ISRAEL: OPINION: What's Going On With Women in Israel?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Today, a full-page advertisement supporting the New Israel Fund will appear in the New York Times. Paid for by a generous donor who is launching a matching-gift campaign, the ad features a news photo of an actual billboard in Jerusalem, with a poster of a woman's face that has been clawed and defaced by ultra-Orthodox extremists. The ad specifically references the troubling growth of gender segregation and the exclusion of women in Israel, a phenomenon now in the public eye but not yet defeated.

In his defense of Israeli democracy last week, Ambassador Michael Oren wrote that “gender equality, not prejudice, remains an Israeli hallmark,” and cited the numerous women serving in the Knesset and in other leadership roles. Stipulated and granted. And it was heartening to see, after Secretary of State Clinton criticized gender-segregated buses and other evidence of a troubling turn towards repression of women, that so many Israeli leaders stepped forward to defend women's equality as intrinsic to Israeli society.

But words and deeds differ. The Israel Broadcasting Authority just permitted Kol Barama, the haredi radio station, to reduce the number of hours of women on the air from six to four – weekly. Groups of ultra-Orthodox men are approaching female passengers on El-Al, requesting to switch seats. Israeli women still earn only 66% of men's wages, and women with higher education degrees earn 77% of the wages earned by their male counterparts. And a special report commissioned by Cabinet Minister Limor Livnat and an inter-ministerial committee on the subject of exclusion of women is filled with high-sounding declarations, but very little in the way of policy change or budget.

In this atmosphere, the organizations supported by the New Israel Fund are more important than ever. Long responsible for various aspects of feminist social change, these organizations find that their strategies must now take the growth of religious extremism into account. Organizations focused on women's education are responding to the increase in single-gender schools in the religious sector, or schools that attempt to exclude Mizrachi or Ethiopian students. The Israel Religious Action Center, the activist arm of the Reform movement in Israel, researched and published an exhaustive report on gender segregation. Kolech, the feminist Orthodox organization, staffed a hotline for Orthodox women to report involuntary segregation on buses and other public spaces, and led the successful attempt to persuade the Israeli Medical Association to boycott a conference on women's fertility issues in which women were barred from speaking.

The new pluralism group Yisroel Hofshit (Be Free Israel) has established local activist groups in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Haifa and Ra'anana, and is working closely with NIF to restore the sight and sound of women to the public sphere in Israel. Yerushalmim (“Jerusalemites”), a vibrant coalition of secular and pluralistic Jerusalem residents, ran a public campaign to restore images of women and girls to the streets of the city, hanging pictures of women from balconies in the city. (One of these defaced campaign posters is the centerpiece of the New York Times ad.) This campaign was later expanded by New Israel Fund supporters overseas who sent their photos for a “Woman Should Be Seen and Heard” campaign, resulting in another 50 posters of women's images appearing in Jerusalem.

With the current governing coalition heavily dependent on ultra-Orthodox support, it appears that official measures against gender segregation will be cut to fit political reality. Since many ultra-Orthodox commentators have claimed that the new push to exclude women is a fringe phenomenon, NIF and its civil society groups hope to find ways to work with the mainstream Orthodox community on gender issues in ways that are respectful of the community's traditions. In the meantime, we continue to monitor, respond to and publicize the continuing and disturbing trend of gender segregation and exclusion in Israel.