Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Some respect, please.

I cannot keep silent. Our society is in moral decline. We do not respect each other or ourselves. This is a feminist issue.

It is no secret that I am a feminist. I believe in equal rights under the law and equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of gender or other differentiating characteristics. Equality does not mean sameness. Men and women are not the same – no two human beings are the same. Difference is not an excuse for discrimination.

I also believe that discrimination against women is bad for society – meaning that it is bad for men, too. A society which does not provide equal opportunities and protections for all its members misses out on the potential contribution of all of its members. Silencing women or preventing them from achieving to the maximum of their capabilities deprives society of their wisdom and their creativity.

Here is Israel, we have a long way to go to achieve equality. It is not just in the religious sphere, where we have particular challenges to argue for equality while maintaining ritual distinctions that can be valued as part of our different traditions. I am an Orthodox woman who recognises that my choice to deny myself full participation in the Synagogue ritual for reasons that cannot be neatly summarised may seem inconsistent with my other values. I have made the choice partly because my commitment to a religious tradition teaches me humility as it provides me with a strong moral code and grounds my values.

In my case, my Judaism endorses my feminism. Judaism teaches me respect for each human being created in the image of the Divine. For me, feminism is about respect. Respect for one another is what is so seriously absent in Israeli society.

I watch with dismay the disrespect that dominates the political discourse. Indeed, there it is beyond an absence of respect and has crossed into the realm of “sinat chinam”, religious terminology connoting baseless hatred. I would be happy for just a modicum of respect in the choice of language politicians use towards one another.

However, more worrying is the way this lack of respect permeates all levels of society. I blame our political leadership for undermining the importance of respectful language in the way we address each other but I cannot but believe that for the most part, our political leadership reflects society more than it moulds it.

The terrible instances of abuse and murder of women in families, which have been exacerbated but not caused by coronavirus restrictions forcing people to spend more time in their homes, reflect a total absence of respect for women. It is deeply ingrained in segments of society and is sometimes endorsed by women themselves, that it is their fate to be treated as lesser members of society at best or possessions at worst.

Part of the same phenomenon, is a series of gang rapes perpetuated by young Israelis here and abroad.  Young men, often supported by if not encouraged by their families, have seen nothing wrong in engaging in group sex with drunk young women. They see no moral imperative to prevent their participation in these horrendous crimes. They have no respect at all for the women of whom they are taking advantage.

Of course, a young woman who is so drunk that she does not clearly remember the event of the previous night also probably struggles with self-respect. That, too, needs society’s attention. A society that does not teach its young people to respect one another is unlikely to be successful in teaching self-respect.

So where can we begin? President Reuven Rivlin spoke about the need to set and respect boundaries and thought it should be up to the law and justice system. That is not enough. Law and the justice system are the last resort. All of us need to change.

The worst thing about the domestic violence and the rapes is that there have been witnesses and bystanders and enablers. In some cases, parents overlook their children’s lack of values, wives and mothers allow their husbands to be violent to others, neighbours turn a blind eye. Teachers hear teenagers speak in unacceptable terms about unacceptable activities and put it down to the natural anarchy of that age-group. Other teenagers and younger children get the message that all of this is OK.

It is time for all of us to speak up. We may not agree with each other but we must respect each other. We may not like one another but we still must respect one another. We can start by respecting ourselves and seeing the power that each of us has to change society. Don’t be silent when you know what is happening is wrong.

The lack of moral guidance by our political leadership undermines our respect for them and thus our respect for the law. This is a call for values and boundaries, not enforced from above but as a communal effort in an attempt to heal our society from its moral malaise.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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