The Declaration of Independence adopted at the time of the birth of the state in May 1948 was an enlightened document. Its intentions were wonderful and they were declared in ringing, almost messianic, tones.

“Liberty, justice and peace as taught by the Hebrew prophets…full social and political equality of all of its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…”

These were only some of the promises of the document. In many senses, it could be argued that the story of the State of Israel over the past fifty odd years is nothing less than the attempt of one of the most complex societies in the world, from the point of view of ethnic diversity and conflicting cultural views, to live up to those stirring phrases. In sphere after sphere, we see how reality has fallen short of ideal.

This is true for almost every aspect of Israeli life and it is certainly true of the question of women’s place in the society. The promised equality, which did not, as we have suggested, exist in 1948, remained beyond the reach of women and indeed of the society as a whole. The situation remains the same today. This is not to say that there have not been some very important advances over the years, but taken as a whole, despite some valiant efforts, the situation today falls far short of the promises of the Declaration. Equality has not been achieved. To examine every aspect of the story would take far more space than we have here, but we will attempt to point to some of the most important aspects of the story over the last half-century and suggest some of the reasons why proper equality for women has never been achieved. We now abandon a step-by-step chronological perspective and talk of the fifty odd years of statehood as a whole.

Let us take the opportunity here to note that while we are focusing in this article on the question of Jewish women, the moment that we talk of the State of Israel rather than Jewish society of pre-state Mandate Palestine, we are talking about all women, Jewish and Arab. It should be noted that the Arab population of Israel is a little under 20% of the state’s population. As citizens of the State, they are influenced by all of the trends that influence the rest of the population. They are under the control of their own extremely conservative religious leaders rather than the rabbis to whom we will refer in the analysis below, and their non-participation in the army makes that part of the following analysis basically meaningless for them. However, the situation of Arab women is in many respects very much behind that of the Jewish women of Israel, and that should be borne in mind during the rest of this survey.

In our survey of the situation of women in the State of Israel, we should begin by noting that in the early years of the State, and indeed at intervals since then, some very important legislation has been passed which has certainly regulated legal improvements in the situation of women in Israel.

  • In 1951, the Act for the Equality of Men and Women was passed. This followed the National Service Law, which mandated two years of compulsory military service for men and women alike, and the Compulsory Education Act which provided for compulsory education for all boys and girls up to mid-teenage years.
  • In 1964, the Equal Pay Law was passed and two more important pieces of legislation were passed in the late 1980’s:
    • The 1987 Equal Retirement Age Law and the Equal Employment Opportunities law a year later.
    • Three month paid maternity leave for all women was guaranteed by law and other impressive social legislation, such as the provision that allowed mothers to use paid sick leave days to look after their own sick children, also became law.
  • In addition to this social legislation, religious law also improved women’s lot. For example, in the first years of statehood, polygamy and child-marriage were outlawed in Israel. Those who immigrated with more than one wife were allowed to maintain the arrangement. However, all new cases were forbidden, apart from some very specific cases, where the Rabbinate was authorised to intervene. As a result, polygamous marriage is extremely rare among the Jews of Israel. (1)

All in all, the social legislation looked like a dream for would-be egalitarians, and therefore it should perhaps surprise us that the 1975 Commission of Inquiry on the Status of Women, set up by then Prime MinisterYitzhak Rabin, found so much that was problematic in terms of women’s status in the society. All in all, when the Commission presented its final report to new Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977, it had no less than 241 recommendations for the improvement of women’s status.

In the social and legal realm, there are still a large number of areas where, even in the legal sphere, women are in a clearly disadvantaged situation.

  • For example, paid maternity leave for which women cannot be fired from their work is very important, but there is nothing to prevent employers from firing the women as soon as they come back to work.
  • Another example is the fact that the state does little to enforce the payment to women of alimony and child support that have been agreed by the courts, in the case of divorce. Women almost always get to keep the children but often they are left with inadequate payments to take care of those children.

