A short video meant to promote egalitarian service was posted on the air force’s Facebook page for International Women’s Day. Produced by the media department of the air force magazine, the clip was widely viewed but was removed soon after it was posted after religious figures claimed it was defiant and offensive. Zionist Union MKs Shelly Yacimovich, Meirav Michaeli and Tzipi Livni were quick to protest, arguing that the air force was giving undue consideration to the offended sensibilities of religious Zionist rabbis over the right of women to be treated equally.
They are right, of course. In the liberal conception of human rights, the right to equality is basic and supersedes the possibility of offending someone’s feelings. In fact, in the classic liberal view, a desire to avoid offending someone’s feelings cannot justify limiting someone else’s rights. Israeli courts in curtailed this conception somewhat by ruling that the risk of offending feelings can justify limiting the rights of others when the offense is so severe that it shakes the foundations of mutual tolerance. It should be obvious that this clip, bearing the message that women can do anything, cannot offend anyone to such an egregious extent, and that there was therefore no justification in removing it.
Preoccupation with the liberal judicial debate over rights and feelings, however, conceals the depth of the problem. The real issue in this case, as in all cases of exclusion of and discrimination against women for religious reasons, is not the balance between rights and sensibilities. The struggle is over power and control and the goal is to achieve a deep-reaching change in Israeli society, to shape the new norm.
Religious Zionist circles demand and receive the removal of a clip in which female soldiers demonstrate they can serve in any military position. The ultra-Orthodox who demand, and receive, the exclusion of women from the public space in academia, the military and government service are not fighting for their feelings or rights. They are waging an uncompromising and unapologetic battle with one goal: a redefinition of the normal place women have in Israeli society.
The air force clip threatens Zionist rabbis since it shows that female pilots, airplane mechanics, combat soldiers and commanding officers is the norm, whereas their goal is to sear into Israelis’ consciousness the notion that women in these roles, or in the army at all, is abnormal and that these roles are unsuitable for women, be they secular or religious. In the same manner, the struggle over women’s exclusion from the public space is a struggle over the norms — do they involve mixed-sex spaces or not.
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Regrettably, the new norm demanded by religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox circles is not totally disconnected from Israeli reality. We are used to the fact that Israel’s laws allow discrimination against women in rabbinical courts, the only arbiters in issues of marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, over the years, we thought that even though these courts discriminate against women, in other areas, women’s right to equality is well-served. The Supreme Court called this a royal right, due to its unique importance, ruling in 1995 that the army must open its pilot-training course to women. However, the expansion of exclusion and discrimination against women for religious reasons in recent years, under the aegis of the state, has placed a question mark over the future of this right.
In their campaign to set the new norm, the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist use such liberal terms as freedom of religion, multiculturalism, sensitivity to people’s feelings and mutual tolerance. This is meant to please concerned liberals who are witnessing a shrinkage in the place of women in the public sphere, with even a diminishing right to declare that they are equal. The use of such liberal language is purely rhetorical. Its aim is to neutralize any opposition and allow the Orthodox to continue exercising their political clout in order to redefine the place of women in Israeli society.
The air force’s rapid removal of that clip is proof that the Orthodox onslaught is bearing fruit. Even if the army continues to open roles to women, since it needs their skills, by removing the video it embraced the position that women who are proud of their combat roles and show pride in their abilities are defiant. A similar attitude is seen in Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s recent remark that he’s not a feminist. According to this view, feminism — the idea that women are equal to men and are worthy of the same rights — is a defiant stance.
In the Israel of 2018, feminism is a dirty word. Female soldiers who are proud to be pilots and combatants find themselves labeled as defiant, and are silenced, and religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox elements who demand a public space that is devoid of women in the army, academia and in government service on religious grounds enjoy the collaboration of and legitimization by state institutions. The battle over the new normal is on and its results will have a significant impact on the character of this country.
Prof. Gila Stopler teaches in constitutional law at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan.