Violence against women is rattling Israeli society to the core. Just last week, 29-year-old Iman Awad was found dead in her Acre flat, joining Sylvana Tsegai, not yet 13, and Yara Ayoub, 16, as the latest victims of femicide in Israel in 2018. Gender-based violence touches on almost every aspect of Israeli life: on personal security, cultural norms, socioeconomic discrepancies, power structures and, of course, on government proficiency. It has become a major social issue whose ripple effects threaten to penetrate every corner of Israeli society.
The extended public outcry of both women and men against this phenomenon (which has peaked in the last month with a countrywide strike, a massive demonstration and multiple protests throughout the country) has not been able to stem the tide, nor has it yet yielded tangible results. Indeed, prolonged violence against women and all that it entails is symptomatic of a multi-faceted governmental failure that extends to many other spheres of contemporary Israel.
An all-out effort to combat gender-based violence must be put in place now. The first step, one which should already have been set in motion and thus possibly prevented some of the deaths that occurred this year, is to approve a five-year budget of NIS 250 million to carry out the plan of a joint ministerial committee to combat violence against women and to allocate NIS 50 million immediately for this purpose. This is the foundation upon which it is essential to formulate and carry out a much more comprehensive strategy to put an end to this social scourge. Every day that passes without concerted action places more women at risk.
Israeli society, like many others throughout the world, is deeply gendered. One of the most deleterious side effects of this asymmetry is the persistence, and, in times of external threats, economic uncertainty and social stress, the augmentation of violence against women. Sadly, full statistics in this most sensitive of areas are lacking (the absence of hard data hampers policy-making). According to the latest Israeli Police Yearbook, during the past decade, 169,031 files were opened by women complaining of physical abuse by family members. The Police estimate conservatively that barely 25% of actual instances are reported, meaning that at least 680,000 women have been subjected to violence in their homes during this period.
This figure does not reflect violence against women in the workplace, in public places, or in educational institutions. It also doesn’t cover other egregious forms of sexual harassment, which include (but are not limited to) constant verbal, economic and public abuse, nor does it encompass multiple examples of ongoing gender discrimination. The 2018 iteration of the Gender Index of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute presented last week in the Knesset shows that only 64.5% of women feel safe in the street (in contrast to 84.6% of men). Research consistently demonstrates that at least one of every six women in the country has experienced sexual harassment in her lifetime and the vast majority have been subjected to such attacks repeatedly. The main targets are marginalized and disadvantaged women (Arabs, Mizrahi women, Russian-speakers, asylum-seekers, Jews of Ethiopian extraction, members of the LGBTQ community), although gender-based violence permeates all sectors and socioeconomic classes.
Official responses, beyond the obligatory lip-clucking, have been woefully inadequate. There are only 14 battered women shelters in the country. Two of these are exclusively for Arab women; one is intended for a diverse population; and yet another is designed specifically to meet the needs of religious and ultra-orthodox women. According to a major review published by the Center for Research and Information of the Knesset, these shelters have been able to provide refuge for only 4% of the women who actually file official complaints on sexual violence in the home – a mere pittance given their rising numbers.
In 2014, following growing public unrest, the various institutions charged with dealing with specific aspects of the issue were brought together to form an inter-ministerial task force under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Security in order to devise an overall strategy. The initial report was submitted in June 2016. The Minister of Social Welfare, Haim Katz, accepted the recommendations and appointed yet another task force to design a plan of action. Its program was completed a year later, presented to the ministerial committee charged with combating violence and subsequently adopted in principle by the government in July 2017 – three years and some sixty additional victims after the first mechanism was initially established.
Another 18 months have elapsed since then and next to none of the suggestions have been implemented. The over 400 pages contained in the report call for a coordinated effort to fight gender-based violence and to provide services to those who suffer from its proliferation. Yet to date no budgets have been allotted to achieve these objectives. Despite the provision for the construction of additional shelters – some especially designed for minors and one exclusively for violated men – not a single new shelter has been constructed.
The plan calls for the appointment of specially trained social workers to deal with sexually-based abuses. The Police and the Ministry of Welfare have added some positions for this purpose utilizing their own resources, but these hardly meet the number of professionals needed (in fact, the present strike of social workers and the refusal to renew the recognition of graduates of Al-Quds University for political reasons indicates a regression in this regard). Although a hotline for victims of domestic violence – including children and the elderly as well as women – has been set up (118), the number of centers dealing with domestic violence does not begin to answer pressing needs.
Even proposed legislation, entirely under government control, has not been promoted. A bill calling for electronic tracking of violent partners (originally tabled by this author almost 20 years ago) is only now being brought before the Knesset. At the same time, a bill enabling most citizens the right to carry arms was passed a year ago. The government has yet to implement the recommendation to ratify the Istanbul Convention of 2011, which presents a series of comprehensive steps to help fight violence against women and monitor progress in this field. More disconcertingly, after a series of killings a month ago, the coalition voted down a proposal to establish a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the killing of women, explaining that the issue was being addressed by existing bodies. And proposed legislation to combat economic violence against women, drafted some years ago, is only now being brought to an initial vote – a month after the High Court of Justice ruled that a woman could lose her share of joint property if she “betrayed” her spouse.
Under these circumstances, the outrage over gender-based killings brimmed over. A spontaneous call for a national strike was issued; over fifty women’s organizations from all quarters of Israeli society came together to demand action now. A one-day strike was called – joined by thousands of men as well as women. This diverse ad hoc coalition continues to demand tangible results and broader accountability.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, in response to this growing discontent – integrally linked to rising prices and widespread incidents of violence in various sectors – announced last week that he would establish a committee to oversee implementation of the government program. And when advised that such a body already existed, he decided that he would chair it. No concrete outcomes have yet been recorded.
The handling of the battle to contain violence against women is a prime example of good intentions and of a protracted failure of governance. Detailed planning has not been translated into action, coordination has been replaced by constant bickering and blame-slinging among various authorities, implementation is sparse. It is hardly surprising that the public good has been compromised and government legitimacy is at a low ebb. For too many women, domestic terrorism in the home is a much greater threat to their safety than that which captures headlines on a daily basis.
Every day of inaction endangers women’s lives. It also undermines social solidarity, economic well-being, political stability and security in the deep sense of the term. Now that gender-based violence is on the agenda, as long as it festers it will come into play in the forthcoming elections and affect voting patterns. For all these reasons and more, the government must release the first tranche of funds (NIS 50 million) to deal with this issue now. It has to set a stepped-up timetable for carrying out its own plan. And it must ensure its implementation. The survival of too many depends on such immediate and vigorous action.