Both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta raised some eyebrows last week in their addresses at the Saban Forum in Washington.
Speaking to a closed session , Secretary Clinton spent most of her time talking about Iran’s nuclear program and the need for Israel and the Palestinians to go back to negotiating their differences. But in her final three minutes – responding to the question “What does Israel need to do in order to help the U.S. help it?” – she seemed to question whether the U.S. and Israel actually share democratic values.
In her response she said she was astonished by certain legislative proposals in Israel that would restrict left-wing NGOs, as well as by restrictions placed on women in certain public facilities and the military. She said that at a time when the U.S. is trying to get countries around the world to develop their civil organizations and structures and facilitate greater participation in public affairs, Israel seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
She noted that the day before she had read an article in the Washington Post called “In Israel, Women’s Rights Come Under Siege,” which described IDF religious soldiers boycotting events in which women singers performed as well as the segregation of women on some bus routes.
She even claimed to have been reminded of Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to move to the back of the bus in the Jim Crow South sparked the U.S. civil rights movement.
The secretary also said the boycott of female IDF singers reminded her of Iran and other extremist regimes.
Whether or not Secretary Clinton really believes everything she said, it was outrageous that the U.S. secretary of state would make any analogy between Israel’s vibrant democracy and the U.S. in one of its darkest and most lamentable hours, or to even imply any similarity between the Israeli government and the murderous thugs in control of certain countries who rule by terror and violent suppression of dissent.
There is no national agenda in Israel to suppress free speech. But no modern country fails to regulate foreign influences on its body politic and even domestic activities thought to create a clear and present danger to its security. Indeed, that debate is going full force raging in the United States. And Israel, of course, does not have the margin for error the U.S. enjoys.
Are members of Israeli NGOs denied the right to vote? Are they prevented from running for office? Can Secretary Clinton be serious when she says she sees parallels between Israel and extremist regimes? Does Israel jail or “disappear” dissidents? Does it practice torture in order to persuade its citizens of the error of their ways?
Can anyone say Israel does not have as robust a free press as can be found anywhere in the world? Would anyone in his or her right mind even remotely equate the rights of free speech and press in Israel with what now obtains in any country in the Arab world or what will likely obtain for decades despite U.S. efforts to nurture civil freedoms in some of those countries?
Are women an oppressed minority in Israel? Are they denied the right to vote, run for office or enter the professions? Does the fact that, in a handful of predominantly religious neighborhoods, efforts are made to accommodate the religious desire of men and women to sit separately on public transport mean Israeli women are the equivalent of blacks in the old Deep South? Or to hapless women in Arab countries who are imprisoned or put to death for the crime of having been raped or who cannot vote or drive or even go out in public without being accompanied by a male relative?
Is an effort to accommodate IDF personnel who adhere to religious prohibitions concerning males listening to female voices a bow to extremism? Is anyone saying women IDF members should not be allowed to sing? Is it appropriate to criticize the haredi community for not encouraging their young to join the military and at the same time condemn any efforts to allow the accommodation of their religious needs?
To be sure, over time there will doubtless be some fine tuning on both sides regarding the NGO controversy and women’s issues in Israel. It is a democracy and that’s how things get done in a free system. And Secretary Clinton knows that full well.
So the overriding question for us is what exactly was the secretary of state talking about? More important, was there a message the Obama administration wanted her to put out there?
Secretary Panetta’s remarks were equally remarkable. What got most public attention was his admonition to Israel that Israel must now take “bold action”: