Hillary Clinton said over the weekend that requirements for women to ride in the back of some Jerusalem bus routes reminds her of segregated busing during the height of the civil rights era in the south. She also said that the country's growing religious right reminds her of Iran, according to press accounts of her closed-door remarks in Washington.
Israeli papers reported that Mrs. Clinton expressed her concerns at a Saturday meeting of the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, a think tank funded by US-Israeli billionaire Haim Saban (his fortune rests in the Power Rangers franchise and other shows for children). The State Department confirmed her appearance, but did not release a transcript of her remarks.
According to the Israeli press, Clinton said gender segregation on some Israeli buses reminded her of Rosa Parks; that proposed legislation in Israel to control the funding of left-leaning groups worries her; and that the attitudes of a growing and increasingly powerful ultra-Orthodox community, particularly its attitudes toward women, are reminiscent of Iran.
Her remarks – and the response – are embedded within a growing reality: Culturally the US and Israel are drawing further apart. The ultra-Orthodox right has gone from strength to strength in Israel, with the Orthodox rabbinate having sought and gained influence over policy in Israeli society. At the same time, the country's democracy is increasingly seeking to shut down avenues for nonviolent dissent, whether through the NGO legislation that Clinton referenced or a law passed by the Knesset earlier this year that seeks to outlaw calls for political boycotts on Israel.
I wrote a little bit about this on Friday, in connection with a tone-deaf series of ads that Israel recently ran in a number of US cities warning Israeli expatriates to return home or risk losing their Jewish and Israeli identities. The ads angered a number of prominent Jewish-American organizations.
Clinton's comments are telling, coming as they do in an election year. Her boss, President Obama, has taken flak from American Jews for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and is heading toward what promises to be a dog-fight for a second presidential term. In that context, the fact that Clinton was willing to make these kinds of comments is a sign the administration believes many supporters of Israel in the US share their concerns.
Palestinian activists will be annoyed that her Rosa Parks reference was in regard to Israeli women, not a recent protest by Palestinians in the West Bank against what they say are discriminatory bus policies. But Clinton's criticism was a warning that the "common values" that are often used to explain the close US-Israel relationship are eroding.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz from the prime minister's Likud party said at a Cabinet meeting Sunday that Clinton's comments were exaggerated: "I don’t know many better democracies in the world. It is of course necessary to fix things sometimes. The matter of excluding and segregating women is completely unacceptable and needs to be put to a stop, but there is a great distance between this and the argument that there is a threat to Israeli democracy."
Perhaps, but Likud legislator Ofir Akunis, sponsor of the bill that will extend government control over non-government organizations, didn't help Mr. Steitz' argument when he took to Israeli television on Sunday night to respond to Clinton. What did Mr. Akunis say? That former US Senator Joe McCarthy “was right in every word he said.”
McCarthy believed that union organizers and communist sympathizers made up a dangerous fifth column in the US that needed to be controlled by extraconstitutional means.
Referring to the senator who is synonymous in the US for seeking to destroy the lives of Americans who didn't agree with him – and who targeted American Jews with particular relish – was probably not the wisest course if the intent was to put Clinton's concerns to rest.
Writing in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, Chemi Shalev said "he was capping a week of deep divisions between Israelis and American Jews by demonstrating that the two are not only miles away and oceans apart, but actually living on different planets - Israelis are from Venus, and American Jews are from Mars, or vice versa."
"Here was a Likud MK, a deputy chairman of the Knesset and one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s closest Likud allies, choosing to respond to criticism leveled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against the Israeli right’s anti-democratic initiatives by giving a kosher stamp of approval to who? To Joseph 'I have here in my hand a list' McCarthy, one of the most discredited American politicians in history, and one whose memory is particularly abhorrent to American Jews."