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When religion and nationalism spawn sexism

Societal forces are unleashing the baser instincts of those in charge, making sexual harassment by higher-ups rampant

Revelations of multiple instances of serious sexual harassment in high places have topped the headlines in Israel during the past few weeks. What links former Brigadier-General Ofek Buchris (who agreed to a plea bargain on causing grievous bodily harm to avoid a trial on possible rape charges) to Gil Sheffer — Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ex-chief of staff — now being investigated for imprisoning and assaulting a young singer? How are these two connected to the veteran Member of the Knesset from Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, once again at the center of charges of persistent sexual harassment? Are they tied in any way to the newly-installed Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Brigadier-General Eyal Karim, whose statements of several years ago reek of misogyny? Is there a common thread between these individuals and those who are currently swamping the media with a plethora of expressions of male chauvinism wrapped in a heavy cloak of self-righteousness?

The current spate of incidents is just the tip of an iceberg that hides decades of gender-equality phobia emanating from a toxic mixture of religion and nationalism. The most notable examples include ex-President Moshe Katsav, former Member of Knesset Yinon Magal, and senior Netanyahu aide Natan Eshel (the latter two were forced to resign from their positions because of allegations of harassment). They have been supported by rabbis (Chief Rabbi of Safed Mordechai Eliyahu, for one) and by an array of former senior IDF officers (such as Yiftah Ron-Tal and Avigdor Kahalani). A clear line seems to exist between purveyors of religious-based nationalism and systematic discrimination and actual physical abuse of women. Why do these impulses go together?

Part of the answer may be found in the growing convergence of religion, nationalism and power in Israel. The rise of settler-nationalism not only emanated from religious quarters (Bnei Akiva, Gush Emunim), but has always contained a messianic component rooted in a belief in the divinely-ordained right of the Jewish people to the biblical land of Israel. As these forces have expanded in size and salience, they have gradually assumed greater political influence — to the point that (as the Amona controversy demonstrates) they wield control over critical government decisions. Some have gone so far as to intimate that the religious-nationalist worldview (now heavily embedded not only in the Habayit Hayehudi, but also in large portions of the Likud, Israel Beyteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties) has taken over the state. With such power comes a sense of entitlement, fueled by an irrepressible appetite for more.

Much of this avidity plays out in the political domain, as the new “Lords of the Land” seek to put their imprint on increasingly larger portions of the public domain. But it also possesses deep roots in the private sphere. Jewish orthodoxy — despite efforts by religious feminists — still undervalues women’s contributions beyond the realm of the home and the family. The perpetuation of women’s unequal status — often justified as a means to safeguard their domestic primacy and uphold their personal honor — adds large doses of self-righteousness if not hypocrisy to the assertion of ownership.

From here, it is but a very short step to sexual abuse, especially when these acts are shrouded in a code of secrecy under the guise of modesty. Indeed, it is not easy to prevent insecure men steeped in public power from taking advantage of their positions against women at home and in the workplace.

The best demonstration of this pattern may be found in the military sphere — still the central arena for the ongoing clash between religious-nationalism and the struggle for women’s equality. The strategic decision of national-religious elites to penetrate the hierarchy of the IDF came at precisely the same time as the demand for greater gender equity in the military began to gather steam several decades ago.

As military sociologist Yagil Levy has diligently documented, religious-nationalists — with their ideological fervor and strong militaristic bent — launched a campaign to take over the command posts within the IDF, both as a means of establishing control over one of Israel’s central institutions and as a springboard for ascendancy to eventual dominance in the civilian sphere. Drawing on the elite religious-Zionist yeshivas, they built up the soldier-scholar model as a target for emulation. The best and the brightest (often further cultivated in hesder yeshivas) were urged to enlist in combat units, volunteer for officer training courses and pursue military careers. Over time, these recruits have come to compose over 30 percent of the IDF’s officer corps and many have climbed to the highest ranks of the military (Ofek Buchris was just one of a large group currently at the helm of the IDF).

This process conflicted with the mounting quest for gender equality in military service. The opening of combat positions to women in the air force and the navy during the 1990s led to the adoption in early 2000 of legislation mandating that all positions in the IDF be staffed on the basis of qualifications and not gender (full disclosure: this was the culmination of an eight-year process initiated by the author). Since then, arrangements for gender integration were made through the so-called “gender inclusion” program and the recently updated “shared service” provisions. A blue-bonnet committee under the chairmanship of General (res.) Yehuda Segev actually issued a set of (still to be implemented) recommendations for gender-mainstreaming in the IDF.

Objections to these moves came from a variety of quarters, including army traditionalists and bureaucrats, as well as peace activists. However, the most consistent and vociferous (if not ferocious) resistance has come from national-religious leaders who view gender equality in the army as a real threat to their hegemony. They have argued (most recently in response to a proposal to incorporate women into the armored corps) that such a process would weaken the army — a preposterous proposition given that placement is based on skills and gender equality is practiced in all major armies throughout the world. They have demanded that the religious sensitivities of Orthodox soldiers be taken into account — although they have not displayed similar sentiments towards those of women. They constantly complain that such actions will force them to distance themselves from public service — but they have yet to acknowledge that gender discrimination has done precisely that to women. They have had the sheer and utter gall to suggest that gender equality is not beneficial to women (thus also thwarting a growing demand of national-religious women to serve in the IDF) — as if they can continue to exercise proprietary control over the majority of Israeli women in the 21st century.

Thus, when faced with evidence of sexual harassment in one of main bastions of male dominance, the extremely hierarchical military structure (where such abuses were for many years part of the organizational culture), national-religious political and spiritual leaders have not blanched at blaming women for “diverting the attention of fighters from their tasks”. Some have actually proceeded to openly accuse victims of sexual harassment for their own situation — implying that the abusers are in fact the victims of those they defiled.

Behind these arguments against gender equality in the heart of the Israeli establishment lies the understanding that such change is propelled by values of equality and human decency which directly challenge religious-nationalist claims to divinely-endowed moral supremacy and by extension may thoroughly undermine their public and private entitlements. This underlying motive is best exhibited in the oft-repeated charge of religious nationalists that proponents of equal opportunity for women and men in the ranks of the military are “leftist conspirators bent on undermining the state”. By insisting that they alone hold the key to what is good for Israel, they belittle those who challenge them and the values they seek to promote. Thus, the link between sexual harassment and the growing political hegemony of religious-nationalism comes full circle.

Sexual harassment is not the purview only of the national-religious: it is conducted as much by the secular as by the devout, by the left as by the right, by native-born Israelis as by newcomers. But it has become more commonplace where religious practice and nationalist orientations intersect with power — either in the IDF or society at large. This confluence perpetuates inequality and unleashes the basest primordial instincts. For the safety of Israeli women, for the personal security of Israel’s citizens and for the survival of the country, this is exactly why it should never be allowed to prevail.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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