Jerusalem — A cartoon in the newspaper Yisrael Hayom shows three men in white robes standing in a street in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. They are staring at two signs: one says “Women” with an arrow pointing left, the other “Men” with an arrow pointing right.
Seeing the robed men on their street, one chasid tells another, “The Muslim Brotherhood has come here to learn from us.”
The Hebrew-language cartoon, which has gone viral on Facebook, refers to what many Israelis believe is an attempt by fervently Orthodox Jews to turn Israel into a theocracy. They cite haredi attempts to segregate some public buses by gender, to remove women from advertisements, and to prevent women from singing at public events, among other things.
While the cartoon evoked reactions ranging from laughter to outrage, no one questioned the right of an Israeli newspaper to air the public’s grievances.
Not all Israelis feel as sanguine when criticism of Israeli policies or trends comes from outside, especially when the finger pointing is being done by high-ranking American officials.
There’s been a lot of finger pointing recently, some related to Israel’s foreign policy and some about domestic issues like women’s rights and freedom of expression.
Last week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta angered many right-wing and centrist Israelis by implying that Israel, not Arab intransigence, is the main impediment to peace. Speaking at the Saban Conference, an annual forum sponsored by entertainment mogul Chaim Saban and the Brookings Institution, Panetta urged Israelis to “reach out and mend fences” with Egypt, Turkey and others “who share an interest in regional stability.” He also said Israelis and Palestinians should “get to the damn table,” a reference to stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The next day, during a closed-door session at the same conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in response to a question, noted a Jerusalem Post article that discussed differences between secular and religious Israelis in the army about women as well as the existence of segregated bus lines in Israel and noted that it reminded her of Iran.
Clinton also reportedly skewered bills now before the Knesset that, their critics say, would limit non-Israeli funding of Israeli NGOs; give the Knesset control over who can be named a High Court judge; and make it easier for subjects covered in the media to sue journalists.
Clinton’s remarks, which were neither confirmed nor refuted by the State Department, came on the heels of a meeting between U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office on the NGO bill.
The bill, whose right-wing supporters initially introduced it to limit foreign funding of pro-Palestinian NGOs, would impose a 45 percent tax on contributions received by all Israeli NGOs from foreign countries, according to Haaretz.
Making matters worse, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman created yet another controversy last week in a speech in which he said, “A distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned, and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” Gutman, the son of Jewish Holocaust survivors, also said that the solution to most Muslim anti-Semitism “remains in the hands of government leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories and Arab countries in the Middle East.”
The White House promptly distanced itself from those remarks, saying “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman wrote in a statement that Gutman’s speech “is not only wrongheaded but could undermine the important effort to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.”
Taken together, the incidents represent, according to some, a serious bump on the road for President Barack Obama’s efforts to convince both Jews and Israelis that his administration is staunchly pro-Israel and will remain so in a second term.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Hartman Institute, said the criticism represents “an accelerating level of antagonism” from the Obama administration at a time when Islamic movements are rising all over the Middle East “and Israelis are feeling more vulnerable than we have probably since May 1967,” on the eve of the Six-Day War.
If these are the missives being thrown at Israel during an election campaign, “when and the Obama administration is more vulnerable, what can we expect in an Obama second term?” Halevi asked.
David Harris, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while Gutman’s comments were “wrong and unfortunate,” Panetta’s speech was being widely characterized based on the “damn table” reference while overlooking that the address was “overwhelmingly, tremendously pro-Israel.” He noted that Panetta “made very clear that the military option is on the table when it comes to Iran.” He also said that Clinton’s expression of concern about bills limiting funding of NGO’s reflects the position of “the breadth of the American Jewish community.”
Gerald Steinberg, a Bar Ilan political scientist, said the administration’s recent criticism is “entirely out of line. Imagine if the Israeli government leveled criticism of American health policy or abortion.”
Although Steinberg, founder of the watchdog organization NGO Monitor, “do[es] not believe legislation is the way to deal with these types of issues,” despite “European governments flooding Israel with tens of millions of euros for organizations that exploit the language of human rights,” he nonetheless supports debate within Israeli society.
Asked whether she supports the administration’s reprimand, Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, an organization that fights for the rights of Palestinians to move freely, said she “welcomes anything that will be effective in strengthening Israeli democracy” against what she called “a wave of attempts to limit freedom of speech and expression.”
Ultimately, Bashi said, “Israelis must solve their own problems, but expressed the hope that Israelis “will hear their close allies expressing concern and will understand that the danger to democracy is real and urgent.”
Elana Sztokman, an Israel-based expert on gender issues and the author of “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” was even more forceful in her support of Hillary Clinton and others who have denounced religious coercion.
“You can’t have a democracy where 50 percent of the population is denied the right to move freely, speak freely, sing freely,” Sztokman said. “Besides, we know that religious fundamentalism, no matter what religion it is, has damaging consequences for everyone.”