Amy Levin: Rick Perry says it’s America’s war on religion, but a subset of the ultra-orthodox in Israel might beg to differ. Perry’s concerns have more to do with school prayer and re-sanctifying Christmas, but many of Israel’s ultra-orthodox are concerned with feminism, or what most feminists would simply call gender equality. Clashes between so-called religious and secular Israelis are nothing new, but a recent spur of incidents has caused a stir in the past few months.  For instance in December an 8-year old Israeli modern orthodox girl, Naama Margolese, was spit on and called a prostitute on her way to school by ultra-orthodox men –apparently her fully covered arms and legs were still considered immodest.

photo by Oded Balilty, AP

According to Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner’s insightful piece in the New York Times, increasing media coverage of “hadarat nashim,” or the “exclusion of women,” began three months ago when a female pediatrics professor was prevented from publicly accepting an award for her book because the acting health minister was ultra-orthodox. Other events, according to Bronner and Kershner, include:

the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.

So far, a number of activist groups have taken the lead in pursuing action and awareness regarding what they see as a threat to basic human rights and religious freedom, including organizations like Sister for Women in Israel, Association of Crisis Centers of Sexual Assault Victims, People — The Movement to Promote Social Equality in Israel, and Women’s Parliament.  This month they have all signed a statement, released by the National Israel Fund (NIF) on the prohibition on female speakers at an OB/GYN conference.  Women were censored due to the sponsor organization’s religious beliefs. Additionally, according to Bronner and Kershner, the NIF organized concerts and singalongs for Jerusalem women and postered women’s faces under the slogan, “Women should be seen and heard.”

Political figures are speaking up as well. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured the public that  “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all.” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton condemned discrimination against Israeli women, saying that these acts “reminded her of Iran.” Sounds like there may be some anxiety about democracy in the Middle East. . .that’s new.

Naama Margolese and her mother

Said war on feminism has fueled a type of media coverage that positions secular Israelis against the religious, though at times offers slightly more specificity. Bronner and Kershner identify this pious sector as the “black clad,” ultra-orthodox, known as the Haredim, or “those who tremble before God.” You know that picture you get in your head of the Jewish bearded man with a black hat, side curls, and fringes hanging from his long black coat when you hear the words Orthodox Jew? You’re on the right track. While this sector is of course more diverse than we typically hear, what’s even more varied is the so-called “secular” opposition. In another New York Times article by Kershner, specifically covering outrage over the mistreatment of the 8-year old girl, she writes that “the extremists have provoked an outpouring of opposition from all those who are more flexible, be they ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, mainstream or secular.” Surprise! “Religion” is more diverse than we thought.

Careful to take these issues seriously, and with healthy scrutiny, I see a few main problems with this recent coverage (not to mention cocktail party talk).  One of those problems has to do with math. If secularism ≠ religion, and feminism = secularism, then feminism ≠ religion. This formula propagates the unrealistic (and discriminatory) notion that if we want to promote/preserve feminism (and democracy for that matter), we need to subtract religion from the mix. When we do this, we not only irresponsibly represent lived religion in all its social and political messiness, but we contribute to a long European history of cultural Othering, in which we gloss over the fact that these same mechanisms work tirelessly in our very own backyards.

A second issue has to do with two words that tend to both articulate and confuse: the “Public Sphere.” While it makes my warm blood flow in this cold(ish) winter when I see coverage on this topic, I wish we could linger in the heat a bit longer. When Netanyahu claimed that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all,” what exactly was he imagining? Should it be “secular,” “plural,” or perhaps “post-secular-religious”? While some scholars of religion and politics have recently contributed some important work on religion in the pubic sphere, I’m partial to pragmatic approaches, such as Yossi Klein Halevi’s suggestions that Israel “face up” to religious extremism. Perhaps if we + communication + cohabitation + regulation and – absolute notions of religion + secularism, we’ll finally = equality.