Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Feminism in Reverse?

As if Israeli society is not divided enough, a new-old issue has once again reared its ugly head in several recent examples: misogyny – or to put it in simpler but opposing terms: male chauvinism/anti-feminism. But first, my own full disclosure – serious and humorous.

As one can see from my family name, I am a long-standing feminist. The short story behind this is quite funny, but unfortunately all too representative of today’s attitude among “alpha males.” Before marrying my soon-to-be wife Tami (Lehman) in New York, we decided that we would both combine our family names into one “duet,” but to make it easier for her, I (Wilzig) would do so in (American) court before the wedding. That way, she wouldn’t also have to go to court, because she would be marrying a “Lehman-Wilzig” and “automatically” taking on my (new) family name.

So off I went to a Boston court (while doing my PhD at Harvard) and filled out the paperwork. Then I had to appear before a judge. Almost everyone then in Boston civil service was Irish, so I was surrounded by the Irish cop, the Irish court stenographer etc. – except that I surprisingly found myself standing in front of a Jewish judge. On the form, I had to provide the reason for my family name change. There I wrote: 1- Feminism/equality in marriage; 2- My wife is an only child. The judge took the form, and after reading it picked up his pen and while signing it he looked at me sternly and started declaiming the famous saying: “Mine is not to ask why, but… [here I was expecting the usual: but to do or die] …but you’re meshuggah!”

He wasn’t joking. Unfortunately, sentiments like his continue to be rampant among large swaths of the population in America (the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been ratified; the US Supreme Court recently pushed abortion a major step backwards), and perhaps even more so in Israel, if the past several days are any indication. Some examples:

1) A busload of ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak residents refused to get on a public bus because… the driver was a woman!

2) The government is pushing legislation to transfer authority over alimony decisions from the (secular) Family Court system to the Rabbinical courts ( Given the ongoing, systematic discrimination against women in the latter court, one can easily imagine how “alimony” would be used as another cudgel against divorcing wives.

3) The Civil Service Commissioner, Prof. Daniel Hershkovitz (who is a former professor of mathematics, and also an Orthodox Rabbi), gave an order to his hugely important Department overseeing all of Israel’s civil servants that henceforth all official government communications would be couched exclusively in the male gender (as is well known, Hebrew is not a gender-neutral language).

4) Most egregious of all: in 2016, Likud MK Gila Gamliel initiated a draft law to prevent economic violence in the family against women. The law was voted on this past Wednesday — and she voted against it, along with all the other eight female, coalition MKs!!

Those are but a small sample of the direction Israel’s “traditionalists” are trying to push the country. However, the pro-feminist pushback is equally strong. Two of Israel’s court rulings in that direction (this is only a representative sample): Mea She’arim Street, where the most extreme haredi community (Neturei Karta) lives, cannot be segregated by sidewalks (women on one side, men on the other); public transportation cannot be segregated, with El Al seating part of that ruling. Moreover, during the election campaign of 2022, three different political parties were led by women!

Nevertheless, the “street” is resisting such rulings. Women’s faces are being defaced on billboards; their picture is never shown in the haredi newspapers (indeed, even their first name becomes a mere first letter to hide their gender); army units have been known to ban female singers in order not to disturb the religious sensibilities of Orthodox soldiers (strict halakhic rulings prevent a male from hearing a women’s singing voice).

In the political sphere, the situation is still up in the air. For example, the ultra-Orthodox parties used to have a stipulation in their charter prohibiting women from becoming party members, and certainly from running on the party list. In 2015, the Supreme Court forced the cancellation of those stipulations de jure. However, de facto the situation hasn’t changed any – even when twenty haredi women attempted to sign up as members and were “ignored” by the haredi parties. The Supreme Court is now once again trying to deal with this “hot potato” – in a political context where it is already under attack as “too activist.”

All of this might be surprising for those still under the spell of early Zionism’s “feminine equality” – and Golda Meir as one of the world’s first female prime ministers. But Zionism was never in fact gender egalitarian, not even on the kibbutz where they were shunted to traditional women’s work: the kitchen, the children’s communal house, etc. And Golda? The famous Ben-Gurion quote that “Golda is the only man in my Cabinet” is pure fabrication, as she herself noted. But the fact that it has become part of Israeli lore only reinforces the point: as a “woman” she couldn’t be effective, but if she acted like a Man, then that explains how she got as far as she did. Hardly a feminist attitude.

In sum, as with several highly divisive issues in Israel between Left & Center and Right & Extreme Right (settlements; judicial reform), the “place of women” in society has also become a serious fault line. Stay tuned for future battles in Israel’s war of the sexes.

Note: For further evidence of the present government’s “efforts” in turning back the gender clock, see this paper’s Featured Post last week by Anat Thon-Ashkenazy.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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