The precarious balance of women’s rights in Israel

Earlier this month, the Israeli government’s ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill to try and uphold prison sentences for solicitors of prostitution. The bill, which also grants an educational program for first time-offenders, was initiated already half a decade ago by the left-wing Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On. When Meretz’s political fortunes diminished in 2009 ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Earlier this month, the Israeli government's ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill to try and uphold prison sentences for solicitors of prostitution. The bill, which also grants an educational program for first time-offenders, was initiated already half a decade ago by the left-wing Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On. When Meretz's political fortunes diminished in 2009 elections and Gal-on lost her sit, Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz took upon herself to promote it. Gal-On -- now an MK again -- said in an interview that it took years of huge efforts by her and the other supporters of the bill, mainly NGOs and academia, "including arranging conferences and presenting experts' advocacy" to change perceptions among decision makers and opinion leaders. The bill still needs to gain the Knesset's vote, but should it be approved, it will be a tremendous addition to progressive trends in Israel and to the standing of women in Israeli society.

Yet this law is ultimately only one component of the status quo in Israeli society today concerning the status of women. On the other side of this equation is the news that broke several weeks ago about Natan Eshel, chief of staff to the Israeli Prime Minister, who had allegedly stalked a female employee and was reported to the state's Attorney General by three top officials at the Prime Minister's office. The fact that the three decided to report on this is clearly a result of a growing awareness in Israel of gender-based exploitation in work place, including in the highest ranks of the political arena. On the other hand, albeit the investigation on the case -- led by the Civil Service commission -- the response from Netanyahu was mild, if not somewhat indifferent: At first his office even referred to the case as "gossip". Eshel ultimately resigned his post and admitted wrongdoing after more details continued to break in the news and pressure by the Civil Service commission, but not after any direct initiative from Netanyahu, Eshel's former boss and a close friend of his, who even went on to seriously question the relevant whistleblowers for keeping him out of the loop when going directly to the Attorney General.

No less disturbing were some notable public reactions to the sexual harassment charges, suggesting that in order to withhold powerful men from developing "temptation" towards female subordinates, the women in such cases are the ones that should be expelled -- preferably quietly -- from office, thus removed (or practically segregated) out of the potential assaulter's sight; convenient for everyone involved but for the victim.

Earlier this month, the Israeli government’s ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill to try and uphold prison sentences for solicitors of prostitution. The bill, which also grants an educational program for first time-offenders, was initiated already half a decade ago by the left-wing Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On. When Meretz’s political fortunes diminished in 2009 elections and Gal-on lost her sit, Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz took upon herself to promote it. Gal-On — now an MK again — said in an interview that it took years of huge efforts by her and the other supporters of the bill, mainly NGOs and academia, "including arranging conferences and presenting experts’ advocacy" to change perceptions among decision makers and opinion leaders. The bill still needs to gain the Knesset’s vote, but should it be approved, it will be a tremendous addition to progressive trends in Israel and to the standing of women in Israeli society.

Yet this law is ultimately only one component of the status quo in Israeli society today concerning the status of women. On the other side of this equation is the news that broke several weeks ago about Natan Eshel, chief of staff to the Israeli Prime Minister, who had allegedly stalked a female employee and was reported to the state’s Attorney General by three top officials at the Prime Minister’s office. The fact that the three decided to report on this is clearly a result of a growing awareness in Israel of gender-based exploitation in work place, including in the highest ranks of the political arena. On the other hand, albeit the investigation on the case — led by the Civil Service commission — the response from Netanyahu was mild, if not somewhat indifferent: At first his office even referred to the case as "gossip". Eshel ultimately resigned his post and admitted wrongdoing after more details continued to break in the news and pressure by the Civil Service commission, but not after any direct initiative from Netanyahu, Eshel’s former boss and a close friend of his, who even went on to seriously question the relevant whistleblowers for keeping him out of the loop when going directly to the Attorney General.

No less disturbing were some notable public reactions to the sexual harassment charges, suggesting that in order to withhold powerful men from developing "temptation" towards female subordinates, the women in such cases are the ones that should be expelled — preferably quietly — from office, thus removed (or practically segregated) out of the potential assaulter’s sight; convenient for everyone involved but for the victim.

Together, the above news items have again thrown into the spotlight the fluctuations and paradoxes at the heart of Israeli society today concerning the status of women. That state of affairs continues to be underpinned by a stark contradiction between a growing phenomenon of gender segregation in the Israeli public sphere and some groundbreaking achievements that Israel has had in empowering women.

On the former account, recent developments have been great cause for worry. Various public transportation routes continue to be dogged by demeaning demands for women to sit at the rear of buses — regardless of a Supreme Court ruling forbidding enforcement of such demands. There have been further cases in which religious, Jewish Israeli male soldiers boycotted army events that included female singers; others refused to serve under female instructors.

Elsewhere, advertisers, especially in Jerusalem, often avoid using images of women in ads and on billboards. This visualizing trend of women-exclusion goes far beyond commercial advertising: in January of this year, a pamphlet by a religious-Zionist education center blurred the face of terror victim Ruth Fogel in an ad commemorating Fogel, her husband, and the couple’s three young children, all viciously murdered last year at the settlement of Itamar. Only after a harsh media response did the center apologize for the ill treatment.

A new report published in late December by the Israeli Religious Action Center showed a 66 percent increase in 2011 in reported cases of women’s segregation in the public sphere including in conferences, funerals, and even at a ballot box. And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially denounces gender-based segregation, his track record has been lacking even before the Eshel case. In September he did nothing to prevent the banning of award-winning women from appearing on stage alongside their male peers to receive their prizes in an official Ministry of Health ceremony — a department over which Mr. Netanyahu formally presides.

