Opinion |

Israel's Medieval, Anti-woman Party Is More Powerful Than Ever, and Channeling Erdogan

Thanks to Netanyahu, the regressive, contemptible theocrats of Noam are now within touching distance of unprecedented political power to push their agenda for Israel from wild misogynistic fantasy to reality

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Trifecta of hate: Noam head Avi Maoz (L), Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich (C) and Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate the exit polls on election night this year
Trifecta of hate: Noam head Avi Maoz (L), Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich (C) and Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate the exit polls on election night this yearCredit: rami shllush

In 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, also known as the "Landmark resolution on Women, Peace and Security," calling for women’s equal participation and representation and protection from violence. Israel, a signatory, was the first country in the world in its wake to adopt related legislation.

In a year in which Israel has seen a sharp rise in an already disturbingly high level of violence against women, the protections that both international and domestic legislation offer are more relevant and essential than ever.

But a new entrant into Israel’s parliament, and a potential coalition partner for a new government, is adamantly opposed. In fact, despite the clear evidence that more women than ever are under threat, the grotesquely homophobic and misogynistic Noam party wants a full regression back to an era where women’s rights, even their right to life, are conditional.

How bad is the situation for women in Israel right now? Here are just a few examples of numerous sexual assaults, gang rapes, domestic abuse and attempted murder cases that have made headlines in Israel in the past month. 

Avraham Leshem was sentenced to three and a half years in prison and fined after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a four-year-old girl. A Haaretz investigation exposed a slew of accusations by young men and women against Zaka founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, going back to the 1980s. Protests erupted over the decision of prosecutors not to charge 21-year-old Yarin Sherf with rape for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. 

Mourners at a makeshift memorial to Diana Dedayev, murdered in February by her off-duty policeman husband while their four children were at homeCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Domestic violence and sexual assault rates have sharply increased in the past year in part due to the pandemic and Israel’s successive lockdowns. The continuous onslaught of violence against women has become a matter of routine, and in a small country like Israel every incident is felt viscerally.

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel saw a 95 percent increase in reports since the start of COVID’s spread in Israel. 

Monthly domestic violence complaints ballooned by 250 percent in 2020, and have continued rising in the first months of 2021, Labor and Social Affairs Ministry data shows.

Even prior to the pandemic, Israel’s rate of violent sexual offenses was approximately 10 percent higher than the average for OECD countries, according to the Rape Crisis Centers, citing data published by Israel’s Public Security Ministry. 

One would think the call for women’s participation, representation and protection from violence was an easy consensus issue for one of the few democracies in the Middle East, and a self-declared oasis of gender equality, at that. What kind of depraved mind could possibly take issue with any part of it?  

Well, as you would have it, Israel’s March 23 elections introduced Noam into the Knesset, a party that’s not disturbed by violence against women. In fact, in the middle of a pandemic, economic recession, and an unprecedented political crisis, the Noam party’s first priority is to attack legislation that seeks to protect women from violence. 

It’s quite possible that the Noam party is the most contemptible party ever elected to the Knesset. And that is no mean feat, considering this is a parliament that once included Meir Kahane’s racist anti-Arab Kach party and now includes Kahanism’s latest incarnation, Otzma Yehudit ("Jewish Power").  

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far right neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, celebrates the exit poll numbers last monthCredit: rami shllush

The primary policy goal of the Orthodox far-right Noam party is the disenfranchisement of LGBTQ citizens, whom they believe are responsible for the deviant "re-engineering" of Israeli society. 

But, when they aren’t persecuting LGBT people, the Noam party enjoys trafficking in unabashed, old school misogyny. Noam (the name means "pleasantness") opposes female participation in the IDF, egalitarian prayer services, and refused to join a merger ahead of the September 2019 election with the secular right-wing party, Yamina, as it was then headed by Ayelet Shaked, a (secular) woman. 

Now they are demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revoke Israel’s commitment to combating violence against women in exchange for their support in building a coalition.

Noam party leader Avi Maoz - a character who seems to have sprung fully formed from the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale - demands the state withdraw from U.N. Resolution 1325 and to repeal subsequent legislation so that Israel can “return to its Jewish character.”