The situation of such women – and many others – worsened considerably when welfare payments were drastically slashed by the Treasury in Summer 2003. Single mothers were among the worst hit by the cuts in payments, causing a dramatic and much publicised demonstration and “sit-down strike” outside of theKnesset. The major goal of the Treasury was to push more people – in this case women – into the employment market and welfare payments were used as a means of pressurising women to look for productive work.

The specific and much debated problem of the plan happening in 2003 was that the economy of Israel was passing through years of high unemployment with work opportunities very limited, making it extremely difficult for newcomers to find employment in the market. That, one can suggest, is a seasonal problem, connected with the temporary economic state of the country.

The more problematic aspect, however, and one that caused considerably less debate was the fact that the earning opportunities for unskilled women especially, were extremely limited. Women’s wages in the unskilled market are so low, that even if the mothers in particular were to find work, many of them would be forced down to a basic poverty level. This would make their own efforts to support their family very problematic.

Historians and sociologists will not be surprised by the seeming anomaly in the poor situation of women in general despite the large amount of legislation specifically aimed at improving their lot. It is well known that when a society passes law after law in a specific direction, it can be interpreted in two opposite ways. Sometimes the laws do, indeed, represent the highest values of the society and the large number of laws represents the progressive detailing and legal patterning of trends already present in the society.

However, at other times they represent a consistent attempt of the society’s lawmakers to return, time and time again, to things that are not happening in the society, in efforts to try and right those wrongs through legislation. In addition, we know that often there exists an enormous gap between the statute book and the actual situation of society. Anyone who wants proof of this has only to look, for example, at the different laws for Jewish emancipation in late 18th and 19th century Europe, and the ways that whole societies often opposed the laws of their own legislature in terms of their social attitudes.

There is no denying the good intentions of the various laws for the equality of women, but they did not create that equality. The full and equal integration of women into the society and economy of Israel simply did not occur in the ways that the founders of the state had suggested in their messianic declaration.

5A. Examining the Facts. Economics and Politics.

Let us examine a few recent facts in the economic and political field to prove the point. Economically, the picture is quite clear. In 2002, the average woman’s wage for a job was 40% lower than a man’s for the same job. In the public sector in 2002, only 32% of senior management and 10% of managing directors of companies were women. The average monthly wage of senior women in management was a good NIS 1500 lower than men’s.

In the public sector, despite the fact that women comprise 60% of all state employees, the higher up one goes in the civil service “dirug” (status ranking which is linked to earnings) the fewer the number of women that can be found. In 1999, for example, at the highest level (dirug A) only 7% were women. At the second level, 9% were women and at the third level 15% were women.

In field after field, women are under-represented at the top levels of management or professional achievement, despite adequate representation further down the scale. The statistics bear this out for all the major areas of Israeli economic and professional life. The positions of High Court judges, surgeons, specialist doctors and university professors, for example, are far more male dominated in terms of ratios than the positions of judges in general, doctors in general or university lecturers in general.

In local leadership and political representation, the story is similar. The case of Golda Meir as prime minister was often seen to be an example of women’s high level involvement in Israel’s political system and the system’s openness to women’s participation. However, since 1978, when Israel began to elect city mayors directly, only four of the hundreds of mayors elected were women, including two elected in 1998 and still in office in 2003.

Women have usually comprised 7% to 9% of Knesset members with numbers not changing noticeably over time (2). In 1999, the numbers went up appreciably to 11.7% (13 M.K’s), as opposed to 7.5% in the outgoing Knesset, and the current Knesset provides the largest number of women yet elected - 15% (18 M.K’s). Out of 13 permanent parliamentary committees, women are in charge of three. This is encouraging in numerical terms.

However, an examination of the committees headed by women is instructive. The most important committee is the committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, while the Committee for Science and Technical Research and Development is, at best, seen as a relatively marginal committee. In addition, not unsurprisingly, a woman heads the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women. However, in the most important committees, women are seriously under-represented. The Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense has, for example, only one woman out of a total of 17 members, while the Finance Committee has two women out of the same total of 17 members.

