|Written by Ruby Ong|
8 December 2011
The women were disappearing from Jerusalem.
Faced with ultra-Orthodox opposition to the images of women portrayed in the advertisements plastered on billboards, buses and kiosks throughout the city, advertisers began taking them down, replacing them with "less offensive" imagery. At the same time, a barricade was erected in the streets of a religious neighborhood to ensure that men wouldn't have to walk in the presence of women. Religious soldiers walked out on their fellow women soldiers singing at a celebration. And the enforcement of the hard-won High Court case that prohibited relegating women to the back of the bus in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities is spotty at best.
Like the introduction of anti-democratic legislation that we've been fighting the past 18 months, the growing hegemony of the state-sponsored ultra-Orthodox religious establishment is a facet of a rising tide of extremism and intolerance that is changing Israeli society. It is a symbol of the fight currently being waged over the future direction and character - and I believe soul - of Israel. And, like the legislation, it is a threat not only to Israeli society, but also to Israel's standing in the wider world, and it's relationships with its closest friends. Like all of us, those friends are dismayed by what they are seeing, by what appears to be happening to the Israel they have long supported.
Luckily, those friends are paying attention to NIF, and they're beginning to join the chorus of Israelis and others who are, more and more, speaking out about the threat to democracy in Israel.
Last week, in response to the campaign by our grantee Yerushalmim to restore images of women to the public sphere in Jerusalem, we launched a campaign of our own. We asked NIF supporters around the world to send us photos holding signs that read "Women Should Be Seen and Heard!" Hundreds of you responded, sending in pictures and even donations to help our organizations working for women's rights in Israel. Yesterday, in Jerusalem, the first poster comprising these photos was unveiled at an event for women’s rights, and copies will be hung in many areas of Jerusalem.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read it. She registered her dismay, about the exclusion of women and Israel’s antidemocratic trends in a meeting with American and Israeli leaders. Next thing you know, several Israeli leaders were protesting about Israel’s democratic bona fides and hastening to add their support for women’s equality. We pledge to hold them to it.
Israelis themselves are waking up to what is happening. Some will march this Friday in the Human Rights March in Tel Aviv, led by our flagship grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Some are shedding political apathy and joining the major parties to influence the agenda from within. Others are joining with NIF in saying, that when it comes to the future of Israel as a fair and equal and just society, we will not be silenced.
As I was finishing this, word came from Israel that Prime Minister Netanyahu has again postponed consideration of the bill that would defund progressive NGOs. Yes, Israel’s attorney general wrote that the bill was unconstitutional and indefensible in the High Court, but it is also true that there has been outrage worldwide, from leaders and from ordinary people, about the continued attempts to shut down Israeli voices for freedom, for justice and for minority rights.None of this would be possible without you, our NIF supporters. You know that famous saying – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world”? I never doubt it. Because you already have.