U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s itinerary for his two-day visit in Israel may check all the diplomatic and political boxes, but frankly, it’s a bit boring.
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According to his schedule, for his entire 48 hours in Israel Pence will not be getting out of Jerusalem. He will essentially be making the same rounds as President Donald Trump: dinner at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence (probably, this time, his son Yair isn’t going to join the party for a photo-op in the wake of the 'Strippergate' scandal) wreath-laying at Yad Vashem, a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, and a visit to the Western Wall. Unlike Trump, Vice President Pence will address the Knesset and he won’t be making it to the West Bank, due to the tense relations between the White House and Ramallah following the president's declaration on Jerusalem and cut in aid to the Palestinians.
When he was in office, President Barack Obama confessed before his visit to Israel that “I have this fantasy that I could put on a disguise and put on a fake mustache and wander through Tel Aviv and go to a bar.” Now, Pence is no Obama - he’s not the bar-hopping type. But surely he would enjoy a more lively variety of experiences. If he were allowed to go off-script, he might follow in the footsteps of Jesus to the Sea of Galilee, the Via Dolorosa or maybe he would check out the new evangelical-funded multi-million-dollar Friends of Zion museum, something of a shrine to the Christian Zionism Pence embodies.
But what might a more daring itinerary look like - one that challenged the arch-conservative American politician's long-held beliefs instead of reinforcing them, and one that introduced him to the Israel outside the Jerusalem bubble? Here are a few suggestions.
Visit the Caracal mixed gender IDF combat unit
Back in 1998, before Pence held elective office, after he ran unsuccessfully for congress and was making a living as a talk-show host, he wrote an opinion piece attacking the Disney movie Mulan, saying that the animated film about a Chinese girl-warrior who disguised herself as a boy was surely an attempt by some "mischievous liberal" at Disney to “cause a quiet change in the next generation’s attitude about women in combat.”
Pence declared in the piece that “the hard truth of our experiment with gender integration is that is has been an almost complete disaster for the military and for many of the individual women involved“ and concluded that “women in the military” were a “bad idea.”
Israel, of course, has never had the luxury of keeping women out of the army and has drafted both sexes since the state's establishment. As for combat, it has been integrating women into an increasing number of roles including units like the Caracal light infantry battalion that patrols the country’s border with Egypt.
Caracal was the first mixed-gender combat battalion in the Israeli army, begun as a pilot project 15 years ago, proven a success, and continuing to grow.
If, after his visit, Pence still doesn't believe women belong in combat, that’s OK. He can easily find locals who will commiserate with him, including the Orthodox rabbis who have recently grabbed headlines by registering their objections to women serving in these units - or serving at all.
Check out an Israeli health clinic
It would be educational for Pence to take a look at what a well-run universal health-care system looks like - the kind that he and his fellow conservative GOP members have been battling so hard to prevent. And if it isn’t too much for him to handle, it can be explained to the hardline pro-lifer that in Israel, abortions are not only legal, but largely paid for by the state as well.
True, married women of childbearing age are required to appear in front of an “abortion panel,” though permission for the procedure is granted for a vast majority of women - over 97 percent. (For a few hundred dollars, women can sidestep the panels and obtain a private abortion in a doctor’s clinic, a process that is technically illegal but unpoliced.)
If Pence thinks that safe, affordable, easy access to abortion surely makes them are all too common - he should think again. Abortion rates in Israel have both dropped dramatically over the past quarter century and are significantly lower than in the United States (this might have something to do with the fact that universal health coverage means birth control is also inexpensive and easy to obtain for every woman, a situation that Pence’s wing of the Republican Party also strongly objects to.)
Lay a wreath at Tel Aviv’s Pink Triangle
Yad Vashem is all well and good, but how about a ceremony at the Tel Aviv memorial to LGBT victims of Hitler, inaugurated in 2013? The memorial is in Gan Meir, a park in the heart of Tel Aviv, where the vice president could also notice the large, rainbow flag flying proudly from the roof of the local center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, established and funded by the city's municipality. If he looks around, he will see plenty of same-sex couples with children challenging his view of what constitutes a family and his record of justifying discrimination against LGBT people in the name of “religious freedom.”
Sit in on a session in sharia court
“Sharia law” has a history of spooking the xenophobic wing of the Republican Party - last spring saw “Marches Against Sharia” which decried “traditional Muslim practices” that protesters associated with sharia like honor killings, homophobic violence, female genital mutilation.
Pence might be interested in seeing that in Israel, of all places, sharia law is something practiced in a real court that does not condone any such practices. The Muslim religious courts date back to the Ottoman Empire, when they functioned as the official court of the state. Since the establishment of Israel, they have jurisdiction over marital matters for Muslims.
Last spring, for the first time in Israeli history, a woman, Hana Mansour-Khatib, was appointed as a sharia court judge (no woman has yet been named to an equivalent position in a Jewish religious court). President Rivlin has said Israel’s sharia courts represent “the recognition of the unparalleled importance of the vitality of communities, cultures and traditions to the fabric of the life in the modern state.”
A stroll in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood
After so many challenging stops, Pence would surely be in the mood for a place that enforces an ideal that would feel more traditional and familiar to him: gender separation. Much has been made of Pence practicing what is known as a Billy Graham rule, named after the famed Christian evangelist. Pence has said he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, Karen, and refuses to attend events where alcohol is served if she does not come along. He has faced much ridicule for these restrictions in the U.S. mainstream media, which has painted him as an out-of-touch puritanical stick-in-the mud for observing them. A look at the ultra-Orthodox residents of Mea Shearim, where women and men who are not relatives are separated in nearly every aspect of life, alone or in groups, would make his lifestyle seem positively edgy and modern by comparison.