When a Society Fails Its Women

By Yael Dayan

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
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Sexual harassment has been a favorite topic of late at dinner tables across Israel. How deep in a woman’s mouth and for how long should the tongue, in this case allegedly belonging to Justice Minister Haim Ramon, be in order to consider it a sexual offense? How many of the eight women making allegations against President Moshe Katsav were actually raped, kissed forcefully, undressed or touched without consent, and how many, if any, are really just maliciously framing him?

Questions about gender inequality have also been raised by less sensational news. This month the head of the Israeli military, Dan Halutz, proposed abolishing the brigadier general-ranked post of adviser to the chief of staff on women’s affair in the army. Is all this — Halutz, Katsav and Ramon, not to mention all the other stories we’ll never hear about — a backlash against us women putting men too much on the defensive?

Did we exaggerate in our plea for equality? Are we now being put back into place, being downgraded from business to economy, the class we were deservedly ticketed to in the first place?

It is sad and frustrating to still have to answer to women who themselves claim to be feminists. “Have you gone too far?” they ask me. After all, they say, he is the president, or the minister, or the general, and she is just a female assistant, or a girl soldier, or a woman.

I feel we are back to square one. The legislation I initiated in the Knesset a decade ago has not been complimented by deeper and wider changes in society. There is still no constitutional guarantee of full gender equality. Efforts to advance women’s rights still tread through muddy back alleys, only rarely parading out on the highway.

When it comes to gender inequality in Israel, semantics do matter. There is no mention of equality per se in any of the quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. The closest we have come are Supreme Court decisions suggesting that the Basic Laws offer protections to women on the basis of gender equality — but the term itself is not specified. The law of the land, the judges ruled, offers the right to personal dignity and protection against discrimination, but nowhere does it clearly and unequivocally define gender equality and the rights and protections that come with it.

The rights and protections afforded by the Basic Laws are simply not good enough, given the obstacles to the legal and social advancement of women. For all the progress that has been made, the same old hypocritical notions are still used to fight gender equality.

The ultra-Orthodox assert that women have superior homemaking skills, and are best employed away from the corrupting influences of the work force, preferably at home. And they continue to claim that women more or less “ask for it” when they are harassed. Meanwhile, the military chiefs question the justice in blaming high-ranking heroes, effectively arguing for granting them immunity in recognition of their contribution to the country’s security.

The rabbi and the general have always been Israel’s role models, and it is they who have set the rules of morality and ethics. So should it come as any surprise that so many questions are being raised about Israel’s moral standards and values?

Sexual harassment is only one manifestation of the failing ethics of those leading the country. Women are the weaker sex, easier to abuse, and the legislation currently on the books is insufficient to empower them. Much the same can be said for other segments of Israeli society.

The large number of criminal accusations against public figures — besides Katsav and Ramon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being investigated for his real estate dealings, and there are countless others facing charges of one sort or another — reflects the distorted sense of priorities they and their peers all share. Cases of corruption come and go; the public anger they generate is inevitably diluted by the slow pace at which the legal system delivers justice. All the while, the country stays wrapped in a near-permanent bulletproof vest, preparing for the next war even as we recover from the last one.

And throughout, we Israelis insist that we are the victims. When we harass and when we rape, when we mislead and when we deceive, when we kill and bombard or when we get killed — it is always explainable and excusable, without a meddlesome inquiry committee and without too many regrets.

For years, we have believed Israel to be a country whose vast military power is tempered by moral strength, supported by social solidarity and guided by well-balanced leadership. The recent war with Hezbollah shattered, at great cost, what was left of this belief.

However, to my perhaps overly optimistic eyes, the war may have finally taught us — for the better — the limits of power. Just as a president and a Cabinet minister cannot resort to coercive persuasion when the charms they allegedly exercise fail to convince, so too the government and the military cannot continuously insist that where power has already failed more power will win.

The war in Lebanon and the total failure to physically and mentally prepare civilians for nonstop Katyusha attacks, the crooked agenda regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, the economic disaster inflicted on the poor in part by a lack of foresight, and yes, the spectacle of women harassed by top officials being blamed as partners to a conspiracy — as we observe Yom Kippur, we ought to repent by admitting to ourselves that Israeli society needs a total change of agenda.

Yael Dayan, a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo from Meretz, is a former Labor member of Knesset and founding chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

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