The Downward Trajectory of Women’s Rights

The New York Times recently published an article on the status of women’s rights in Israel. It is not a happy story. Despite Israel’s feigned reputation as a “liberal democracy,” the reality is that within its privileged Jewish population is a large number of religious zealots—the Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews—seeking to reshape the state’s culture in their own archaic image. These people are faithful to a primitive outlook that treats women as inferiors. It would seem that, for the Ultra-Orthodox, traditions drawn from biblical and Talmudic literature are more important than the history of women’s achievements in all fields of science, social science and the humanities.

The Ultra-Orthodox are organized into a number of political parties which are now influential members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition government. In order to secure their support, Netanyahu committed himself to a number of their goals: “Among them are proposals to segregate audiences by sex at some public events and on public transportation, to create new religious residential communities, to allow businesses to refuse to provide services based on religious beliefs, and to expand the powers of all-male rabbinical courts.” If you want to know why most of those thousands of secular Israelis are in the streets protesting, the prospect of these changes is why.

The consequences for Israeli women are already being felt, even though some recent curtailments are actually illegal under current law. Thus, despite the fact that “equal rights for women are guaranteed in the 1948 declaration of independence …. Bus drivers in central Tel Aviv and southern Eilat have refused to pick up young women, because they were wearing crop tops or workout clothes. Last month, ultra-Orthodox men in the religious town of Bnei Brak stopped a public bus and blocked the road because a woman was driving.”

Thus, in Israel the present rule of law as it applies to Jewish women is being eroded with impunity. The political backing of the religious parties, two of which illegally “ban women from running for office,” is worth more to the current government than the legal rights of all Jewish Israeli women, and their votes as well. Jewish Israel is sinking into gender biased morass that, step by step, causes it to replicate some of the attitudes and policies of Saudi Arabia.

None of this should be surprising because discrimination is a defining aspect of Israel’s national culture. The country is recognized as an apartheid state by every relevant human rights organization worldwide, including Israel’s own. Israeli bigotry is traditionally aimed at its Palestinian minority, but after 75 years the rot is coming home to roost. There is something both toxic and contagious about bigotry maintained for multiple generations. Over time, even the privileged are at risk.

Women’s Rights in the United States

The political influence of religious zealots for whom secular law means little, is not to be found only in today’s Israel. Indeed, the derelict attitudes toward gender and the related goals of such religious ideologues have a long, and now ascendent, history in the United States—Israel’s closest ally.

Since the early 20th century, there has been an element of the U.S. population that have fought against social modernity—Christian fundamentalists (aka Christian nationalists). We can look back to “May 25, 1919, when 6,000 Protestant ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meetings. The folks assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth.”America’s Christian Fundamentalists have held fast to their mission ever since.

“Morality” plays an important role in this mission. “Declining morals served as evidence that the Bible’s prophets had accurately forecast the modern age. In Old Testament stories, God had punished humankind for engaging in sexual sins. Fundamentalists in turn saw sin in the destabilization of gender roles, which led Americans to compromise their morals.” They associate women’s liberation with the breakdown of divinely sanctioned social norms and “they worried that birth control was undermining the family.”

It was this general unease with a society seen as becoming increasingly decadent and ungodly—because, in large part, to women gaining political and social rights—that prevailed over the years. Abortion rights came to stand for this process in the 1970s. In that decade an alliance was struck between usually contentious conservative Catholics (who were focused on abortion) and Protestant evangelicals to fight “women’s liberation” and other “social ills of the age.” A particular effort was made, and a lot of money invested, in developing a legal approach to forward this religious mission. “Movement leaders understood very well that if you can capture the courts, you can change society. Leading organizations include the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is involved in many of the recent cases intended to degrade the principle of church-state separation.”

Over the last fifty years various presidents, particularly Republicans such as Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, have been appointing conservative judges sympathetic to the Christian Fundamentalist point of view. An analysis in the Guardian newspaper suggests the consequences of this effort: “At the core of the decision [that overturned Roe v. Wade] lies the conviction that the power of government can and should be used to impose a certain moral and religious vision–-a supposedly biblical and regressive understanding of the Christian religion-–on the population at large.” Women’s rights as practiced in modern society are therefore at serious risk.

Common Denominator

The common denominator in both the U.S. and Israel is the existence of politically and socially influential religious zealotry that blinkers the worldviews of their followers. Both among the Ultra Orthodox of Israel and the Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. their cult-like communities tell the devotee what is important, and electorally, how to vote.

Given this situation, it is interesting to consider what the religious right, in each country, finds unimportant. In both places, secular freedoms are unimportant. For instance, along with gender bias, racism has become an acceptable norm on the right generally. Be it those who are non-Jewish, or those who are non-white, there is intolerance that excludes various groups from the “promised land” (in the U.S., this discrimination is now particularly focused on migrants). As we have seen, in both cases gender equality is anathema. Indeed, these religious zealots act in misogynist ways. Women should not be active in public. As a group they have specific god-given roles and should be in the home raising on average between 2.4 (U.S. Christian fundamentalist) and 7.1 (Israeli Ultra-Orthodox) children. They should dress modestly and ride in the back of the bus, etc.

In the U.S., the religious right is apparently uninterested in economic prosperity, educational achievement, and an improvement in life span, if to advance these objectives means compromising what they see as religious principles. A Washington Post opinion piece by Jennifer Rubin points out that if you live in a state that is politically controlled by Republicans and their Christian fundamentalist allies (red states), “your life span is shorter, your chance of living in poverty higher, your educational attainment lower and your economic opportunities are reduced” relative to those in states not so controlled (“blue-states”). The religious right is also uninterested in constitutional and related rights unless it allow them to advance their religious goals. Their stance on such particulars as censorship, education’s core curriculum subjects, approaches to LGBTQIA+ issues, and abortion can be seen in this light.

In Israel the Ultra-Orthodox insist that their men should be exempted from mandatory military service. That suggests that the religious right is uninterested in national security—  except when it can be used as a cover for pogroms against Palestinians. It is only in the West Bank, where the eventual expulsion of the Palestinians is seen as a religious imperative, that military affairs is a priority issue for them. Finally, in any conflict between democratic rights and Halacha or Jewish law, the religious parties insist on the latter as more important—as superior.


The religiously conjured ideologies discussed above are part of an ongoing “culture war” pitting intolerance against tolerance, inequality against equality, and an archaic biblical notion of women that stands against a woman’s right to full human status. This war is being waged simultaneously in the U.S. and Israel (and many other places as well).

One ignores this culture war at the risk of one’s rights and freedoms. As the Guardian article quoted above put it, “The idea that they [the religious right in the U.S.] will stop with overturning Roe v Wade is a delusion.” The goal is to undermine opposing views and any competing way of life, and wherever these zealots gain a foothold, there are attempts to impose discriminatory practices through changes in state law and policy.

Ultimately, the goals of the religious right are not just undemocratic, but also have a totalitarian nature. It is not quite the Inquisition of the 16th century or the Cultural Revolution of the 20th century, but the will to move in these directions is there. So, if you don’t approve of the future offered by the religious right, don’t ignore their machinations. Gird for the battle already underway.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.