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It’s not (just) about the women

Israel is backsliding on gender equality, and will suffer collateral damage to its core values of liberal democracy and personal autonomy
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s 21st Knesset will be sworn in tomorrow. It will include 29 women — down from the 37 who served in the outgoing parliament. Over 50 percent of these women legislators have never before held an elected national office (in contrast to 35% of the men). The new government-in-formation — slated to be the largest in recent memory — will, at best, include three women (a reduction of at least one in comparison to the outgoing coalition). For the first time in Israel’s brief history, the quest for gender equality in the public sphere is at a standstill, if not in full regression.

The skewed gender composition of the political arena, however troubling, is far less alarming than its underlying inequitable gender disposition. The incoming coalition includes two parties that prohibit women from running on their lists (Shas and United Torah Judaism). Other partners include representatives actively antagonistic to the notion of gender equality. After years of substantial improvement in the status of women in the country on all fronts, Israeli women from all quarters of Israel’s diverse society are on the verge of becoming the main victims of profound changes in Israel’s political system.

The telltale signs of a decline in gender equality have gone hand-in-hand with the unraveling of key elements in Israel’s fledgling democracy. This pattern became palpably visible recently under the aegis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s last right-religious coalition. While Israeli women constitute an absolute majority of university graduates, they have struggled for years to translate their brainpower into meaningful positions in the labor market. Just last year, The Council on Higher Education approved the establishment — at state expense — of separate gender programs on university and college campuses. Many of these include separate entrances and different library hours for men and women. They also bar female lecturers from all-male classrooms — further reducing their meager employment possibilities and their already dim prospects for promotion. On the eve of this year’s elections, these provisions were expanded to include Orthodox (and not just Haredi) students at the MA as well as the BA levels.

Tremendous strides have been made by religious women to adapt their way of life to contemporary conditions. Yet on International Women’s Day this year, Women of the Wall (WOW), marking the 30th anniversary of their campaign to conduct services at the Western Wall, were greeted by militant religious protests that quickly devolved into violent brawls. The amount of venom — both physical and verbal — heaped on the congregants and their male supporters was unprecedented. The police, far from trying to control the mayhem, hastened to accuse WOW of “unnecessary provocation.”

The Israel Defense Forces have come a long way since legislation in 2000 opened all positions in the military to women. The number of women in combat duty rose from 435 in 2005 to more than 2,700 in 2017. Women now serve as squadron commanders and officers in field units. But the IDF decided a few weeks ago to scrap a successful pilot project to integrate women into the armored corps, on the grounds that the program “is too costly in terms of human resources and infrastructure.” This decision followed on the dissemination last year of new orders, under the euphemistic title of “Rules Governing Joint Service,” enabling religious men to decline to serve in mixed-gender platoons and issuing a new, more “modest” dress code for female soldiers. The hotline of the Israel’s Women Network received over 250 complaints of gender-based discrimination from women recruits in the last year alone.

These incidents of gender equality backtracking relate in one way or another to religion and/or the military: the two unique pillars of deep-seated gender disparities in Israel. They have, however, spilled over into other fields as well. While women may be found at the apex of all occupations and stand at the head of the High Court and several major corporations and banks, they still constitute barely 18% of the CEOs of publicly-traded corporations. Women account for 52% of PhD recipients; their percentage at the rank of full professor is still below 20%. The income gap between men and women actually grew in the past two years, with women now making 65% of men in the same jobs in the public sector. After a major campaign in the November 2018 municipal elections, 14 women were selected to lead local authorities (an improvement over the six who gained office in the 2013 ballot): they make up a paltry 5.4% of all heads of local governments.

At the same time that women appear to continue to surge forward, they often find themselves at a standstill. The linear pace of progress which has defined gender relations since independence is being replaced by one of stagnation and even retrogression.

It is tempting to attribute this new rhythm of one step forward and two steps back to the usual suspects: Israel’s monopolistic religious establishment, its militaristic-security mindset and its extreme neoliberal policies which exacerbate socioeconomic discrepancies (starkly visible in gender terms). These sources of systemic discrimination have always haunted gender relations in the country. Concentrating almost exclusively on these factors, however, misses the major change that is currently taking place. What is new is not the existence of sentiments antithetical to gender equality per se, but their creeping intrusion and now entrenchment in the public sphere. The marginal has penetrated the core of Israeli life and, with the establishment of Netanyahu’s fifth government, threatens to gain even more traction.

The last elections may have been billed as a battle over Bibi’s political future; in fact, they pitted proponents of a right-wing, ethno-nationalist bloc with notable messianic overtones against advocates of a pluralist, liberal-democratic, view of Israel with close substantive connections to Jewish communities abroad and democratic governments around the globe. Netanyahu’s narrow victory in April makes him even more dependent on his religious and extremist partners. They are demanding — and will inevitably receive — maximum freedom on specific issues.

For the now electorally-boosted ultra-Orthodox parties, this means more control over personal law and rising religious coercion in the public sphere. Women, inevitably, will suffer even more. The official reticence on the defacement of women’s pictures on billboards, the silencing of women’s voices in official ceremonies and segregation in public places will likely increase (just this past week the Jerusalem municipality approved funding for a Shas-sponsored gender-separated event in Jerusalem). For the annexation-bent ultra-nationalists, this also means quashing pluralistic religious impulses (many of them emanating from women), greater insistence on antiquated views on the role of women (including separation between Jewish and Arab women in maternity wards), outrageous expressions of homophobia, and subtle yet powerful reins on the place of women in the public sphere.

The incoming coalition will also, in all probability, backpedal on its promise to fund major programs to prevent the scourge of sex-based crimes and the rampant spread of sexual harassment to which it is committed, but has hardly fully implemented. If it continues its pursuit of illiberalism, neo-authoritarian practices and populism, it will further undermine the principles of equality and justice for all citizens which has enabled the struggle for gender equality to persist and even thrive. Thus, by continuing to pack the courts with conservative judges — as it seems determined to do — it will also lend a hand to the expansion of patently discriminatory rulings, such as the recent High Court decision to uphold a Rabbinical Court ruling to strip a woman of her share of communal property during divorce proceedings because of purported “infidelity”. Gender discrimination is a tried and proven precursor of a broader challenge to civic equity on the grounds of religion and national origin.

The status of women in Israel is fast becoming the litmus test of the country’s openness and the robustness of its institutional safeguards. To be sure, Israeli women are prominent in every field — from medicine, law, education, science and high-tech to space exploration. They decorate party lists on all sides of the political spectrum. Their recent experiences, however, call some of these impressive achievements into question. Sheer numbers, however noteworthy, are insignificant if unaccompanied by a substantive commitment to the values that have enabled them, along with other disadvantaged groups, to break down the barriers of intolerance and bigotry.

The stalling of progress towards greater gender equality, and in some instances its slippage, bode ill for Israel’s democratic environment in the immediate future. What is undeniable is that gender equality (along with civic equity) and pluralistic democratic norms in Israel — and elsewhere — do go together.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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