Well, It Would Have Been a Good Religion Question…

This morning I did a word count on last night’s debate transcript. Israel: mentioned over a dozen times by each candidate. Palestinians: once. Religion: zero. Religious: three times (all by Obama, in discussing “protecting religious minotiries and women” in the Muslim world). 

Romney didn’t mention religion or religious freedom, and he only mentioned women’s rights once: “With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and—and public life and in economic life in the Middle East.”

Obviously, the rights of women and religious minorities are urgent, dire questions in many parts of the world. Yet given both candidates’ repeated mentions of our ally Israel, there was a huge missed opportunity here: what about the rights of women and religious minorities in Israel?

Throughout the campaign, questions to the candidates on religion have been circumscribed by a needlessly narrow range of what the pertinent questions are: abortion, particularly, or contraception, often framed as an issue of religious freedom. Religion questions are always pegged to the US religious right’s domestic policy agenda. Not that these aren’t crucial issues facing America: the restriction of access to abortion, the enduring discussion of long-settled questions of the effectiveness and morality of using contraception, the exposure of retrograde views of national politicians about rape all deserve attention. 

Throughout the presidential and vice-presidential debates, though, questions on women’s equality have been, with a couple of exceptions, glaringly absent. We had binders full of women; two male candidates were asked, how, as men, they viewed their religion, and how, personally they felt about abortion. It’s been embarrassing, actually.

But religion and women’s rights are also key issues in any foreign policy debate. Obama touched on them briefly, and Romney only in passing. And in all instances, their comments related to countries other than Israel. 

Here’s a question that could have been asked: If the United States is keen on protecting both the rights of women and the rights of religious minorities around the world, and given our “unbreakable” bond with Israel, does either candidate have anything to say about the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall by Jerusalem police?

Hoffman is the executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and chair of the group Women of the Wall, which fights for the right of women to pray aloud at Judaism’s holiest site. “At the coercion of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment,” Menachem Z. Rosensaft writes in the Forward:

women are forbidden to read from the Torah or to wear prayer shawls or tefilin in the plaza in front of the Wall. Women who defy these prohibitions, including Hoffman, are routinely harassed. Earlier this year, during the summer, Hoffman disclosed that, “four women were detained at the Western Wall, each for wearing a tallit. The authorities say they were disturbing the public peace according to regulation 201 A4 of the Israeli legal code. The punishment for this crime is six months in prison. They also broke regulation 287A by performing a religious act that ‘offends the feelings of others.’ The punishment for this crime is up to two years in prison.”

After her arrest last week, Hoffman told the Forward’Debra Nussbaum Cohen:

“I was saying Sh’ma Israel and arrested for it. It’s just unbelievable,” she said in an interview from her bathtub, where she was soaking limbs bruised from being dragged by handcuffs across the police station floor and legs shackled as if she were a violent criminal. “It was awful.”

Hoffman has been detained by police at the Western Wall six times in the more than two decades that she has led Women of the Wall, a group which conducts prayer services in the women’s section at the start of each Jewish month. But on Tuesday night, when she was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and praying out loud, she was treated far more violently by police than ever before.

“In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.”

* * * *

When, at the police station, she was told to move from one chair to another, “I thought I should show him what noncooperation looks like,” and refused to move, she said. “When I refused to move, he dropped me to the floor and dragged me with the handcuffs.”

Later, when she was being taken to court, police put leg shackles on her. A judge released her on the condition that she agree not to go to the Western Wall for any reason for 30 days or be fined 5,000 shekels.

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights North America wrote, American Jews are rightly outraged by Hoffman’s arrest, but they’re quicker to object to Israel’s human rights violations when they’re directed at other Jews, rather than at Palestinians or African refugees.

Would I like to see a full discussion of all that? Of course. I’m being realistic (sort of) here.

If the candidates had, in my fantasy world, been questioned about Hoffman’s arrest, the discussion of Israel’s growing religious extremism would have been a circumscribed one. It would have been limited to haredi and officially condoned abuse of women. But still. Tiny progress.

This question is pertinent to everyone: what do the candidates think about the role of religion in a democracy, anyway? The Hoffman case is so easy—even though Romney’s own tradition bars women from leadership roles, could he possibly come out in favor of arresting women for praying? Or even, with a straight face, say it was a matter of local concern that he wasn’t going to comment on, when he otherwise has (albeit in a perfunctory way) called for the promotion of women’s rights in other parts of the Middle East? And since Obama was promoting the rights and freedom of religious minorities last night, wouldn’t this case fall under his concern? There are good religion questions. They just don’t get asked.