We can't just agree to disagree with these rabbis

By Sahar Zivan, October 31, 2012
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For those championing women's rights, there are issues that no longer need addressing; issues that over time have ceased to be issues, at least in the Western world. Take suffrage. First granted to women in a modern nation in New Zealand in 1893, since then it has been extended to the whole western world.

Israel is one of only a few countries in the Middle East that allows women widespread political involvement - of course it could also be argued that it is one of only a few that allows any widespread civil political involvement at all.

I don't for one second believe that Israel's democracy bears comparison to most other countries in the region, however like most moderate Israelis, I was extremely surprised to discover recently that leading religious figures in Israel still hold archaic views on the most basic rights of citizens.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is not just any rabbi, but one of the leaders of the religious Zionist community. When Rabbi Aviner speaks, many people listen. So when he says, as he did last week, that women shouldn't have the right to vote or run for election, as the involvement of women in politics is "immoral and against Jewish law", the danger is that people may be swayed into thinking that this is a reasonable view to hold.

In a letter to religious Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, the rabbi stated: "Ideally, from the Torah's perspective, women should not be involved in politics." He added, however, that "because there are parties which guarantee spots for women on their lists, the most suitable woman should be elected".

In other words, he wants to make the best of a bad situation. He further sid it was not the act of voting that was the problem, it was the campaign meetings and events leading up to the election which were open to both men and women, and were therefore immoral.

It's not just Rabbi Aviner and it's not just the right to vote. Rabbi Yehuda Shein, in an opinion piece for Ynet, chose to attack another issue that hasn't been an issue since Alice Miller successfully petitioned the High Court in 1996 to be allowed to enter pilot training course - that of equal rights for women in the IDF.

Rabbi Shein wrote that in order for there to be equality, women needed to be exempt from compulsory service. If you're having difficulty grasping the logic, you are not alone.

In his article, the rabbi referred to women in the army as a "social experiment", and asked: "As most women do not perform duties that are directly linked to the country's security... Wouldn't it be better to have a professional or semi-professional army that would deal solely with security-related issues?"

So he wants an army that "deals solely with security-related issues" - suggesting that all the IDF really needs is the infantry soldiers on the front lines. The intelligence, communications and logistics of the IDF would presumably take care of themselves under Rabbi Shein's No-Point Plan for a better and more moral army.

His plan also ignores the fact that most men don't perform frontline combat roles; the IDF, as with most armies in the world, has many more supporting than combat units.

How about his assertion that: "I have no doubt in my mind that those who are in charge of education in the army have good intentions, but the disappointing results prove that a major change of direction is required."

Perhaps the rabbi has information that isn't available to the rest of us, but there are countless stories of soldiers who had been unable to finish school and were given another chance to complete their education by the army.

The success of education in the army is almost entirely thanks to the women who give two years of their lives for a cause that is no less important to Israel's long-term security than the physical security provided by those on the frontlines.

Rabbi Shein ended his article with perhaps the most incredible statement of all. "Most of the enlisted women do not gain anything from their service."

The level of ignorance required to confidently make a statement of that nature in a public forum, along with the Victorian-era views espoused by Rabbi Aviner, suggest that there is still much work to be done, even in this supposedly progressive corner of the Middle East. It is time that we treat these views with the ridicule that they deserve. Simply agreeing to disagree gives them far too much legitimacy.

Sahar, 22, has lived in Israel in for the past nine years. Follow him on Twitter.

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Last updated: 11:55am, October 31 2012