Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Israel is currently experiencing an ugly chasm between its strictly religious Orthodox Jews, Haredim, and its secular Jewish population.  Amongst other draconian practices, the Haredim believe in gender segregation in public spaces, including city buses.  This has led to a spate of clashes as well as dramatic demonstrations by partisans on both sides of the issue.

From a socio-political perspective, such a dispute, occurring in the national homeland of the Jewish people, involves complex issues of religion and governance and we will leave it to the citizenry and politicians in Israel to sort these out.

We will comment however, on the way Reuters Jerusalem Bureau has been covering this story.  In the last two weeks or so, correspondent Allyn Fisher-Ilan, whose writing interests and style strongly suggest she fancies herself a secular feminist, has written several stories on the dispute where she refers to the Haredim as "zealots".

Our desktop dictionary defines zealot as a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.  The term obviously carries a very powerful and for most readers, strongly negative, connotation.

However one may feel about Haredim, they are certainly no more extreme in their beliefs or religious practices than, for example, orthodox Muslims or Islamists.  Indeed, unlike women living in Saudi Arabia, Haredi women in Israel are able to drive cars, frequently work to support the family, and enjoy equality in matters of civil law including inheritance.

Yet, we've never seen a Reuters story where the agency's correspondents characterize Islamists as "zealots".  Rather, the adjectives employed in stories on Islamists in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, etc. run along polite lines like "strict", "conservative", and "austere".

Note for example, this story from 2010 (reported on by Fisher-Ilan), about the Pope calling on Islamic countries in the Middle East to guarantee freedom of worship to non-Muslims:
At least 3.5 million Christians of all denominations live in the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and home to some of the most conservative Arab Muslim societies in the world.
The freedom to practise Christianity -- or any religion other than Islam -- is not always a given in the Gulf and varies from country to country. Saudi Arabia, which applies an austere form of Sunni Islam, has by far the tightest restrictions.
There are many ways we might describe a society that employs religious police to arrest and lash a woman who drives or is seen in the company of a man other than her husband, but austere is not one of them.

This asymmetric handling by Fisher-Ilan and her colleagues at Reuters clearly reflects bias as well as either the soft bigotry of low expectations (with respect to religious Muslims) or antisemitism (with respect to religious Jews), or both.

On the other hand, perhaps Fisher-Ilan is simply an anti-Israel zealot.

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