Being a woman in modern Israel

Women in Israel enjoy full empowerment, strict gender segregation and everything in between. Is a common standard of gender equality possible in Israel’s diverse religious and cultural landscape? Editors from P. See magazine share an insider's view.

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Being a woman in modern Israel - NewsMavens
Woman's face in ancient mosaic from archaeological dig in Israel

-- by Ya'ara Cohen, Yarden Skop and Maya Roman, P.See magazine

Like every modern democracy, Israel faces many forms of gender inequality familiar in western countries. However, being a Middle Eastern state in constant conflict with neighboring countries also brings sui generis issues.

For example, there is the mandatory military service, which leads to the militarization of society, and also raises the question of how -- and to what extent -- to include women in the army. There is the political power of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that hold conservative views on women’s role in society. And of course, there is the constant immigration that characterizes Israel’s history, and which creates a particularly multi-layered society.

Israeli feminism is unique because it was created by social groups who arrived in waves at different times and from various parts of the world.

The conflict between the Zionist state and the Palestinians, between Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Mizrahi Jews from Africa, between secular and religious Jews, as well as the struggle of more recent immigrant groups such as Jews from the FSU, Ethiopians Jews and most recently, African refugees, have all shaped the gender discourse in Israel. Women from each of these groups have brought distinct feminist voices, and this diversity sometimes results in conflict.  

There is growing support for the importance of women’s voices and women’s representation, but reactionary voices -- advocating for gender segregation in the public sphere in the name of religious modesty -- also endure. These opponents of equality, however, are mostly represented in certain sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, while other Jewish religious communities are becoming more egalitarian. (Interestingly enough, there is also a growing movement of religious feminism.)

Society in Israel, while democratic and liberal, has militaristic elements because of the significance of the Israeli army in its history. Many still remember the wars that came with the founding of the country -- a remote historical event in most other liberal countries. Accordingly, many leaders and politicians are retired generals. A career in the military is most often equated with responsibility and strategic thinking, which disadvantages women in politics.

Despite the above-mentioned barriers to equality, women’s rights are very much part of the Israeli public discourse.

Even prior to the #MeToo campaign, social media was enabling victims of sexual abuse to tell their stories. One out of One, an initiative that connects victims of the same abuser so they can build a legal case and warn others, has been operational since 2013.

Last year, our online magazine P.See took the discussion about sexual harassment a step further. The campaign #more_than_Buchris encouraged people in the military to compare the punishments they received for minor violations to the lenient plea bargain received by Ofek Buchris, a high-ranking officer accused of rape and harassment. The movement quickly went viral, and women all over the country spoke up against the injustice of the military penal system, especially when it deals with severe sexual misconduct.

What is on the mind of Israeli feminists today?

Ultra-Orthodox communities who impose gender segregation in public spaces and academia

Israeli society has been dealing with a growing wave of extremism among the ultra-Orthodox religious communities for several years. Consequently, there is a lot of pressure on rabbis to enforce extreme segregation between men and women in public places such as buses and swimming pools.

Many women now sit at the back of the bus on some bus lines, and those who refuse are increasingly subject to verbal abuse.

The Israeli Ministry of Justice tried to outlaw these behaviours, but local communities in ultra-Orthodox areas often refuse to cooperate.

The issue of segregation is especially contentious in the academic sphere. The Israeli Council of Higher Education decreed that measures should be taken to integrate ultra-Orthodox men and women in academic circles. But before the measures could be implemented, the leaders of the conservative groups requested that women and men study separately and that female professors be prohibited from teaching men. At first, the Council of Higher Education only agreed to segregate students in pre-academic programs and single-sex campuses, but later allowed for additional segregation in universities. The issue is still under debate and academics and NGOs have appealed to the supreme court.

Only 13% of local councillors and 2% of mayors are women

Israel is a small country (8.5 million citizens) with a dynamic parliamentary political climate, and local politics rarely get the media’s attention. Local representatives do not get as much political autonomy as they might elsewhere, and yet the way they spend their budget and implement government regulations has a huge impact on the daily lives of citizens. Drug abuse and prostitution, troubled teens, domestic violence, immigrant welfare and public transportations are all in the hands of local public servants, the majority of which are men.

The issue is compounded by the fact that many expect security and terrorism to be the focus of politicians at every level of government.

This military bias creates a dramatic under-representation of women among elected municipal representatives: women make up 13% of local councillors and only 2% of mayors.

Also, many of the positions in local councils are unpaid, and women, who still carry the weight of domestic labor outside of work hours, are less likely to be able to volunteer.

Local elections will be held in October this year, and several organizations are working to bring more women into office. MP Aliza Lavie has championed legislation to provide extra funding to local parties where at least a third of representatives are women. The WePower organization helps women who are interested in running for local government. We at P.See provide a much-needed stage for women candidates to write about their journey and mission, and for local women journalists to write about candidates they support and issues they care about.

Asylum seekers are being deported

In late 2017, the Israeli government announced its decision to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Those unwilling to leave the country “voluntarily” are to be imprisoned. Officials claim this deportation is necessary and that the deportees will be safe in Rwanda and Uganda, where they will be sent.

(Right-wing politicians turned against African asylum seekers because tens of thousands of them settled in poor neighbourhoods in south Tel Aviv, an area with poor infrastructure that has been neglected for many years by central and local governments.)

On February 24, nearly 20,000 people took to the streets against the deportations. The protests were spearheaded by local activist women.

The demonstration was meant to be local -- a show of solidarity between the residents of south Tel Aviv and the asylum seekers. During the protests, many women spoke up to highlight the parallels between women’s rights and migrants’ rights. None stood out more than Shula Keshet, a Mizrachi feminist activist and resident of south Tel Aviv, who galvanized the crowds with a fiery speech:

“...the municipality and the government have allowed this neighborhood to become an ex-territorial space; a center of drugs and prostitution; a crowded ghetto through sending tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers here, to a violent place for women and children and the elderly. They say that the expulsion will be our renewal and I am saying that the expulsion will only add insult to the injury and serve as another step in the process of destruction.”

For more feminist perspectives on Israeli news read Politically Correct (P.See) online magazine. 

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P.See was created to provide news from a feminist perspective. The magazine strives to bring diverse feminist views and voices to the forefront of the media conversation in Israel.

The magazine is currently crowdfunding their expansion from a Facebook page to a proper news outlet, the first feminist independent news outlet in Israel. Click here to support the initiative.

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