In the government, the numbers are smaller, with only nine women having served as cabinet ministers in the first 16 Israeli governments. Today, there are three women in ministerial positions (education, environment, absorption) out of a total of 23 ministers in the current government. Only one woman functions as a director-general in a government ministry (education). In a survey of international political representation and education conducted in 2002, Israel ranked only 54th in the world in terms of representation of women in parliament despite the fact that it ranked in ninth place in the world in terms of academically qualified women in its population.

5. B. Women in Society – The Social Situation.

Beyond economic and political categories, the picture is bleakly similar in relation to the general situation of women in Israeli society today.

  • Issues of sexual harassment and violence against women are too common in Israel today to require statistical proof. Thousands of women are regularly harassed verbally or physically in the work place and the street. Despite the recent promulgation of a strict law against sexual harassment, abuse is endemic and is seen by many in the society as a harmless and acceptable norm. (The promulgation of the law is yet another case of legislation running after a flagrant social abuse and attempting to alter a social norm through legislation).
  • Cases of family violence are currently at horrific proportions and the last three or four years have seen dozens of murders of women by members of their family or former lovers.
  • Rape cases have become a commonplace, including many cases of group rape and gang rape. Israel has become an international centre of traffic in women, with hundreds of women being sold as sexual slaves each year.

All of this is depressingly familiar to even the casual reader of the Israeli press and needs no expansion here

How can one explain the very clear picture that modern Israel presents, a picture of blatant inequality for women in a largely male-oriented society, despite the good intentions of the founders who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1948?

The subject is complex and would need far more space than we have here to survey comprehensively. However, a number of suggestions can be made, which can serve as the starting-point for those who wish to investigate the issue further.

Despite the efforts of certain feminist thinkers to create an idea of an idealised primeval society, where goddess worship was dominant and societies were organised according to the needs of women, the truth is that just about all human societies that are known to us have been, and continue to be, organised principally by, and for, men.

One of the great stories of modern history is the attempt of women collectively, with the help of liberal male elements in the society, to restructure society in a fairer, more egalitarian way. There are places where that has proved easier and others where it has proved more difficult, but it has never been achieved, even minimally, without some kind of struggle. The nature of the struggle basically consists of the ability of women and the enlightened circles in male societies to convince others that they, and the society as a whole, would be better served by greater equality. In some places, there have been fewer obstacles to overcome and in others, the obstacles have been overwhelming.

Israel, it can be suggested, is in a strange situation in this struggle. Because of the ideological basis on which much of the society has been built, and the progressive legislation that has been accepted, it should have had a relatively easy ride to a situation of greater equality. There have been many women, including relatively organised groups of women, who have understood this as their interest, certainly since the early years of the twentieth century.

The antithesis, however, seems to suggest that the presence of other, conservative factors has been so strong that the ability of the society to change substantively has been hindered to the point of neutralising much of the strength of the forces of change. The next section will consider what some of those forces might be.

1. However, there are not infrequent cases of Bedouin men taking more than one wife, despite the essential illegality of the act under state law.

2. In the first Knesset, there were twelve women and in the ninth (which opened in 1977) there were ten: in the current sixteenth Knesset, as mentioned, there are eighteen. It is interesting to see the spread of parties. In the first Knesset, nine of the twelve women represented the two socialist Zionist parties, Mapai and Mapam: in addition there was one woman each from WIZO, the General Zionists and Herut. In 1977, six represented the Ma’arach (the Labour party), two represented Herut, and Shinui and the N.R.P. each had one representative. After the 2003 elections, women represented seven parties. The Likud led with seven, followed by Labour with four, Shinui with three, with one representative each from the N.R.P., One Israel, Meretz and Israel b’Aliyah – subsequently absorbed into the Likud. Out of the twelve women in the first Knesset, all were immigrants from Russia, the Ukraine, Serbia and Poland. Out of the ten women in the ninth Knesset, three were born in Israel, three in Lithuania or Poland, one in Germany, one in Iraq, one in Syria and one in England. In the eighteenth Knesset, fourteen of the eighteen were born in Israel, and of the other four, three (from Iraq, Russia and Rumania) came to Israel as young children while the last was a mature immigrant from Russia.



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0