One of these things is not like the other…

One of these things is not like the other…

Let’s clear something up at the outset: Comparing Saudi Arabia and Israel on gender equality, civil rights, and religious freedom is a little like comparing North and South Korea on food delivery, democracy, and technological innovation, or the New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers on basketball prowess.

It’s not that such comparisons are impossible, but let’s face it: The differences are lot more telling than the similarities.

So say you are Maureen Dowd, interviewing Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal for your column in The New York Times. And let’s say, in talking about Saudi progress in “chipping away at gender apartheid and cultural repression,” the prince offers a little sidebar on his neighbor, Israel.

“We are moving in the direction of a liberal society,” says the Saudi royal. “What is happening in Israel is the opposite; you are moving into a more religiously oriented culture and into a more religiously determined politics and to a very extreme sense of nationhood,” which is coming “to a boiling point.”

At this point, in the interest of context, you may want to let the reader know that your interviewee has gone a little off target — you know, the way Augusto Pinochet went off target when he said, “I’m not a dictator. It’s just that I have a grumpy face.”

What you shouldn’t do is what Dowd did, which is essentially concede the prince’s point. “Israel is a secular society that some say is growing less secular with religious militants and the chief rabbinate that would like to impose a harsh and exclusive interpretation of Judaism upon the entire society,” wrote Dowd on March 2. “Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are fighting off the Jewish women who want to conduct their own prayer services at the Western Wall. (In Orthodox synagogues, some men still say a morning prayer thanking God for not making them women.)”

All that may be true enough, but you have to unpack the paragraph to realize how distorted a picture she paints.

It’s true that the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel has a stranglehold on “status” issues like marriage and funeral rites, and that many Diaspora Jews complain about increasingly stringent standards on conversion. And while such measures rankle pluralists, secular Israelis live their lives largely untouched by the influence of the Orthodox. Women are fully integrated (with room for improvement, sure) into Israeli society, including academia, professions, and the military, and non-Jewish minorities maintain their own authority over their own religious affairs.

Would the chief rabbinate “like to” impose an exclusive interpretation of Judaism upon Israeli society? Perhaps. The Tea Party movement would like to abolish the income tax, and would like a single-payer health-care system, but I still have to file my forms and pay my premiums. The rabbanut’s attempts to turn the Western Wall plaza into an Orthodox synagogue or segregate certain bus lines by gender may be unfortunate, but, to quote Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, that “hardly compares to a culture in which teaching any religion other than Islam is a capital offense and in which women are regularly beaten for being immodest.”

And if by “religious militants” Dowd means the settlers, it’s worth noting that a) only a minority of settlers are religiously motivated and b) the zealots among them are a political obstacle to a two-state solution but have no influence on, or interest in, the human and civil rights extended to the vast majority of Israelis.

Even among the fervently Orthodox, women often work outside the home (they have to if their husbands are full-time yeshiva students), pursue higher education, and do not need permission from male “guardians” to conduct their most basic affairs.

And that’s the fervently Orthodox. Among the Modern Orthodox, men may hold the cards when it comes to ritual and synagogue life, but their wives otherwise live lives indistinguishable from secular women in terms of employment, education, opportunity, and basic freedoms.

Like most weak stabs at moral equivalency, Dowd’s column managed to exonerate the guilty and implicate the innocent. It suggested a medieval, family-run dictatorship was on the road to moderation, while a flawed, feisty, forward-thinking liberal democracy was headed toward theocracy. It tempted readers who know little about either country to either lump the two together, or wash their hands of the whole backward, fanatical, regressive, misogynistic deal.

Worse, such distortions make it harder for Israel’s informed and well-meaning critics to make their cases. In Israel and America, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements have long advocated for religious pluralism in Israel. They insist the government policies that reinforce the Orthodox monopoly only alienate most Israelis from Jewish tradition. Israeli human rights advocates, who would like to see Israel live up to its democratic ideals, issue tough reports when their government falls short. Instead of praising Israel for fostering this culture of self-criticism, cynics use the same reports to paint a grossly one-sided portrait of Israeli misconduct.

Part of being a friend to Israel — part of being a Jew — is engaging in these debates over religion, peoplehood, and democracy. It’s painful to see words spoken and positions taken out of love for Israel turned against it by morally challenged potentates like Prince Saud — or credulous note-takers like Maureen Dowd.

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