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'The Handmaid’s Tale': A Cautionary Story for Women in Israel

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Elisabeth Moss in the television series "The Handmaid's Tale."
Elisabeth Moss in the television series "The Handmaid's Tale." Credit: George Kraychyk / Take Five / Hulu

Before they were murdered, what kind of lives did they lead? Did they live in unremitting fear, keep track of every change in their partner’s mood? Did they silence the children so they wouldn’t arouse his sudden rage; imprison their souls when he got angry and try with all their might to please him? At night, when he fell asleep before managing to rape them did they breathe a sigh of relief, and was the entire day considered a great success if neither they nor their children had been beaten?

Anyone who wants to imagine the life of oppression and fear, which we read about from time to time when another woman is murdered, can read Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or watch the television series based on it. The story takes place in 21st-century America, in the days of the Republic of Gilead, which rises over the ruins of the United States and forces its citizens to lead an oppressive and puritanical Christian lifestyle, in which women are at the heart of the constitution, and restricting them is the main foundation of the new society.

Along with their freedom, they also are robbed of their right to self-determination and the option of choosing how to lead their lives. In the poisonous utopia created by the puritanical men of Gilead, the women fulfill their so-called natural biological purpose, work as maids in the homes of the rulers and realize their biological destinies as surrogates for couples that cannot have children, apparently as a result of extensive ecological damage.

The regression to Puritan theology as part of an extensive effort to purify the world is, according to Atwood, a reaction to the damage caused by the post-modern and post-industrial society of abundance. More than anything else, the story reflects the recognition that progress is not necessarily a one-way street. But the question that should horrify us is why this fictional society is obsessively preoccupied with femininity and women, and develops an entire ritual surrounding them as a means of oppression. Why are they the key to the establishment of a totalitarian regime, in which the idea of race is replaced by gender discrimination.

In present-day Israel the situation is presumably different. The oppression is not institutionalized and women have a right to be protected from violent men. And in fact, according to figures received from civil society organizations, most of the women who were murdered took advantage of their right, and requested police protection. Most of them complained prior to the murder, others requested a restraining order against the violent men.

Credit: Eric Gay/AP

Although a Knesset subcommittee for the prevention of domestic violence, which was formed in 2014, submitted a report highlighting the insufficient protection for the women and their children, this is not only about the incompetence of the responsible authorities. Like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s a story about a culture that is incapable of freeing itself entirely from archaic concepts of femininity that view women’s freedom as a real danger to society, while in many conservative enclaves women are even considered the property of their partners.

The culture of sexual harassment and rape in masculine organizations like the army and the police has been discussed extensively in Israel, and honest efforts are being made to eliminate it. But we must not rely only on the forward movement of progress, because sometimes processes go wrong and regress. And as proof – after all the struggles for legal and economic liberation and equality, the United States elected a president who was heard bragging about sexual attacks against women, and a vice president who opposes women’s legal right to abortion.

We have to recognize the fact that the danger confronting women has deep roots in religion, culture and politics, and to remember that the oppression of women goes hand in hand with a violation of human rights, and is widespread in religious and conservative societies that believe that God entered into a special covenant with them. After all, the first Puritans in America called themselves New Israel.

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