A group of women journalists has investigated for five months the attitude of the Israeli media toward women in politics, focusing on the 2013 Knesset elections. The investigation — so it was defined — tracked expressions of sexism, racism or both, in various media. The material was gathered mostly from newspapers, TV, radio talk shows and social networks.
The results reflect Israel's media at its ugliest — sexist and racist, with its targets being especially women of Middle Eastern and North African origin. A special chapter is devoted to Knesset member Miri Regev of the Likud Party. The report will be presented Tuesday, Oct. 29, at a conference on "Strategies to Combat Racism."
The initiative for the study stemmed from Achoti, or Sister, a feminist movement devoted to the advancement of oriental Jewish women, and Shatil, an organization dedicated to promoting social change. The findings were collated by Dorit Abramovich, a social activist and one of the authors of the final report. In an interview with Al-Monitor, she revealed some of the findings for the first time.
This is not an academic study. It's an investigation with predetermined findings. Do you not see this as a problem?
"No. We say clearly in the foreword that our viewpoint is subjective and critical toward a phenomenon which we define, but the media, too, have a subjective point of view. We wanted to focus attention on sexism and racism in the media, especially in the coverage of women politicians. We contended that during election campaigns, stereotypes are radicalized, which is why we concentrated on this period [of elections]."
But why mix sexism with racism?
"We thought it important to look into these two phenomena in tandem, because we knew that oftentimes they're combined. Until now there was a tendency to investigate sexism in media coverage because such research was initiated by feminist organizations. We insisted on making the connection a priori and indeed, we found much evidence of this phenomenon. Often, those who engage in such coverage aren't aware of the fact that it's tainted by sexism and racism.
"This is reflected in the extent of coverage that women politicians receive and their visual portrayal in the media as marginal and weak, and in the case of [Middle Eastern- or North African-origin] politicians — also as dumb, ridiculous and ludicrous. We went over newspapers from the months of the campaign and found that photos of women politicians almost never appeared on front pages, and certainly not next to the main headlines. Generally, women appeared in caricatures or as part of general lists of candidates, next to men. We saw that when there was any sort of media debate about leading Arab women, it was generally superficial and lacking."
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich appear in marginal contexts?
"These women would appear to hold key political positions, but Tzipi Livni is never regarded as an authority on defense issues, for example, despite her seniority. Yachimovich is a case of her own. During the election campaign, [Israeli TV] Channel 2 news showed her making meatballs and putting them in containers for freezing. After that she was interviewed on [Israeli leading news site] Ynet."
Wait a minute, wait a minute. She was the one who invited the media into her kitchen.
"That's true, but what happened subsequently was out of her control. In Ynet's coverage, the reporter went to her bookshelves, and that's OK, too, but he chose to relate to two novels she wrote when she was a journalist. He said to her, 'You come out as a very stormy personality, even sexually.' Yachimovich explained that there's a gap between reality and the character in the book, but this doesn't satisfy the reporter, who asks once more: 'Should the reader conclude that Yachimovich is a sexual being?' This is a sexist question and a sexist portrayal of Yachimovich."
You devote an entire chapter to Knesset member Miri Regev and find that she's a victim of both sexism and racism. Explain.
"Miri Regev embodies the distinct combination of these two elements. It's true that she made racist remarks toward migrant workers, with which I disagree, but notice what happened. No one in the media argued with her remarks in a matter-of-fact manner. If a man had said these same things, he would have been labeled a racist, a danger. But when Miri Regev says such things, all the criticism disappears and she is portrayed as dumb — not even as racist.
"This is a recurring pattern any time there's a woman of [Asian] origin or a Russian speaker, like Knesset member Anastassia Michaeli. Their supposed stupidity becomes the dominant factor. To describe them as dangerous is to grant them power. Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], on the other hand, is portrayed by the left wing as being dangerous.
"Regev was wildly attacked on Facebook. She was nicknamed Miri Rekev [Hebrew for decay], she was portrayed as stupid and ugly. There was no business-like discussion. She was described like this in visual representations, too. During the campaign, the trend of insulting and derogatory expressions toward Regev on Facebook was more pronounced, especially by left-wingers. She was portrayed using all the racist stereotypes against [Asian] women: vulgar, laughing with her mouth wide open, and, of course, stupid and primitive."
You provide a variety of examples to explain the case of Regev. What is the example that best illustrates the attitude toward her?
"In January of 2013, Regev was interviewed on the Channel 2 program 'People.' It's hard not to discern the cynical tone in the questions, and especially in the summation of the presenter, which were a superlative display of racism and sexism. The interviewer asks her: 'Miri Regev, there are people watching and saying, this is not what we want to see. This is not the parliament we want to see.'
"We are asking: who are these anonymous people whom the interviewer represents? Why doesn't he just say white, Ashkenazi [of European origin], leftist men, or in one word, myself?"
In fact, you argue that in the Israeli media, the situation of Miri Regev, who is both a woman and a Jew of Middle Eastern origin, is grimmer than that of Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, who is an Arab woman. Is it that bad?
"The attitude toward Zoabi is, of course, also sexist. Often, people didn't even know how to pronounce her name, or they asked and commented numerous times on her being single. But unlike the case with Regev, they argued with Zoabi. She was said to be dangerous. No one argued with Regev. They simply said she was stupid and vulgar and in that sense, her situation is much worse."
Where were you most surprised to see this phenomenon?
"In newspaper opinion columns. On the editorial pages, the under-representation of women is very pronounced. Most columnists are men, and there is no representation of women from ethnic minorities, instead of it being the other way around. This is the intellectual space of the media and the place to express opinions."