Similarly, in November, President Shimon Peres told students at a Jerusalem Ultra-Orthodox college that in order to enable the sector’s integration in the Israeli workforce, employers should "respect the required unique employment terms, primarily separation between men and women and bestowing prayer times."

At the same time, however, some profoundly accomplished gender equality legislation is starting to bear fruit within the very same public sphere.

Take the Israeli law against sexual harassment, enacted in 1998. Its initiator, lawyer and academic Dr. Orit Kamir, described this law as one "that prohibits sexual harassment as a discriminatory practice, a restriction of liberty, an offense to human dignity, a violation of every person’s right to elementary respect, and an infringement of the right to privacy". Over a month ago, a man who referred to a female soldier as "prostitute" when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem was charged — based on this law — with sexual harassment.

The law also determines sexual harassment to be a criminal, rather than merely a civil, offense. The significance of this uniquely Israeli feature was exemplified in the case of former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who started his seven-year term in prison in December 2011, after being convicted a year earlier of rape, sexual harassment, committing an indecent act while using force, and obstruction of justice.

Dr. Anat Scolnicov, an expert on human rights law from Cambridge University explained in an interview that at the beginning of the investigation — opened after Mr. Katsav complained of a blackmail attempt against him — the only evidence the police had of criminal conduct by the then President was a testimony of sexual harassment. Had Israeli law considered sexual harassment to be merely a civil wrong, says Dr. Scolnicov, the police would have had no legal grounds to continue the investigation. Thus, the full extent of the former president’s crimes would have probably never been revealed.

Tensions between progressive and reactionary dynamics are of course not new to Israeli society: Dichotomies have accompanied Zionism from its very inception, and the issue of women’s rights has been no exception. The right of women to vote in the Zionist congress — the elected pre-state assembly –was introduced in 1899, preceding female emancipation in the U.S. by more than two decades. Yet, women’s voting in the local Zionist assembly founded in Palestine four years later, in 1903, was banned due to a fierce objection by Orthodox Jews.

Obstacles for gender equality never remained exclusively religion-based. The early Zionist pioneers championed a socialist, equalitarian agenda, but relegated women to domestic roles. Even in the early kibbutzim women were limited to cooking and cleaning while men were allocated agricultural and manufacturing jobs — tasks which were highly regarded for their acclaimed contribution to the Zionist goal.

More than a century later however, on Israel’s 63rd year as a declared democratic state, one can only wonder how is it possible that the reactionary trends still seem so prevalent and even intensified. To a large degree, the ongoing anti-women dynamics — in spite of the aforementioned successes for some women’s rights consolidation and success — can be explained by the demographic growth of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, by the radicalization of the religious-Zionist sector and its settlement-based leadership, and by flaws in Israel’s parliamentary system which give disproportionate political power to relatively small parliamentary factions, resulting in an increased might of religious parties. The recent radicalization may also be intransigents’ response to various women-led progressive initiatives aimed at boosting women’s public and religious roles.

The strong militaristic tendency in Israel has also not proved conducive for creating an environment supportive of feminism. Although women are theoretically bound to military service, the army’s contribution to gender equality in Israel is negligible, if not negative. Serving in the IDF fails to promote women’s social mobility; whereas for men it is an excellent vehicle to reach positions of power, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly military background among many of Israel’s top male political, administrative, and business figures. Moreover, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed recently that the IDF effectively buried the implementation of a military committee’s report — submitted four years ago — that called for gender equality in the army.

Finally, it can be assumed that a society that has been maintaining an oppressive regime over another population for 45 years would be also inclined to tolerate repressive measures upon its own citizens.

These negative trends, however, which have undermined Israel’s democracy for years have often been held in check, however tenuously, by an array of democratic institutions and the earnest efforts of a dedicated NGO and civil society community. To overcome the progressive dynamics at work and enable even more excessive outbursts of reactionary setbacks, a substantial tiebreaker is therefore needed to swing the pendulum in the negative direction.

Unfortunately, that component has already been supplied by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, which in the past couple of years has initiated a body of legislation which targets the core tools to maintain democracy. These laws have aimed to weaken the Supreme Court, limit freedom of speech and freedom of association, marginalize — if not paralyze — civil society, and assert ethnic and religious preferences over civil equality.

Katsav’s conviction, for instance, which came after many twists and turns and a not insignificant amount of legal efforts, would have nevertheless been impossible without a free and vocal press, vibrant civil society organizations who did not let the case drop from the public discourse, and of course an independent judicial system: In other words, precisely the totality of elements which are under such a great risk due to the current direction of Israel’s political system.

There is a direct and firm link between male chauvinism and nationalistic chauvinism. Both seek to attain a division in society based a single — rather than multi-layered — circles of identity. Both dismiss and discredit segments of the public who do not belong to the powerful group’s direct circle of identity and both fortify their dominance by withholding power and resources from anyone who is not regarded as one of their own.

Sadly, this is precisely the political route which Israel currently takes. The deteriorative path that Israel’s government and parliament are paving via this onslaught of recent and ongoing anti-democratic legislation dismantles the very infrastructure of the state’s democracy. It will rid Israelis of the last tools we have to enable — not to mention guarantee — an equal distribution of power, resources, and opportunities for all Israelis, whatever their sex, ethnicity, sector, or religion might be. Continuing on a negative path could radically narrow the prospects of progressive laws such as the one approved by the cabinet earlier this month that are able to find their way to the government’s table.

By doing so, Israel’s leadership swiftly tightens the chauvinist linkage, taking it one more dangerous leap ahead. Which bring to mind a quotation ascribed to Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third Prime Minister and legendary Minister of Finance, who was known for his wit. "Last year, we stood on the brink of an abyss", he was to have said, "This year we marched one step forward."

Michal Levertov is an Israeli journalist. She resides in Tel Aviv.

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