The Uncertain Future of Israeli Women

The Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University welcomes guest blogs and encourages our friends and supporters to submit them to the President of the GPI. In an effort to stimulate the conversation relating to global issues and problems, some of the submitted essays will be published on our website. Thank you.

We are pleased to publish this guest blog written by Olivia Round, a LMU senior studying political science. She is currently working on her Honors Thesis that examines New Zealand’s history with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In addition to her studies, she is also a member of Agape Service Organization and Delta Gamma.

Michael A. Genovese
President of the GPI

The Uncertain Future of Israeli Women

Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party prevailed in Israel’s April elections, winning 26.45 percent of the vote and 36 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. This was just enough for Likud to edge past its rival Blue and White party, which, under Benny Gantz, won 26.11 percent of the vote and 35 seats (Wootliff & Staff, 2019). With Netanyahu’s reelection he becomes the longest standing Prime Minister of Israel.

Netanyahu has moved the country in a more conservative direction than it has ever been, reaching agreements with far-right parties like Jewish Power, a group that “has its roots in a violent anti-Muslim movement that the U.S. government deemed a terrorist organization” (Robins-Early, 2019). While this has alienated his party in some sense, it has also worked to unify his supporters against anyone who challenges him, or, as Netanyahu has deemed them, the “enemies of the state” (Halbfinger, 2019). Under Netanyahu, the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations in particular remains uncertain, and his reelection makes a two-state solution seem as unlikely as ever. Even more, in the final days of his campaign, Netanyahu publicly promised to begin applying Israeli sovereignty to a number of areas in the West Bank, which has sparked concern that we might soon see a Palestinian uprising or an apartheid regime (Halbfinger, 2019). All in all, it is clear that there is a divisive nature to Netanyahu, both politically and ideologically, and across a number of fronts.

One of these fronts is along the gendered division of the Israeli population. Women throughout the country have experienced a history of discrimination that has been legitimized and upheld by the country’s religious foundation. While there is a feminist movement within the country that has resulted in “more than a hundred organizations … that are devoted exclusively to advancing women’s status or promoting gender equality,” there are still many obstacles standing in the way of the true liberation of women (Strichman, 2018). In reading Nancy Strichman’s report that tracks both past achievements and future challenges, one sees how the achievements made so far are still just one step toward the final goal – a goal that appears to be still very out of reach.

In general, there is a lack of acknowledgement, both in media and in scholarship, of women’s issues in Israel. In a country so concerned with its ethnic divides, there seems to be little attention paid to the lived experiences of Israeli women, whether it be in the religious, political, or social sphere. This does not mean that the country is free of its share of gendered abuses, though. As a matter of fact, just in recent years, Netanyahu himself has been involved in a number of scandals that reveal a less-than-committed approach to women’s rights, despite his claims that argue otherwise.

One scandal that gained a lot of traction in the media was when Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, was caught on tape making “disparaging, misogynistic comments about women” including “a late-night search for a prostitute” in 2015 (Wootson Jr., 2018). The tapes surfaced three years later, and Netanyahu called the release a witch hunt against him.

In January 2018, female journalists faced discrimination during a visit from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. One visiting journalist from Finland was asked to remove her bra “during a demeaning security check” in Netanyahu’s office, and, the next day, all female journalists discovered that they would be forced to cover Pence’s visit from the other side of the fence at the Western Wall (Eglash, 2018). Netanyahu stood complacent in the face of this discrimination.

In December 2018, Israel did see its Prime Minister take a step towards action. That month, tens of thousands of activists gathered in a Tel Aviv square to protest a lack of action from the government on violence against women in Israel. Throughout 2018, at least 24 women were killed in cases of violence against women, the majority of which had reached out to police to say that they were concerned for their safety (The Yeshiva World, 2018). The day after the protest, Netanyahu said he would fast-track a bill that would track convicted or suspected domestic abusers with GPS bracelets (The Yeshiva World, 2018). He made the announcement at the first meeting of the ministerial committee on the fight against violence against women, of which he chaired. Netanyahu said, “I see violence against women as terrorism in every respect,” and vowed to deal with the “terrorists” (The Yeshiva World, 2018).