Avi Maoz, head of the misogynist, homophobic Noam party, at the Knesset orientation day for new MKsCredit: Emil Salman

Jewish women from Queen Esther to Hannah Senesh to Ruth Bader Ginsburg are collectively rolling over in their graves. 

Certainly, this is by no means Israel’s only legislation protecting women’s security and equality. And Israel hasn’t even fully implemented most of it. But if this demand is met, what’s to stop Maoz from demanding the repeal of other legislation? That individuals with such appalling views are now within touching distance of unprecedented political power to push their agenda from wild misogynistic fantasy to reality is horrifying.

What makes the elevation of Noam all the worse is that they are merely the worst segment of a supremely extremist and regressive coalition.

They are part of the Religious Zionism list led by Bezalel Smotrich, who is most famous for refusing to call the murder of Arab civilians by Jews terrorism, pushing the idea of segregated maternity wards for Jewish and Arab women, and picketing Pride parades with farm animals to pathetically dramatize his bigoted belief that homosexuality and bestiality are synonymous. 

The third faction making up the Religious Zionism coalition is Otzma Yehudit led by Jewish supremacist Itamar Ben Gvir, who "encourages" emigration for Arab citizens, and as a lawyer defended both a virulent anti-intermarriage organization and Jews accused of anti-Arab hate crimes and terror attacks. 

What is ironic is that the narrative of the Religious Zionism party, and their political fixer, Netanyahu, is based on a cult of victimhood despite being among the most privileged members of Israeli society. Jewish, religious, male and heterosexual, they have convinced themselves and their supporters that they are the maligned, marginalized and aggrieved citizens of this country.

Protest outside the Knesset by the anti-Netanyahu Black Flags protest group and the LGBTQ community against the swearing in of Avi Maoz, head of the misogynistic, homophobic Noam partyCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In normal times, the views held by these factions should have remained in the outlier ditches where they belong. But, aided and abetted by their puppet master, the prime minister, they have now reached a new level of public exposure and legitimacy.

While Netanyahu doesn’t share the ideological fervor of Religious Zionism, he has no qualms over elevating them if they will assist him in remaining in office. Truly the only ideology to which he has any obvious fidelity is the gospel of Bibi, Sara and Yair. 

Netanyahu is indifferent to edging Israel closer than ever to the Islamist theocracies that he is always railing about when it serves his interests.

Indeed, Noam’s platform sounds remarkably similar to that of Netanyahu’s old foe, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who just revoked Turkey’s participation in the Istanbul Convention, the world's first binding treaty to prevent violence against women, citing its threat to "traditional" families and its "promotion" of homosexuality.

Turkish police push back protesters demonstrating against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women from violence, earlier this monthCredit: Emrah Gurel,AP

Netanyahu has long proven adept at presenting one image of Israel as a robust democracy to the world while undermining that image at home, whether it is praising Israel’s independent judiciary abroad while castigating it here, or boasting about Israel’s free press internationally while bribing, muzzling and vilifying Israeli media.

But even for Netanyahu, it will require a Sisyphean effort to present Israel to the international community as an oasis of gender and LGBTQ freedom and equality with Noam and Otzma Yehudit in his government. 

And they won’t merely be included in this government - Netanyahu will be beholden to them, and their medieval, reprehensible vision of Israel, because he will rely on their support to stay out of jail.

In such a climate, who would be surprised if violence against women, LGBTQ citizens and minorities will rise, and be treated with impunity? That part of the population will view the perpetrators of such violence with greater sympathy than their victims, and as a means to strengthen Israel’s "Jewish character?"

It is bad enough that Israel continues to be held hostage by a self-serving criminal, who has done more to erode our democratic institutions and public trust in them than any previous leader. Even worse, he could be on his way to forming the most extremist and regressive government with which this country has ever been saddled. 

If the anti-Netanyahu bloc ends up constructing a coalition, that government would not be able to magically diminish gender inequality or violence against women overnight. But it also won’t include parties who appease, defend and even champion it. 

Ariela Karmel is a writer and web editor at Haaretz. She holds a degree in political science from the University of British Columbia

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