It was about 340 B.C when Greek philosopher Aristotle made an astute observation. Governments are inherently unstable. They rise and fall cyclically, and each form of positive government deteriorates to its negative congruent. Monarchy, or the rule of one, becomes tyranny when a king appropriates too much authority. Aristocracy, the rule of the elite, becomes oligarchy when corrupted, and democracy, the rule of the people, becomes ochlocracy, or mob rule, when society crumbles. Around the western world, and now in the Middle East, these processes are taking place. In Israel, we are witnessing the deterioration of democracy into mob rule. Women’s rights to freedom of conscience, to expression, and to movement are being sacrificed under the ironic heading of tolerance and compromise with religious extremists.
In history’s darkest ages, women were the first victims of self-proclaimed guardians of their faith. Fifteenth-century witch hunts, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, cleansed the public sphere of ‘inappropriate’ female behavior, be it sorcery, exposing women’s faces, or singing in the presence of men. The Taliban employed religious police to enforce a reign of terror against women, not unlike Modesty Guards operating in Jerusalem today.
Religious extremism is already gnawing away at Israeli democracy. Yet, exclusion of women from the public sphere is merely an external symptom of a much deeper affliction. By the time the ailment is diagnosed and the symptoms are visible, it may be too late to fix. It might already be too late. Even today, when the place of women is questioned and compromised in the I.D.F., government ceremonies, and public transportation, no one takes decisive action. Today in Israel, the only effective option is an immediate and aggressive reaction.
Exclusion of women from the public sphere is illegal and wrong. It is criminal discrimination and a crude infringement on women’s rights to freedom of conscience, expression and movement. It must be called by its true name–a hate crime. Those promoting hate crimes must be tried and punished by law. If we don’t react to hate crimes now, we risk normalizing chauvinist extremism, justifying the unacceptable under the misnomer of respect for religious tradition. Tolerating exclusion of women to appease religious extremists is a mistake that we may pay for for generations to come. We must not capitulate to demands that public spaces be cleansed of women’s presence.