Welcome to Gilead/ Living in the bubble

You realize that from now on I’m a second class citizen, my non-Jewish husband said to me on the morning after the Knesset passed the racist nation-state law, which gives priority to the country’s Jewish citizens over citizens of any other religion.

You realize you’ve always been a second class citizen, I replied.

Ah, but now it’s official, he said.

And that’s the problem. Until now we could ignore various religious and other impositions on our life and make believe they didn’t directly impact us, here in the city-state of Tel Aviv. As long as the convenience stores were open on weekends, cafes and bakeries were open on Passover and nobody interfered with us, we didn’t complain.

But while I and other bleeding heart liberals — and most secular, normal, moderate, peace loving Israelis — buried our heads in our cappuccinos, our country was being stolen from us, piece by piece. Until we woke up one day to find the Knesset had passed the racist nation-state law. We went to sleep in a democratic (well, somewhat) Israel and woke up in the Republic of Gilead.

Whatever excuses the government and its numerous spokespeople made, filling the screens and airwaves with justifications for the legislation — it allows discrimination and exclusion of people and groups, in violation of the Declaration of Independence, which promises equality to all Israel’s citizens. And just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, almost nobody saw it coming. Those who did were sure that the objections of stalwart right wingers such as MK Benny Begin, Moshe Arens, Dan Meridor and others would prevent such heinous legislation.

Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the law is “humiliating, outrageous, imbecilic, and every person with a conscience must come out against it.”

“I am ashamed that my state is defined that way,” he said, branding it as paving the way to “racism, discrimination, exclusion and religious coercion” (Radio 103, July 25, 2018). And he isn’t the only one appalled by the law.

But non-Jews aren’t the only ones whose rights are being slashed. The racist nation-state law, which sent shock waves throughout Israel and the world, helped to camouflage the creeping religious coercion contaminating the education system, the army and every walk of life. The immediate victims are, of course, the women.

Female soldiers are excluded from smoking areas on their bases, forbidden to wear white shirts and knee length skirts, ordered to wear opaque tights under shorts during physical training (all deemed immodest by the religious gurus, who are now ruling the IDF) and turned out of lectures. Male and female soldiers are denied cold water (from water coolers) and heated water for showering on weekends and holidays. A military cook was punished for preparing a sandwich for vegetarian soldiers who returned to base after the Sabbath had begun, and had not eaten yet. Just for comparison, when I was in the army, the cook of our remote desert base prepared hundreds of sandwiches and bottled drinks for the soldiers who did not fast on Yom Kippur.

Secular state schools are segregating girls from boys in public events; public swimming pools have separate hours for men and women; in public events such as in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and the Exhibition Grounds women are forced to huddle behind a partition. Universities hold segregated courses (at which the better lecturers — male only — teach the men’s classes); academic campuses impose segregation in buildings, corridors, smoking areas, libraries and even at entrance gates and impose “modest” dress rules – on women, of course. In Beit Shemesh women are assaulted by religious thugs with sticks and stones for just walking on certain streets; and certain state training courses (foreign ministry cadets, for example), which were mixed until recently, now exclude women. All these cases and incidents have been reported in the media.

At every turn, women’s steps and space are restricted and our rights are being chipped away. And things are constantly getting worse, because the religious moloch is never satiated.

This goes hand in hand with the nation-state law. Ìn both, the root of evil is in religious, nationalist chauvinism. They both stem from the same source – placing Judaism above other values and Jews above other nations.

Today’s leaders have forgotten that Israel was founded to a large extent in response to racist practices that almost led to the annihilation of European Jewry last century. Israel’s founders put an emphasis on the state’s secular character and on universal values like equality “regardless of religion, race and gender,” and set them in the Declaration of Independence as the state’s infrastructure. They wanted the Jews to become an Israeli nation – the nation of Israel (Am Yisrael) – in its own country, like the French in France and the Canadians in Canada, ensuring equal rights, social and political, to all its citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin. All this has been sabotaged by the nation-state law.

Avi Katz’s cartoon, depicting the prime minister and his political allies as pigs after passing the law (for which he was fired from the Jerusalem Report last week), provided the most accurate portrayal of Israel and its leadership both here and around the world.

About the Author
Michal Yudelman O’Dwyer was born on a kibbutz in the Negev, served in the army, and studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, University of Chicago and CCNY. She has worked as a journalist, columnist, and translator, and published 10 short stories. A collection of her short stories, entitled “Somebody I used to know,” is to be published (in Hebrew) in a few weeks. Lives in Tel Aviv with the Irish journalist Thomas O’Dwyer and three cats.
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