Getting at the Heart of the Problem

In the past few years a growing number of Israelis have become involved in the struggle to protect womens’ rights, especially — but not only — as representatives of religious and ultra-religious minorities have tried to limit or turn back women’s accomplishments. I write “protect” because traditionally, I am proud to say, Israel has been known for women’s participation in all walks of life: women had equal status (and voted) in Herzl’s first Zionist Convention in Basel in 1897, fought in the War of Independence and Israel had its first woman Prime Minister in 1969. We’ve had a woman President of the Supreme Court, a woman as Speaker of the Knesset, and a woman acting President (Dalia Itzhik).

Why have women’s rights become under attack? I see it as part of a dangerous wave of fundamentalism that has given a small and zealous minority a great deal of control.  Suddenly women are told they can’t sing in public (or even in army ceremonies), are sent to the back of the bus, and are attacked for violating an ever more severe dress code in some of the capital’s neighborhoods. But not only women are under attack: this lunatic fringe has been inciting racist acts (such as random attacks on Arab citizens), virulent religious intolerance (such as an attack on the beautiful Monastery of the Cross, which I visited this morning), and has backed proposals for limiting academic freedom.

No less worrisome than the rise of the extremism is the lack of response by the government. Few of the perpetrators of any of the the kinds of attacks mentioned were caught; even fewer were actually charged and sentenced.  The government has backed some outrageous anti-democratic legislation. Directives regarding the teaching of the core curriculum are ignored.  Illegal settlements are not only not removed — they are government funded. There is a growing sense of lawlessness, and it has fallen on the shoulders of Israel’s women to lead the fight for the return of minimal law and order as well as proper regard for guarantees of equality and inclusion.

Seven organizations that fight for womens’ rights and pluralism have joined together to ask that two Ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas and Torah Judaism — be disqualified from running in the upcoming elections. Last night a friend and I submitted our request — all 60 required copies!– to the Election Committee Office in the Knesset.  Our case will be discussed next week: as evidence of the problem we presented the charters of the two parties, that explicitly deny women the right to join or represent them.

The right to equal pay, freedom of movement, equal services, are all things we must continue to demand. We must insist on the fulfillment of our Declaration of Independence, which promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”  I think it is right to start at the heart of our government and to prevent the representation of parties that unabashedly exclude women.

Let’s hope that the members of the committee, all party representatives, will understand that it will be better for all of us if we start at the very beginning by rooting out such bias from the core of our political system. I have no doubt that Haredi women, who tend to receive a far wider and better education than their counterparts in the sex-segregated Haredi school system, will do at least as well as the men who have been shutting them out.  Their very presence in the Knesset will be a welcome change and a bright sign for the future.



About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the Department of Government at Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed a Master's degree and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than a decade.