female journalist was subject to an unacceptable and humiliating strip search by the Prime Minister’s security detail.
This disparity in treatment of men and women is simply outrageous; what is even more outrageous is that this decision was a result of a collaboration among a number of groups including the American embassy in Israel, White House staff, and the Israel Press Office.
Israel prides itself on its Jewish and democratic nature, but when hardline religious doctrine infringes on the rights, dignity and equality of all, it threatens both Israel’s status as a modern-day democracy and as a country where Jews of all kinds feel welcome and accepted. Jewish leaders in Israel and the US must speak up forcefully in support of efforts to advance gender equality in the Jewish State, both at the Kotel and throughout Israeli society. In recent years, the Kotel, which should be a sacred place of both historical significance and faith for all Jews, has become a battleground for women’s equality. The effort to make this place safe and welcoming to all Jews has been marred by police violence, discriminatory and sometimes even violent behavior by the extremist religious groups who control what should be a communal space, and a failure by too many politicians to advance the democratic values they claim to uphold. The treatment of women at Judaism’s holiest site is deeply broken, and is symptomatic of the way in which women are treated as second class citizens by the Jewish religious right.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has an important role to play as well; he previously backed off a plan to make the Kotel more accessible to women after pushback from ultra-Orthodox politicians. He and other Israeli leaders need to make clear their firm commitment to women’s equality in Israel and move forward with plans that respect the religious practices of all Jews while ending unacceptable discrimination against women.
I am proud of the Reform Movement in the US and in Israel, and groups like Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel), who are demanding that Israel live up to its highest values and become a place where all Jews can practice their religion fully and freely. In the US, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has established a new Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate to address the systemic biases and injustices women face as clergy. But as we address these issues of gender inequity at home, we must also be vigilant regarding the status of women everywhere, including in Israel.
The “Pence Rule” is very similar to the ultra-Orthodox stance toward women upon which the rules about the Kotel, and other restrictions on women are based. These limitations on women are put in place because of the concern that men may be tempted by a woman and unable to control themselves. Though men are the potential transgressors here, it is women who are penalized and kept fenced in.
That the American government would undermine its own professed ideals of equality for all by enabling and enforcing the absurd gender discrimination of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is simply disgraceful. As a representative of our nation, Vice President Pence and his team should not have allowed this shameful treatment of reporters at what was essentially a political event. The Kotel is and must be a holy site for all Jews, not just those who believe in keeping women separate and quiet. The representatives of the United States could have used Pence’s visit to model best practices of how a country espousing the values of democracy, freedom of religion and equality should behave. Instead the United States followed Israel’s worst practices, condoning discrimination against women and limiting the freedom of religion.
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief strategy officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.