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Women in Israel: fighting for equality and peace

Friday, November 18, 2011

The following article has been published in Making the progressive case for Israel.


When Israel was established in 1948 the equality of all citizens was affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. Israel’s founders proudly asserted that: “The State of Israelů will uphold the full social and political equality to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Today’s Israel broadly reflects the gender equality found in other countries in the developed world and is by far the most gender equal country in the region.


Achieving greater levels of gender equality obviously requires a lot more than political declarations, and progress in this area, like the UK, has relied upon the long-term efforts of committed activists. Whilst the Israeli feminist movement, which remains strong to this day, was influenced by ideas emanating from the feminist and broader civil rights movements of the US and Europe, it was not until the trigger of the national crisis brought on by the 1973 Yom Kippur War that the movement began to reach a wide audience. During this three-week war it was realised how hampered the Israeli economy was by its reliance on male labour. With men of fighting and working age at war; factories, businesses, offices, and transportation all virtually closed down.


This material opportunity provided a space for the emergence of radical and grassroots feminist organisations who, through intensive lobbying, succeeded in encouraging the creation of a government commission to examine the status of women in Israel which, in turn, led to the first major legislative milestones. During the 1980’s and ‘90s, and as campaigning on feminist issues became uncontroversial, proponents of women’s rights, and specific legislative and government measures to promote women’s’ rights, gained a foothold in the Israeli parliament and, in 1996, succeeded in creating a statutory Parliamentary committee on the status of women.


As a result of years of activism and political successes, women now do better in education than men, and increasing numbers are represented in the professions. However, there is still some way to go in terms of equality in the workplace, with a continuing, but decreasing, gender pay gap, not dissimilar to the one we find in the UK. A survey in 2000 found that 45% of the workforce were women, but only 15% worked full time, with more women living in poverty than men. This is particularly true for women from Israel’s minority communities.


I have seen women in significant roles; in parliament, the army and in organisations working to achieve peace and reconciliation. There are a number of organisations in civil society working to improve the position of women across all communities, as well as campaigning to reform the religious control of marriage laws which hampers women’s rights. As progressives, it is these champions we should be reaching out to and working alongside, to our mutual benefit.



Israel has had a number of women prominent in politics. Golda Meir became prime minister in 1969, at that time only the third woman in the world to hold such an office. The Kadima party, the largest party in the Knesset, is led by Tzipi Livni, who is considered one of the most powerful and influential woman in democratic politics around the world.


Member of the Knesset Shelly Yachimovich has recently won the Labor party leadership contest, becoming the first woman to lead the party since Golda Meir. Upon winning, Yachimovich urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recognise a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of negotiations and told her supporters: “We intend to be the bridge between the historic Labor movement and the new winds blowing on the street . . . We are a new non-sectarian party. We are committed to the poor and the rich, to Right and Left, to Haredim and seculars, to Arabs and Jews.”


Yuli Tamir, from Israeli’s Labor Party, was Education Minister and subsequently resigned from the Knesset at the end of last year. She presented a document she had authored on proposals for a two state solution to an LFI delegation in 2005 and was a founder of Peace Now, a grassroots movement dedicated to raising public support for the peace process.


But Israel continues to have a low percentage of women in parliament. In the Knesset there are only 24 women out of 120, 20% compared to 22% in the House of Commons. Israel’s electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation has failed to achieve greater representation for women, suggesting that politicians of all parties have not given sufficient priority to this issue.



During a visit in 2009 we had a tour of the Lebanese border with retired Colonel Miri Eisen. One of very few female colonels in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), Miri has had a long and distinguished career including as spokesperson for the Israeli government on defence issues. At a security post on the border I observed female soldiers operating cameras and scanning the screens to monitor and record activity by Hizbollah. We were told that women have been found to be better at this task than their male counterparts.

Like men, women are conscripted for military service after high school, serving two years while men serve three, although some highly skilled roles require women to serve longer. Currently 80% of military positions are open to women and 26% of IDF officers are female. Women began joining combat units in 2000 and by early 2004 there were around 450 women in them. In common with many countries there are still too few women in senior posts.  


Women’s involvement in the military is important for the security of the country, but the networking whilst there can significantly affect future job prospects. In particular the increased involvement of women in combat and intelligence positions gives greater access to hi-tech systems, which in turn helps employment in the booming hi-tech industry. 



Arab Israeli women (17% of female Israelis) enjoy the same legally enshrined freedoms as Jewish women. In fact, Israel is one of few Middle Eastern countries where women are able to vote, dress freely and be elected into a public office. However, challenges of inequality remain, due to both racial and gender inequality.


 Visits to Israel provide the opportunity to see projects where people are working to overcome the challenge of gender and racial inequality, aiding peace and reconciliation. Hand in Hand is a network of bilingual (Hebrew-Arabic) schools where Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel study together. On a visit to one school we saw small children learning in each other’s languages, breaking down misconceptions and ensuring that they could communicate with each other.


In addition, the Givat Haviva Institute was founded in 1949 with a focus on education for peace, democracy and coexistence. I have had the opportunity to visit one of their centres to meet women who were taking courses to improve employment chances, courses with both Arab and Jewish women working alongside and supporting each other.  



The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict influences all aspects of life, and women’s rights are no exception. Many women working to improve equality between men and women are also engaged in activity to bring forward just and peaceful solutions to that conflict. By working alongside progressives in Israel’s feminist movement, progressives in this country have the opportunity to support Israel, as it continues to strive for its goal of equality for all of its inhabitants, and to support regional efforts towards peace and a two state solution.


Making the progressive case for Israel is published by Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). For details visit: http://www.lfi.org.uk/


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