Jewish Journal


December 28, 2011

Another Israel-South Africa comparison



Haredim in a neighborhood of Jerusalem (Courtesy, illustrative photo)

How do you square “obvious wrongs with respect for local customs”, asks Eusebius McKaiser of Johannesburg’s Wits University. Apparently:

South Africa has a rather schizophrenic approach to such questions. In 1994, it adopted a constitution that explicitly recognizes customary practices so long as they don’t violate fundamental values like equality and dignity. Polygamy has not yet been challenged under the Constitution, but in a society rife with sexism and sexual violence, the practice undermines the equality and dignity that women are entitled to. And so either the practice should be declared unconstitutional or substantive gender equality should be achieved by also permitting polyandry.

Yes, I know, the South African connotation is a suspicious one. Israel was compared to South Africa by “apartheid” hacks wanting to isolate it and delegitimize it. Obviously, I have no such intention, but still can’t resist the temptation to point out the similar dilemmas of “modernity” versus “tradition” that Israel now has to struggle with. Should it be allowed that women be sent to the backs of buses in the name of tradition? And what if it is only in neighborhoods where women agree to be sent to the back? Or what if, in half the buses men would be sent to the back while women sit in the front? Should communities be allowed to separate sidewalks for men and women? should they be allowed to do it in streets in which no secular Israeli has reason to visit?

To McKaiser, the answer seems straight forward:

If a tradition is compatible with fundamental values like equality and dignity, then it has a place in a modern African society. If it clashes with fundamental values like equality and dignity, then it must be scrapped, unless an appropriate modification is found.

I wish things could be so simple, but am not sure what the “equality and dignity” formula means for a debate about Jewish circumcision. And am also not sure how to convince one that “equality” always trumps “modesty”, or that “dignity” is not the equivalent of “modesty” (and don’t get me wrong: I think the Israeli government should be much more adamant in making ultra Orthodox zealots quit harassing their neighbors).

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