One of the most contentious issues that impedes both understanding and progress in efforts to resolve the situation in the Middle East is the concept of Israel as a "Jewish state." The Arab world cannot understand how it is that countries such as Great Britain and the United States, whose underlying principles of democracy include a government independent of religious influence (separation of church and state), can support a country that does not maintain such a separation. The usual answer is to invoke the many ways in which Israel satisfies all other criteria of a parliamentary democracy, often with a rhetorical stab suggesting that all of its neighbors are authoritarian and/or corrupt. As a result of the scandal that led to the latest change in government, we now know that Israeli is as susceptible to corruption as any of its neighbors. Now, however, we have an interesting example of how the faith-based authoritarianism of Orthodox Judaism may be jeopardizing any national standards of democracy in Israel.
The example comes from a report that appeared this morning on the BBC News Web site and is brief enough to be reproduced in its entirety (and as a safeguard against accusations of "cherry picking"):
The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.
Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.
He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.
No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.
The rabbi made his comments in the community's newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.
"I am a young woman and I think I have desire and energy to do things," Ynet News quoted the woman as writing to Rabbi Levanon.
"It's not right for men to be the only ones deciding how to run the community," the letter reportedly said.
But in his weekly column, Rabbi Levanon wrote that, according to the teachings of influential rabbis, women were not allowed to apply for the position.
"The first problem is giving women authority, and being a secretary means having authority," Rabbi Levanon wrote in the community's newspaper.
"Within the family certain debates are held and when opinions are united the husband presents the family's opinion.
"This is the proper way to prevent a situation in which the woman votes one way and her husband votes another," he wrote.
He also said it was not appropriate for women to mix with men in late evening meetings of community leaders.
Women's groups have condemned the comments.
"Such talk is scandalous enough to call the rabbi for a clarification. I expect leaders of the religious public in Israel to condemn the rabbi's instruction," Nurit Tzur of the Israel Women's Lobby said.
First of all I do not question Rabbi Levanon's warrant of his claims on the basis of the writings of "influential rabbis." One does not have to dig very deep into the religious writings of Judaism to find examples that make it very clear that women play a subordinate role in the community, first to the father before marriage and after that to the husband. Orthodox Jewish women accept this precept, which is why none of the women of Elon Moreh have registered to vote. Indeed, within the mindset of this community, the very thought of a woman considering running in an election would be viewed as heretical; and that is the adjective that tests the democratic nature of the country as a whole.
The history of the United States includes pioneers who came here to escape persecution and accusations of heresy. Many of those seeking such escape were Jews, who, throughout the history of Europe, were never strangers to such accusations, often "argued" through such forensic methods as the gathering of testimony under torture. I say this not to equate Rabbi Levanon with Tomás de Torquemada but to emphasize the extent to which secularism has necessarily become tightly coupled to prevailing principles of governance.
Now it is clear that the very existence of an Israel Women's Lobby means that the Rabbi does not speak for all of Israel. He is a voice of authority in a very limited community, which just happens to sit in the middle of one of the most hotly disputed pieces of land in the Middle East. The question now is whether or not there will be a response to this incident at the national level. The United States is also a country that believes that the Federal Government should not interfere in state and local matters, and that belief has been reinforced by considerable legislation. However, in this case it will be easy to assume that silence from the national government means an assent to Rabbi Levanon's ruling, at least within the boundaries of Elon Moreh. Such an assent may encourage further actions based on fundamentalist judgments that involve not only fundamentalist Judaism but also fundamentalist Islam. That will take us all down a road that will distance us even further from the prospect of eventual peace in the Middle East.