Gaining Ground for Israeli Women

Popularly regarded as the mother of Israeli feminism, the scholar and pioneering activist Alice Shalvi took home this year's Israel Prize. Here, Professor Shalvi reflects on what three decades of feminist activism have meant for gender equity in Israeli society.

by Professor Alice Shalvi


Gaining Ground for Israel Women

There is a long-standing Jewish tradition of using a glass half- full versus half-empty approach when judging a given scenario. It works particularly well when considering women’s status in Israel. The numerous achievements of the past three decades — fostered by countless activists and invaluable Diaspora support — are, unfortunately, counterbalanced by continued discrimination, inferiority, and even victimization.

Improvement in women's status can be found in almost every aspect of Israeli society, from government and the military to business, academia, and culture. The Supreme Court president and the heads of two major governmental ministries are now women, as are 30 percent of local government, and the mayors of two of Israel’s largest cities.

Furthermore, women now head some of the most influential third-sector organizations. These non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play an increasing role in creating a vital civil society, and in advocating for social and economic justice, citizens’ rights, and transparent democratic government. Many are grassroots feminist organizations dedicated to specific issues: Women in Black demonstrate weekly under the slogan "End the Occupation"; Women in Green favor continued Jewish settlement across the 1967 Green Line; Machsom Watch monitors Israel Defense Force (IDF) behavior toward Palestinians at border checkpoints. There are more loosely organized groups that engage in dialogue with Palestinian women. These and hundreds of others now operate alongside older organizations such as WIZO, Na'amat, and Emunah.

The business sector has witnessed an astonishing increase in the number of influential women entrepreneurs and CEOs, as have civil services and the legal profession. Half of the Supreme Court's members are now women, as are more than half of all lawyers and law students.

Women’s studies, long the despised Cinderella of Israeli academia, are flourishing, producing groundbreaking research and publications that serve as a stimulus for political advocacy in favor of legislative change. While gender studies courses have existed since the 1980s, the first full BA program in the Middle East was established at Tel Aviv University in 1998, thanks to a generous endowment from NCJW.

Culturally, Israeli women have come into their own: as senior editors, columnists, directors, curators, performers, and filmmakers — often exposing corruption, racism, gender discrimination, and violence. In literature, a similar trend is apparent. In 1987, when the Israel Women's Network organized the world’s first international conference of women writers, few Israelis had works in translation. While no woman has achieved the acclaim of Amos Oz or Aharon Appelfeld, Israeli women increasingly appear on best-seller lists and in translation.

Even in the macho stronghold of the IDF, women are no longer auxiliaries, but now serve in intelligence and as skilled technicians, pilots, navigators, and instructors in all-male combat units, though they do not fight on the frontlines.

The list of achievements is indeed long. Probably the most encouraging change, one that underlies the others, is the exponential growth of women’s and men’s awareness of — and resistance to — discrimination.

Yet reform is still required, for the half-empty glass can no longer be ignored, no matter how gratifying the contents of the other half.

Consider the Knesset, where women hold less than 14 percent of the seats. In the workforce there are more women, yet they primarily occupy unskilled and "pink collar" positions — teaching, social work, customer service. Women earn 30 percent less than men, even for identical work, and are more likely to be unemployed, constituting the majority of those eligible for social welfare. With such payments recently reduced, more women and children than ever live below the poverty line.

In 1996, when the Israel Women’s Network first brought trafficking of women to the public's attention, its findings met with inaction. Trafficking is now illegal, yet Israel ranks high among the nations where it persists, police action is inadequate, and victims — rather than their handlers — are often treated as offenders.

In the IDF, women serve increasingly in higher ranks yet are absent from the General High Command, which makes the most fateful decisions. Since women constitute the majority of peace activists, many believe that more women in securityrelated decision-making could lead to greater progress in resolving the ongoing conflict. Indeed, the Knesset passed a 2005 law requiring women's inclusion in any group appointed for peace negotiations, but the law has yet to be implemented.

Israel’s most widespread chauvinist practice, sexual harassment, was long tolerated by society and accepted by women as something they had to endure, rather than risk non-promotion or dismissal. When, a quarter-century ago, President Ezer Weizmann said that "The best men become pilots, and the best women go to the pilots," nobody voiced umbrage. Now, such sexist hubris would meet with demands for a public apology. Today, encouraged by a law that criminalizes sexual harassment and supported by feminist groups, more women are lodging complaints against their aggressors.

There is also far greater awareness of widespread spousal abuse: Victims more readily report such crimes, which leads to more police action and restraining orders. Yet the violence continues. Among the Arab population, so-called "honor killings" of women suspected of pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations even go unreported. Only recently have the women of one family, nine of whose members have been murdered, dared to report the crimes.

Virtually no progress has been made in the religious sphere. Despite years of Supreme Court appeals, women are denied the right to pray at the Western Wall wearing tallit and tefillin. In Jewish and Muslim religious courts, women's legal status is inferior to men's. Personal status issues remain under the sole jurisdiction of the all-male Orthodox rabbinate. No woman can divorce without her husband’s acquiescence, and the number of "anchored" women (agunot) is estimated in the thousands. The International Coalition for Agunah Rights brings together women of every religious stream. They have demonstrated, met with the chief rabbis, submitted petitions, and enlisted high-profile support — to no avail.

Tradition — especially that based on religious law and principles — is still the overriding factor in social definition. It continues to perceive women's primary role as that of helpmate: wife, mother, homemaker. It is surely no coincidence that the "basket" of government-subsidized Israeli health services covers expensive infertility treatments (until the birth of two children), but not contraceptives.

One may thus sadly conclude that, until Israel separates state and religion and the armed conflict gives way to peaceful coexistence, there will be no true equality of opportunity, reward, or status between the sexes. The glass may be steadily filling, but much still remains to be done before we can lift it and raise a toast to the attainment of justice, freedom, and equality.

Related Content: International Concerns, Israel-Civil Rights, Israel-Women's Empowerment, Women and Gender Studies Program, Women to Women, Yad B’Yad

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