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I’ve been fighting for women’s rights in Israel for 20 years

Israelis finally understand that discrimination against women is intolerable - just as the government wages war on women's rights
Israelis dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale television show protest the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale television show protest the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

I have been fighting against exclusion of women for 20 years. Here is my perspective.

Ultra-Orthodox demands for gender segregation in the public sphere in Israel began not so long ago – in 1997 – when the Israeli Ministry of Transportation began a pilot of five bus lines in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, where women had to board the bus at the back door and sit at the back of the bus and men boarded the front door and sat up front. Pretty soon, the five bus lines morphed into dozens of lines across Israel.

When multiple incidents of harassment of women occurred on these lines, we took the case to court. When I submitted the petition to the Supreme Court in 2007, while we got numerous positive responses from all over the world, in Israel, many people thought we were overreacting, and claimed we were behaving in a paternalistic way toward ultra-Orthodox women, suggesting that we should tolerate these demands for gender segregation. However, soon I was approached by ultra-Orthodox women themselves who wanted to thank me for the petition, saying, “Thank God, there are Reform Jews in the world because you are fighting the struggle we cannot allow ourselves to fight.” It became clear to us that there are different opinions within the ultra-Orthodox sector as to gender segregation, and that the State of Israel was siding with the extremist version presented by the ultra-Orthodox all-male leadership.

Our petition ended in a Supreme Court decision in 2011, stating that forced gender segregation on buses is indeed illegal. We have followed the decision with civil suits for damages on behalf of women whom drivers continued to send to the back of the bus, despite the Supreme Court’s decision, or who were not allowed to board a bus at all because of their gender or their dress.

Gender segregation and exclusion of women spread to other areas as well – cemeteries, airplanes, health clinics, a radio station that did not allow women to be heard on air, vandalizing and censoring of female images on billboards – to name just a few areas which we challenged successfully.

In 2013, the attorney general published an extensive report, stating that all such practices are illegal, marking a change in the state’s position toward this phenomenon. Since then, the different ministries, led by the Justice Ministry, sided with us in this fight, and it seemed that we were on the right track.

Until now. The government that was sworn in at the end of 2022 marked a clear change in this policy. The most extremist and misogynistic government Israel has ever had is waging a war on women’s rights. To name some of these concerning initiatives:

  • abolishing the independent status of the Authority for the Advancement of Women,
  • initiating a bill to give additional jurisdiction to the rabbinical courts, which have been hurting women’s rights,
  • declaring a pilot of gender segregation in nature reserves, and
  • intending to amend the anti-discrimination law to allow refusal to render services on the basis of religious beliefs.

It came as no surprise then that there is a sharp rise in the number of incidents of exclusion of women on buses and planes – such as refusing to allow female passengers to board a bus because they are dressed “immodestly” or asking women to switch seats on planes because ultra-Orthodox male passengers refuse to sit next to them.

But there is some good news. What has changed over the years is the awareness of the Israeli public.

Whereas 20 years ago, when we at IRAC felt like a lone voice in the desert, since most Israelis did not identify exclusion of women as a dangerous phenomenon relevant to all Israelis, today, there is a widespread understanding of the need to fight back.

A vast majority of Israelis, from across the political spectrum, understand that the Israeli sphere cannot be divided into a general sphere, where gender segregation is not allowed, and an ultra-Orthodox sphere, where gender segregation is allowed. Such a division hurts ultra-Orthodox women — and is neither plausible nor justified conceptually. Today, Israelis believe any practices that discriminate against women in a democratic society should be rejected, and that is a huge step forward. It has especially been true for the last seven months, when, as part of the general awakening of the pro-democracy protest, issues of religion and state and women’s rights have come to center stage.

To fight unjust practices, one must go through three stages: naming, blaming, and claiming. The Israeli public has named the phenomenon of excluding women, pointing a finger at those who practice and condone it. Moreover, the Israeli public is claiming to stop it, standing for the rights of all women to be treated equally and with respect.

We will continue to fight for the revolutionary concept that women are human beings worthy of equal rights. Now we have most Israelis on our side.

The executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and public advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. Orly has litigated numerous cases dealing with exclusion of women before the Israeli Supreme Court and lower courts.

About the Author
Orly Erez Likhovski is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and public advocacy arm of the Israeli Reform movement.
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