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Israeli ‘Handmaids’ protest overhaul

by ISAAC SCHARF and TIA GOLDENBERG The Associated Press | March 19, 2023 at 4:34 a.m.
Protesters supporting women’s rights dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series attend a protest Thursday in the old port of Acre, north Israel. More photos at (AP/Ariel Schalit)

TEL AVIV, Israel -- A coil of women in crimson robes and white caps, growing in number as the demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies intensify, claim they are protesting to ward off what they believe will be a dark future if the government follows through on its plan to overhaul the judiciary.

It's become an ominous fixture of the mass anti-government protests roiling Israel. Walking with heads bowed and hands clasped, the women are dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," and the eponymous TV series.

"This display is a representation of the things that we fear," said Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women's rights advocacy group Bonot Alternativa, or "building an alternative," which is behind the Handmaid's protest.

"Women are going to be the first to be harmed" under the overhaul, she added.

In a move that has sparked widespread opposition, Netanyahu's government is pushing to weaken the Supreme Court and limit the independence of the judiciary, steps they say will restore power to elected legislators and make the courts less interventionist. Critics say the move upends Israel's system of checks and balances and pushes it toward autocracy.

The overhaul has sent tens of thousands of people into the streets in protest each week.

Unmissable in the crowd are the women in red robes, turning otherwise usual protest scenes into an otherworldly sight.

Ahead of one demonstration, a group of women rode the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in costume, transforming the cars and the platform into what could have been a scene from the Hulu series. Another time, they encircled a central fountain in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, a site that's typically home to kids in strollers and dogs on leashes. They have also blocked intersections, staying in character during the protests, keeping quiet as they walk in formation.

Their jarring appearance is meant to drive home the notion that Israel, which portrays itself as the Middle East's lone democracy, could morph into a chilling dystopia where women are stripped of their rights.

Atwood's 1985 novel about a futuristic patriarchal society where the robed handmaids are forced to bear children for leaders, has reemerged in recent years as a cultural touchstone thanks to the popular TV series. Its themes of female subjugation and male domination have resonated with women today who see threats in limits on abortion rights, or in Israel's case, in the rise of its conservative, religious government.

The government, Israel's most right-wing ever, is overwhelmingly male. Only nine out of 64 members of Netanyahu's coalition are women. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are key components of the coalition, deny inclusion to women members entirely.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has said men and women should not be permitted to serve together in military combat units, while his governing partners have voiced support for discrimination against LGBTQ people and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

These costumes, which have come to embody globally the threat to women under the patriarchy, have been used in protests elsewhere.

American women opposing former President Donald Trump's conservative Supreme Court nominees have donned the garb -- as have Iranian women demonstrating in Britain in support of the protests in Iran and Polish women calling to preserve abortion rights.

With the crisis in Israel showing no sign of abating, the women in red have become a mainstay at protests around the country, and their numbers are growing.

About 1,000 women wore the robes at a recent Tel Aviv rally.

Atwood has retweeted several posts about the women. Simcha Rothman, the lawmaker and parliamentary committee head spearheading the overhaul, has criticized them, while claiming the legal changes will only strengthen women's rights in Israel.

"I am attentive to the protests and demonstrations and happy to give a response to any concern regarding the legal plan. What do I not accept? A scare campaign that incites falsely that Israel will become 'The Handmaid's Tale,'" he tweeted earlier this month. "The reform will not harm the protection of women."

Zer Katzenstein, who left a career in marketing for international brands to steer the protest, said she wouldn't count on Rothman, a religious Jew and conservative ideologue, to protect her rights.

The protest is not an exaggeration of where Israel might be headed as some have charged, but rather a warning light, she said.

"We don't think that we [will] wake up and realize that we live in Gilead," she said, referring to the name of the fictional republic in Atwood's book.

"But we fear that it's going to be something evolving. First here and then there and another one and another one," she added. "Our message is that we are drawing a red line, and we will not let this happen, not even a bit."

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