The newest Israeli government has garnered global attention for its extremist ministers, harsh rhetoric, and proposed reforms on several fronts including security, religious pluralism, the judicial system, and the status of the West Bank. On International Women’s Day, there is one impact of this government that has largely flown under the radar in the diaspora. How will this coalition affect women’s rights?
It is already evident how the lack of women’s representation will shape the policies implemented by this male-dominated Knesset, which won’t be equipped to determine the real impact they have on women. Of the 64 members of the current coalition, only 9 are women compared to 24 in the previous government. Out of 31 ministry offices in this bloated government, there is not a single female director general, and of 31 ministers only 6 are women, and none in top positions. This is not particularly surprising since the two ultra-Orthodox parties don’t have a single woman on their slates and the religious zionist faction has only one, but it remains deeply troubling. To witness this type of government fifty years after Golda Meir was prime minister feels like ten steps backwards.
Without women in decision-making spaces there will inevitably be policies that hurt them. We are already witnessing how true this will prove to be. On the docket for the new coalition are policies to encourage gender segregation in public spaces and allow discrimination on the basis of religion, both of which have clear effects on women, particularly those who don’t abide by Orthodox standards of modest dress, but no piece of legislation will hurt women as much as the judicial overhaul that is taking place. This legislation will inevitably allow the aforementioned policies and additional moves to roll back gender equality in Israel.
Historically, the Supreme Court of Israel has been instrumental in promoting equality, which of course includes gender equality. The disempowerment of the courts, coupled with the lack of women in power, will regress equality for women in Israel. A prime example of the court protecting women’s equality is the Alice Miller case in 1995, when the Supreme Court ruled that women had a right to equality in their military service, which meant eligibility for any unit including the pilots course from which Alice Miller had been previously barred.
Following this ruling, additional roles began to open for women such as combat soldier positions in the Border Police, Caracal, Oketz (canine), Artillery Corps, and Navy. The future of women’s advancement in the IDF will now be stunted by the new government, which includes parties that explicitly oppose women’s participation in combat units, or even serving at all. Noam party chief Avi Maoz is insisting that the role of gender affairs advisor to the IDF Chief of Staff be removed immediately. Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman has publicly supported removing women from combat roles entirely. After enormous progress over the past few decades, women in the IDF are certain to feel the results of these laws.
Expanding the authority of the rabbinical courts, already responsible for marriages and divorces, is another potential ruling coming down the pike which will be detrimental for the rights of women. Rabbinic courts exclude women as both judges and witnesses and are thus not equipped to make equitable decisions about their lives. In the new ruling, should both parties consent, the courts can hear civil cases beyond the scope of solely marriage and divorce, something previously banned, due to communal pressure to give preference to the rabbinic courts even when one party, often women, knows they will not be favored. The first group of women to suffer will be Orthodox women who may be coerced into agreeing to settle disputes in rabbinic courts which put them at a disadvantage.
The risks of unequal legislation by this government have not gone unnoticed in Israeli feminist circles. A petition was filed last month by the Israel Women’s Network, Forum Dvorah, and Na’amat asking the court to intervene and ensure that the remaining open director general spots in ministries be given to women. This petition to the court in and of itself demonstrates the important role the justice system can and has played in protecting gender equality in Israel.
There is despair among female activists across Israel and the diaspora. Last month, a rally was organized by women’s organizations to emphasize the impact the judicial overhaul will have on women’s rights in Israel. Journalist Dafna Lustig opened the rally by stating that “In the last few weeks, a government was formed without us. We have no representation. Not in the cabinet, not in the Knesset committees, not in the government offices, and now they also want to change the rules of the game and we will have no one to defend us in the courts.” Moran Zer Katzenstein of Bonot Alternativa stated that without the protections of the supreme court, women are especially vulnerable to unequal policies. Without the protection of the supreme court, there are endless opportunities for women’s mobility to be hindered and for them to be excluded from public spaces.
Feminists across the diaspora, regardless of their political persuasion, should be focused on supporting Israeli women and feminist organizations that are pushing back against this government and the legislation that will disempower them. While Israel is and will likely remain the safest and most equitable country for women across the Middle East, it is imperative that we raise the bar in the region and be a light unto the nations surrounding Israel by showcasing how far a country can go when women are fully included.