Men in the Israeli army are forced to endure an incredible pain. They actually have to hear women singing in public. Are you shocked, shocked? Ultra-orthodox rabbis in Israel are more than shocked. They are mobilizing their considerable political clout to get the Israeli government to ban such ungodly behavior.
If the government won't yield, says one rabbi, the day will soon come when rabbis will "have to say" to soldiers, "You have to leave those events even if there's a firing squad outside, and you'll be shot to death."
Top Israeli military officials may find the idea so absurd it's funny. Publicly, though, they resist the rabbis because they need to keep up the morale of their many women in uniform. So, the Israeli government, caught between the nation's two strongest political forces - the military and the rabbis - is plunged into a fierce debate on this question: Is it better to die than hear the sweet sound of a woman's voice in public? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't offer an opinion either way. He says the ultra-orthodox view deserves as much hearing as those who uphold a women's right to sing, and he urges a dialogue in which each side respects the views of the other.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does have an opinion, though she voiced it only in a private meeting. She's at a loss to understand it, she reportedly said. It reminds her of extremist regimes; it's more suited to Iran than Israel.
That rare criticism from a top US official upset a lot of Israelis. One irked rabbi retorted that Clinton should know Jews treat their women "like queens and princesses." Some clerics in Iran might say the same about Muslims.
Indeed, if this were happening in a predominantly Muslim country, we'd probably be inundated with outraged news stories about such an egregious violation of women's rights. But, hey, Israel is America's "best friend," right? Special rules apply - the same rules the Obama administration follows when Palestine seeks United Nations (UN) membership, asking only to follow the model of national self-determination we Americans created in 1776 and gets slapped down by a US veto.
It makes you wonder why the US government bends over backward to protect a nation that is rapidly slipping under the thumb of right-wing religious zealots (and gives it more than $3 billion a year in military aid). True, the US usually gets involved only to protect the Israeli right's anti-Palestinian stance. Only recently and rarely have comments like Clinton's, about Israeli domestic religious measures, been heard from Washington. But the domestic scene and the treatment of Palestinians cannot be separated, as two major Israeli journalists recently pointed out.
Amos Schocken, publisher of Israel's leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz, is the most influential liberal voice in that country. He traces the whole West Bank settlement project, and his government's constant refusal to curb it, to the permanent and growing influence of right-wing religious ideologues, whose "perverted interpretation of Judaism" aims at a kind of apartheid in the West Bank.
"It is against this same background that we have seen the advancement of legislation directed against the Arab citizens of Israel," Shocken adds. Prominent Israeli analyst Gershon Gorenberg (an orthodox Jew himself) expands on this point in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. A growing tide of laws restricting Palestinians within Israel are the logical outgrowth of the West Bank occupation: "Israel remains tied to the West Bank and the settlement enterprise. And the ethnic struggle cannot be kept on one side of an unmarked border."
Now women in the Israeli army, many of them sent to the West Bank to enforce the occupation, find themselves the target of the same prejudice and intolerance that perpetuates the occupation itself. And Israeli women are grappling with dangerous assaults on more of their rights, as Clinton pointed out. They know that an injustice to anyone inevitably brings injustice to everyone, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us so many years ago.
With Israel spinning such an ever-widening web of injustice, why is it (in Shocken's words) "not easy, and maybe impossible, for an American president to adopt an activist policy against Israeli apartheid"? He offers, as possible answers, "the large number of evangelicals affiliated with the Republican party, the problematic nature of the West's relations with Islam, or the power of the Jewish lobby." All are important pieces of the puzzle.
But Gorenberg goes deeper in another recent article, pointing out that many American Jews - and, he might have added, American non-Jews - excuse the most egregious Israeli policies because they've swallowed the bogus Israeli claim that it's all "for the sake of security": "victimhood is part of the story that Jews tell about their past. In that story, a besieged, endangered Israel is the sequel to the Holocaust." All Israel has to do is claim it's threatened by another Holocaust, and all, it seems, is forgiven.
Of course, "for most Jews living today in America, the trauma is a taught memory, passed on by previous generations, out of sync with their current condition. And seeing Israel as the symbol of victimhood is discordant: Zionism was a rebellion against Jewish powerlessness, and present-day Israel testifies to the rebellion's success," as Gorenberg says. Israel faces no real threats to its existence, as its own defense minister, Ehud Barak, publicly admits. But those who build their religious and political identities on this fictional story close their ears to the facts and merely repeat their fictitious story more loudly.
Tragically, the myth of Israel's insecurity is still the foundation of virtually all conversation and policy about Israel in the United States. It will take many voices, raised in many quarters, directly confronting and debunking that myth, before its massive power begins to wane. But until that happens, every American president will be paralyzed, no matter how much we hear learn about the rightward shift, the religious fanaticism and the assault on human rights in Israel.