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The core electoral issue is women’s rights. Here’s why.

The proliferation of battles over gender-related issues reflects an ongoing clash over Israel's future as a liberal democracy
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks near billboards that were vandalized near the entrance to Jerusalem on November 2, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks near billboards that were vandalized near the entrance to Jerusalem on November 2, 2017. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)

In the second iteration of Israeli general elections this year women have moved from being an object of party persuasion to being a defining subject of the electoral campaign. This dramatic shift is everywhere apparent in heated debates over gender inequities in the military, in education, in health, in the arts, in the workplace, in the media and, needless to say, in political representation. The escalating confrontation over gender separation in publicly-funded gatherings has come to epitomize this change.

The new fascination with gender relations in this electoral round does not derive from any single salient occurrence or from one particular event; it is an outgrowth of more profound issues of exclusion and inclusion, of tensions between universalistic and particularistic values, as well as of the ongoing struggle between liberal democracy and its pseudo-democratic alternatives that mark this election season. The status of women in Israel’s diverse society is proving to be a particularly convenient setting for this confrontation.

The political debate over gender equality focuses today on two major topics, the first of which relates to the separation of men and women in gatherings financed by government authorities held in the public sphere (mostly at the local level). The law is clear on this matter: no public events, other than strictly religious ones, may countenance such gender discrimination. Yet during the past three years alone, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee provided support for over 250 such assemblies.

Last month, the municipality of Afula sought to organize a gender-segregated musical performance for a religious audience at its expense. It was challenged by a member of the city council, the Israel Women’s Network and the Reform movement in Israel. While the High Court of Justice ruled against the municipality, a district court allowed the event to take place. A similar gathering in Haifa was canceled after the Ministry of Justice suggested that it did not meet the legal criteria which would permit such discrimination. Tellingly, however, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit then hastened to issue a caveat allowing for governmental support for gender separation in leisure activities if these were carried out voluntarily – leaving the interpretation and legal codification of his decision to some later date.

These developments have unleashed a veritable uproar. Civil rights organizations, feminist groups, along with liberals on all parts of the political spectrum, have come together to condemn the visible regression in the implementation of gender equality in common spaces. In contrast, supporters of this bias have taken extraordinary pains to explain its logic. Ayelet Shaked, for example, claimed that “separation is not segregation” and that the Haredi community also has the right to enjoy social events without “secular coercion”. The current radicalization of the rhetoric around these matters derives not only from the electoral moment; it is the culmination of several years of constantly mounting clashes over the separation of women in public transportation, the removal of their pictures from billboards, the silencing of their voices in official ceremonies, and their systematic relegation to the margins of power, influence and religious observance (vide the three-decade struggle of Women of the Wall).

Many of these themes have been magnified in the second major area of gender conflict today: the role of women in the Israel Defense Forces. The trend toward greater gender equality in the military which commenced at the turn of the century coincided with the rising influence of religious authorities in the IDF. The ensuing clash has been inevitable, centering initially on mixed-gender units (most recently the decision to deny women’s service in the armored corps despite a successful experiment in their integration as tank commanders), behavioral codes and “appropriate” attire in mixed settings, and gradually moving on to questions of women’s service in combat units and to women’s conscription in general.

The current, political, round is the most worrisome. It began in April, during the failed coalition negotiations, with Bezalel Smotrich’s demand to include a paragraph on the creation of a male-only track in the IDF for national-religious soldiers. It went on with yet another series of statements by rabbis condemning women’s military service, conditioning their support for a right-wing electoral front on affirmation of their position, and threatening to call for a wholesale refusal to serve in the military until women were totally excluded from any form of combat duty. It reached a crescendo when the very same Smotrich, now Minister of Transportation, declared that “that mixed-gender units harm the effectiveness of the IDF”.

The pushback was almost instantaneous. Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he is “proud of our female soldiers and fighters”. Avigdor Liberman called on Netanyahu to immediately remove Minister Smotrich from the security cabinet. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz stated unequivocally: “I have news for Smotrich and Netanyahu: women will be everywhere.”And some feminist groups made known that under the circumstances they preferred not to serve at all.

The debate over the role of women in the IDF possesses ideological, cultural, religious, security, operational and political ingredients. In many respects it has very little to do with military service per se, and quite a bit with radically different attitudes to feminism, militarism and the place of women in society. This discussion, when carried out at this precarious crossroads, gives additional weight to those willing to sacrifice gender equality on the altar of a narrow view of national security.

Intriguingly, similar arguments are continuing in other spheres, perhaps not with the same prominence, but unquestionably with no less significance. This is the case for the efforts to sanction gender separation in higher education (a law to that effect was passed in November 2018 while the High Court is still considering the legality of this move). It also pertains to party politics: Shas, United Torah Judaism, Noam and the Islamic Movement do not permit women on their lists. The scourge of violence against women continues apace, while some groups continue to insist on discriminating between different Jewish and Arab groups during childbirth. The path of improvement in the status of women that has marked Israel since independence has come to a halt in some spheres (power) and regressed in others (average income). The gaps between men and women in a variety of spheres have persisted and, in some instances, even grown. Now certain political forces are bent on granting them legitimacy.

These efforts are problematic on a number of grounds. In the first instance, some forms of gender separation in the public sphere are being defended under the guise of sensitivity to the collective concerns of specific segments in Israel’s diverse population. In a manipulative twist, those unwilling to go along with such moves are told that separation is akin to empathy for the collective identity of the other; opposition to such barriers is deemed elitist and condescending. But any form of group separation which is not based on full equality between divergent groups necessarily creates a hierarchy and is hence biased by definition. By denying the essential equality – and hence inclusion – of all groups in Israeli society, those condoning separation actually encourage its transformation into institutionalized segregation. What appears to be relatively familiar inequality in gender relations is easily revealed as pernicious when those left out are Muslims, Druze, members of the LGTBQ community, Ethiopian-Israelis or political rivals. Pluralistic collective identities without an all-embracing tolerance can easily be harnessed to divide and to endow on group undue power at the expense of others.

Secondly, gender separation easily mutates into rampant segregation when individual values of free choice and equity are bypassed or repressed. Women, like men, have the right to decide how they wish to behave in public: this holds true for Haredi and religious women as much as for the secular and traditional. Some of the most important progress in the status of women in recent years has taken place in orthodox circles and amongst Arab women. Ignoring the individual will of those involved and slotting them into predetermined categories inevitably strips them of their fundamental rights as citizens. This contravenes the essence of liberalism: recognition of group differences coupled with respect for individual value choices.

The politicization of gender relations and the questioning of gender equality highlights the broader challenges facing liberal democracy in contemporary Israel. The abuse of democratic principles in order to exclude entire communities or to suppress the struggles of citizens, both men and women, for greater equality and freedom of expression threatens to shatter collective and individual democratic principles on the way to cementing blatantly non-democratic and inequitable alternatives. It should not be allowed to survive this election season.

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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