Women in Israel enjoy many benefits for which previous generations campaigned. Glass ceilings have been broken – the governor of the Bank of Israel is female, as are the current and former chief justices, while there are more women in politics than ever before (although still not enough). All of the five-year plans discussed in the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are clear about the importance of integrating women in the army.
But the picture is still mixed. Some of the challenges women face in Israel are: sexual abuse and harassment; childcare issues; religious integration in mainstream society; segregation of women in the public sphere; and there is also the issue of “honour killings” in Arab society.
There were many laws passed to prevent sexual abuse and harassment between 15 and 20 years ago, but it is only now being implemented and becoming an integral part of Israeli society. Still, a former president is in jail for crimes he committed against women, and progress is being made. Prostitution wasn’t talked about for many years in Israel. Now, at least, it is being discussed.
There is also the issue of the relationship between religion and state and the contradictory impacts of the integration of the strictly-Orthodox into mainstream society.
That integration is a good thing, but also means that the strictly-Orthodox are bringing demands anchored in their way of life, such as keeping distance from women, into mainstream society. Should we accept these demands as the price for the Charedi to become a greater part of society? Perhaps the answer doesn’t need to be binary.
Related to this is the creeping drive to segregate and exclude women in public. This affected me several years ago when I stood for election in Jerusalem. Like every candidate, I wanted my photo on a bus for the campaign. But, during a discussion with a bus company, I was told there are no women on Jerusalem buses owing to fears of violence from the strictly-Orthodox.
“…integration is a good thing, but also means that the strictly-Orthodox are bringing demands anchored in their way of life, such as keeping distance from women, into mainstream society..”
We went on TV news, and a lawyer offered to represent me in the Supreme Court. The court ruled that what appears in the public sphere in Jerusalem shouldn’t be affected by threats of violence. It took three more years of campaigning about the right of women to sit where they want on a bus and not to be forced to walk on a separate side of the street in a strictly-Orthodox neighbourhood, but ultimately legislation was changed. Change is coming to Orthodoxy in a variety of areas. Ritual bathing in mikvehs and the presence of attendants is already changing, kashrut is on the verge of change, and there is a debate on Shabbat.
Marriage, divorce and conversion remain more complicated. This will take time and is connected to a larger question of the state of Israel defining what it means to be a Jewish state and the role of Jewish law.
Israel in is trying to design a Jewish way of life that is based not on diaspora realities, but on a sovereignty that we have not experienced for 2,000 years. A central question is the role religion should have within this Jewish state. That debate goes on.
There is huge advances in women’s equality and participation in society, but serious ongoing challenges that the Knesset and civil society must tackle.
• The full version of this column is available in the new edition of BICOM’s Fathom journal – see www.fathomjournal.org