In the face of all of these events, it is clear to see that Netanyahu is far from an active advocate for women’s rights. Most of his policies to protect women have been shallow reactions to deeply-embedded problems. This is a microcosm of a much larger issue within the entire country of Israel. In the new election, the number of women in the Knesset stayed stagnant, with women taking 29 out of the total 120 seats (Oster, 2019). Even in the years that saw gradual increases in the number of women in the parliament, there has not been a similar rise in cabinet representation (Israel Democracy Institute, 2019). As of January 2019, only 18 of the 246 ministers who have served in the Israeli cabinet have been women, and three of the four top-tier ministries have never been held by women (Israel Democracy Institute, 2019). This quickly becomes a problem of representation, the lack of diverse voices directly resulting in the lack of diverse solutions to prominent problems. This new election was a chance for Netanyahu to combat this lack of representation, but this issue took a backseat to Netanyahu’s other priorities, like appeasing the far right.

It would be hard to prove that Israeli women have much change to look forward to in Netanyahu’s fifth term. If anything, it seems as though their cause will continue to lose priority as other issues surface on both the domestic and international levels. Even if there are moves to acknowledge the women’s movement at the domestic level, Netanyahu has proved that he is more concerned with performative support of women than he is with actual policy change.

The future of women in Israel, then, is further complicated by the looming indictments that possibly await Netanyahu, who is a suspect in three criminal probes: Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000 (Staff, 2019). Among the accusations coming from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit are fraud, breach of trust, and bribery. Netanyahu, in response, is hoping to gain immunity from the Knesset, a power granted to the Knesset members if they are convinced “the defendant has been treated unfairly and the charges are discriminatory or were filed in bad faith” (Staff, 2019).

The world will not see the results, or lack thereof, of these indictments for another couple of months, but what remains certain is that the future of women’s rights in Israel is largely uncertain. Whether or not Netanyahu remains in office throughout the entirety of this term, there are deeply embedded problems of sexism. Strichman’s report sites a number of significant challenges at the political level, summed up with the following two headlines: “Fragile Support for Institutionalized Mechanisms and Lack of Strong Political Will for Advancing Women” and “Growing Backlash to Women’s Empowerment and Lack of Progress in Traditional Institutions” (Strichman, 2018). The former category includes the claims that political participation does not directly translate to political power, that numerical representation does not guarantee progress, and that political parties “still practice exclusionary policies” (Strichman, 2018). The latter cites a hostile environment for activists and NGOs and a lack of protection for women’s rights in male-dominated structures (Strichman, 2018).

In that last claim is the biggest obstacle that Israeli women face today. In Israel, the personal is the political is the religious. There is not separation of church and state, so the patriarchal nature of the Jewish faith inherently becomes the patriarchal structure of the entire country. In matters of divorce, infidelity, prayer sites, and leadership positions within the church, women are subjugated to sexist discrimination. This same discrimination then bleeds into every other aspect of life for women, both religious and non-religious, in Israel.

This is the crux of the issue. It would help if Netanyahu was a champion of women’s rights, of course, but the issue is much bigger than a series of scandals. There is hope, however, found in the work that is being done in political, social, and religious sectors by feminists, activists, and politicians alike. “Israel is no stranger to strong women leaders,” writes Jane Eisner (2019). In fact, the country’s fourth prime minister was Golda Meir, a woman who helped found the State of Israel (Encyclopedia Britannica). More recently, Einat Kalisch-Rotem became the “first woman elected mayor of any of Israel’s three largest cities” in October 2018 and at the same time Aliza Block became Beith Shemesh’s first woman mayor (Esiner, 2019). The symbolism of these victories gives hope for future change within the country. It must be understood, however, that these changes will not come at the surface level of politics but must transcend, too, the religious and cultural practices in the country.