March this year signals the first anniversary of the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel. March every year heralds a series of events that mark International Women’s Day. More than ever before, the two are closely intertwined.
The most notable feature of the last 12 months — not only in Israel but throughout the world — is the complete blurring of the lines between the personal and the political. If, for many, especially women, the personal has always been political, now the political has become intensely personal as well. It is almost impossible to grasp the ongoing effects of the coronavirus without looking at their differential gender impact. At the same time, serious examination of these personal repercussions cannot but reverberate onto the broader political scene. This metamorphosis changes the balance between individuals and the parameters of power, laying the foundation for fundamentally revised — inclusive and equitable — notions of democracy and the social order.
Who provides care?
Three major (but by no means exhaustive) aspects of the year of the coronavirus accentuate the increasingly ingrained connection between gender and societal dynamics. The way these have played out in Israel highlights key explanations for the vastly divergent results in the country as opposed to in other parts of the globe.
The first main characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it focuses attention on dependence on the provision of care. The treatment of the health crisis, from the outset, has relied heavily on women’s work (all figures, unless otherwise indicated, are drawn from four quarterly reports prepared by Hadass Ben-Eliyahu, Yael Hasson and Hagar Tsameret, “Behind the Numbers: The Implications of the Corona Virus for Women and Men in Israel,” The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Adva Center).
Women constitute 72 percent of Israeli health professionals; 86% of welfare workers, 90% of paid Israeli care providers, and 80% of foreign caregivers. They also account for the vast majority of early child care professionals and emergency retail service workers (especially in pharmacies and food outlets). They have, by a large margin, been more exposed to health hazards (29% more than men) and remain the key victims of the three rounds of lockdowns (last spring, this past fall, and from December of 2020 until recently). They were the first to be laid off from work, the last to return, and the majority of those who are still looking for work (women seeking unemployment benefits outnumber men by over 20%).
The coronavirus has thus magnified existing gender and social gaps, especially among low-income groups. For example, employment among Arab women has plummeted by over 20% in the past year, even though their average income is barely above the minimum wage. Single parents (95% of whom are women) have suffered more than any other group. Vertical gender income differentials have been compounded by growing horizontal ones via gendered occupational segregation as well.
The adverse gender consequences of governmental measures to limit the spread of the virus have had a direct effect on Israeli society’s capacity to deal with the pandemic. These have been reinforced by a tangible absence of empathy — a sentiment crucial to the mobilization of social cooperation and the construction of trust in other countries (many of which are headed by women). The personalization of the political has made the personal so much more discombobulating politically.
Balancing the burden of public health
The second key feature of the COVID-19 period centers on management (or mismanagement). The handling of the pandemic has proven to be a delicate balancing act between the health hazard on the one hand and its socioeconomic ramifications (often no less damaging) on the other. The Israeli government has exhibited a tendency to hop inconsistently between these alternatives, thus exacerbating uncertainty and inviting both an individual and communal flouting of restrictions. Vaccinations aside, chaos prevails.
The effects on women, however, have been more consistent and, if possible, even more harmful. The multiple closures have increased the burden of women’s unpaid work at home. They have borne the brunt of the added chores of successive lockdowns (research shows that although men have spent more time at home in the last year, their share of household tasks has not grown). More women have had to opt out of the labor market than men (according to the Berl Katzenelson Foundation, 11% of women resigned during the first closure, only 2% of men; an additional 6.6% did so during the second lockdown, in contrast to 1.8% of their male counterparts). Not surprisingly, more women over 55 were thrust below the poverty line, which has traditionally been dominated by women.
Even when there have been attempts to remove restrictions, almost systematically commerce has been given priority over education — thus further binding many women to their homes and adding schooling to their growing list of invisible (and unremunerated) work. Those who have returned to the labor market to provide care and educational services (women constitute 76% of teachers and almost all of pre-school providers) have become even more adept at balancing their multiple tasks — or, as they say in Hebrew, “jungling”).
This capacity to manage multiple tasks almost seamlessly has not been matched by policymakers. Their decided preference for neo-liberal policies has come at the expense of opening the educational system, thus impeding economic recovery. More to the point, by prioritizing one over the other, they have sacrificed both, failing in the process to create that cooperation that has been so central to the economic and social health of those countries that have successfully weathered the pandemic (a glance at Taiwan, where women have led the country and the economy, is instructive). Here too, then, when the political has become so lopsidedly personal, the personal has become exceedingly and detrimentally public.
This pattern is particularly evident in a third sphere, that of civil and human rights. Throughout the world, the pandemic has been accompanied by the use of strong-arm measures that have significantly curtailed basic liberties. In Israel, this trend has been apparent not only in the number of closures and the imposition of periodic (although, as this past weekend demonstrates, ineffective) curfews also, but also in the constant intrusion into the personal lives and behavior of Israeli citizens. The widespread use of electronic tracking, limitations on movement and restrictions on association (especially among minorities) has infringed on the privacy of too many.
Growing violence, especially against women
It has also come together with greater violence against women. The police have recorded a continuous rise in domestic violence against women (20% more in January 2021 compared to January of 2020). In November and December of 2020 there was a 22% rise in violent acts against women compared to the same period in 2019. The media has been replete with sordid accounts of women murdered by their partners, rapes and sexual harassment. Just this past week, the publication of the memoirs of Galia |Oz, the daughter of Israel’s famed author, has sent ripple effects throughout Israeli society; so too have revelations surrounding the obsessive harassment conducted by Erez Drigues, one of Israel’s most popular actors.
The #MeToo movement, sadly, has blossomed in the country in recent years. It is now a vehicle for pressing home how much the personal is no longer confined to private spaces — even if Benjamin Netanyahu in a Channel 13 interview didn’t quite know what it was, and when coached by his interviewer that it “was a movement against harassing men” responded that: “what can I say, this is a natural thing, it happens…”.
This pattern is symptomatic of growing violence throughout Israeli society. Indeed, the past year has been fraught with violence both physical and verbal: against Arab society in Israeli, Haredim, dissenters, Ethiopian Israelis. The coronavirus has accentuated strife and division, just as attempts to limit its spread have further trampled on human rights. The prevalence of violence is the antithesis of accommodation. It has been manipulated as a tool of exclusion, just when the pandemic by definition is inclusive, affecting all regardless of social affiliation. And it has underlined the truism that “big brother” tactics in times of crisis are beyond counterproductive. The close connection between women’s rights and human and civil rights is more pronounced now than perhaps ever before.
Israel today lacks that empathy, cooperative management skills, egalitarian and inclusive social worldview so central to gender equality and social solidarity. This cannot but reinforce its already heightened political dysfunctionality. Neither the adoption of a gender-sensitive discourse nor the rise in the representation of women on the various lists has substantially altered this picture, as misogyny and gender-directed attacks abound in the already charged atmosphere of this curiously de-politicized electoral season.
As many women and men withdraw into a peculiar form of learned political helplessness, significant change has become more elusive. It is not, however, beyond the realm of the possible. While Israel marks one year of the coronavirus crisis, it is useful to recall that a recalibrated interface between the personal and the political holds the promise of a different, gender-equal and socially embracing, tomorrow.