Israel must not let womens rights be trampled

Few epithets rankle us more than the claim that Israel is an “apartheid state.” Friends of Israel know this outlandish charge to be false.

However, when it comes to women and women’s rights, it’s fair to say that segregation thrives in some segments of Israeli society.

In haredi neighborhoods, women are forced to ride in the back of public buses or face physical assault. Women and girls are routinely attacked if not deemed to be dressed modestly enough.

According to the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, haredi women seeking a religious divorce often must wait years and usually end up with disadvantageous terms.

And of course, women are forbidden to carry or read from the Torah at the Kotel. Violators have been beaten and arrested. This deplorable pattern of injustice has boiled over in recent months and now makes daily headlines in the Israeli press, while rocking the Jewish world.

Much credit for leading the fight against this discrimination goes to Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel). Hoffman was instrumental in launching Women of the Wall more than 20 years ago, and ever since has pursued remedies to entrenched discrimination against Israeli women.

As our story on page 6 this week notes, Hoffman will be in the Bay Area next week as part of a U.S. tour. A brilliant public speaker, she will doubtless inspire audiences to rally to her causes.

We count ourselves among her unabashed supporters.

As Hoffman so eloquently notes, not all threats to Israel come from its hostile neighbors. Some come from within. Under the realpolitik of Israel, ruling coalitions must make deals with religious parties, which partly explains why the most intolerant segment of society manages to block progress on women’s issues.

Israel has always been a grand experiment. As the Jewish homeland, it embraces the expansive Jewish universe, from ultrasecular to deeply religious, including a large minority of non-Jewish citizens. That diversity is part of Israel’s strength.

Yet Israel watchers have long wondered: Can a Jewish state also exist as a thriving democracy with equal rights for all? Unless the government unreservedly upholds women’s rights and cracks down on those who would make Israel a medieval theocracy, we may not like the ultimate answer to that question.