The beginning of the New Year has come together with one of the vilest assaults on women in the democratic world. Donald Trump and his supporters are using gender as a tool against Hillary Clinton (the first serious female presidential candidate in U.S. history) and, through her, on the values of equality and pluralism embodied in the concept of gender equality. The rise of talented women in the public arena is unleashing misogynous strains that lie deep at the core of even the most liberal of societies.
This experience is surely not unique to American women: it is also the lot of Israeli women, just as it is of many other women throughout the world. On the eve of Yom Kippur, it is useful to review the constant gender tug-of war between achievement and dismissal, between progress and neglect and between political influence and marginalization in the hope that 5777 turns out to be not only the year of women, but also a year by women and for all people — men and women alike.
The story of Israeli women in recent years has been one of constant improvement and continuous denigration; of ongoing breakthroughs and persistent reversals; of successful battles against discrimination coupled with an inability to narrow endemic gender inequality. This tale can be seen in the great advances of women in education (they outstrip men in the number of graduates at all levels), as well as in their inability to translate these qualifications into equitable income and promotions in the labor market (women still earn only 67% of what men do in the same positions). In the workplace, there are more female contract and part-time workers than men; they make substantially less for the same work than do their male counterparts.
Professional life in Israel suffers from enormous levels of gender segregation: women are heavily represented in service-oriented occupations while men maintain a monopoly in the engineering and hi-tech sectors. Women are still a majority of those who subsist below the poverty line and they continue to bear the bulk of the invisible work in their homes (see the 2015 Gender Index published by the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute).
Despite significant advances along almost every possible dimension, Israeli women (much like their sisters elsewhere) have not been able to stem sexual harassment or physical attacks. For years, they have been bullied, battered, raped and even murdered just because they have displeased the men in their midst. During the past twelve months alone, accusations of sexual malfeasance were raised against a senior government minister, several upper echelon police and military officers, as well as a few mayors and high-level civil servants. These high profile cases are just the tip of an iceberg: the number of women seeking recourse from domestic violence has doubled in the past decade alone.
The dualistic quality of gender relations in Israel is especially evident in the public domain. Here the official rhetoric of equality is repeatedly accompanied by the systematic belittlement of women. One such example is the government’s decision to accept the demands of Women of the Wall and pluralist streams of Judaism to authorize a mixed-gender area for prayers at the Western Wall — while doing everything possible to prevent its implementation. The efforts made to ban women performers from public places (most recently — and notably unsuccessfully — in Rabin Square during these Days of Awe) are legion. Even the public astonishment which greeted the participation of Professor Zvia Valden along with her brothers in the chanting of the Kaddish over their late father, Shimon Peres, made it painfully evident that most Israelis remain oblivious to such a possibility.
Women who have succeeded in gaining positions of power in the public arena are particularly exposed to gender-based barbs. Almost all the (record high) thirty-three female Members of Knesset attest to having been harassed (verbally and physically) merely because they are women. Outspoken women leaders are particularly vulnerable: Hanin Zoabi and Miri Regev, Zehava Galon and Gila Gamliel, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich, Aida Touma Sliman and Ayelet Shaked, despite their often intense ideological differences, all confront an extra layer of gender-based animosity. In this respect they join a host of prominent women in other countries who constantly have to account — alongside their political preferences — for their taste in clothing, their choice of partners and their physical comportment.
The inability to embrace women in political life — despite protestations to the contrary — draws on age-old cultural patterns still promoted both openly and subtly by those at the helm. Locker-room conversations are as prevalent in Jerusalem as they are in colleges and clubhouses in Europe and the United States. Virtually every major political figure in Israel has been recorded mouthing sexist comments at one time or another.
Just recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu could find nothing much wrong with the fact that no women accompanied him to his meeting last month with Barack Obama in New York, claiming that he “chooses people by their qualifications and not by their gender or sector” (as if there are no skilled women who can act as his advisors). To add insult to injury, when asked whether he was a feminist, Netanyahu first answered “pretty much” and then corrected to a qualified affirmative. This exchange took place just a week before thousands of women began a two-week “March of Hope” to encourage this very same leader to do what he or any of his associates have been unwilling to take upon themselves since the beginning of his tenure: launch a serious peace initiative to reach a lasting agreement between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors (and on the same month as the UN will mark the 16th anniversary of the adoption of Security Resolution 1325 which calls for the incorporation of women into peace processes).
Israeli popular discourse thus continually promotes women while simultaneously berating their contribution to national affairs. In Israel (which boasts one of the first female heads of government, Golda Meir) and in many other countries it has been impossible to alter the built-in structures of gender inequality that give license to ongoing chauvinism and sexism. These are the underside of the liberal values of equality, tolerance and justice on which true democracies thrive.
The persistent tension between the promotion of individual freedoms and the continuous debasement of women is the contemporary reflection of the gendered structure of many societies, compounded in recent years by the inequitable articulation of neoliberal economics. The ongoing distinction between the public realm dominated by men and the private realm associated with women in many respects makes the quest for gender equality the ultimate goal of those aspiring to nurture decent societies today. This is not a women’s issue alone: it is a societal one that can only be met by a common commitment of men and women acting together to realize equitable social change.
This year is developing into the year of women. The ascendance of a woman to the most powerful position in the democratic world, joining other female leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel, may signal a critical turning point in the reordering of democratic societies. It will not erase gender discrimination nor eradicate misogynists, but it will pave the way for the consolidation of a different approach to gender relations.
In Israel, these same goals can be achieved if everyone joins in making a concerted effort to gender mainstream life in the country. Any society that wishes to secure its betterment must actively ensure the incorporation of women’s representation, perspectives and participation in every sphere of public. That is the common challenge for Israel — along with many countries in the world — in the coming year.