The Semi-Cracked State of the Glass Ceiling in Israel

By Yael Dayan

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has had the image of a state in which women enjoy a full measure of equality.

However, this image is somewhat misleading. The struggle for gender equality in Israel has been an uphill battle.

Though the predominant ethos of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel has been enlightened — in both the liberal and socialist senses — large sections of the Israeli society, whether Jewish or Arab, are still strongly patriarchal in their social structure and traditional in their attitudes, with strong religious influences. The Orthodox stream of Judaism, which has a virtual monopoly over official Jewish religious life in Israel, reveres women, but Halacha — the rabbinic law that governs most issues related to the personal status of Jews — such as marriage, divorce, conversion and burial — does not accept their equality.

Outside of the religious realm, women also face a daunting task in achieving gender equality. Though women have always served in the Israeli military, the army offers a predominantly male environment that recreates itself in civilian society through the “old boys network.” And even though the Proclamation of Independence speaks of equality between the sexes, so far none of Israel’s Basic Laws — which in the absence of a written constitution lay down the country’s basic normative rules — has mentioned this principle, a result of the unresolved debate on the separation of synagogue and state.

Women throughout the economy suffer from severe salary gaps in comparison to men. Although the Knesset has tried to rectify the gender employment bias through legislation — such as the Minimal Wage Law, Equal Pay Law and Equal Employment Opportunities Law, as well as laws dealing with the special rights of mothers and pregnant women — insufficient enforcement of the laws has blunted their impact.

Furthermore, the economic recession of the last couple of years has created higher rates of unemployment among women. And the budget recently approved by Prime Minister Sharon’s government creates an economic climate in which social security payments and benefits for women in particular, such as for working single mothers, are significantly compromised.

During the last decade we have witnessed a significant change in attitudes regarding the place of women in Israeli society and the participation of women in the economy, the education and health systems, and even the military.

Despite such progress, however, the representation of women in the Israeli political system is scarce and highly insufficient. Only 16 women serve in the outgoing Knesset. There are only two women around the government table. The Knesset has no females representing the religious community, and only one representing the Arab sector.

Given the level of education, professional talents and human qualities of Israeli women, it is difficult to understand why their presence is so sparse in the vital crossroads of Israel’s political life without taking into account the heterogeneity and complexity of Israeli society — a society, we shouldn’t forget, that is also struggling to attain peace and security.

This social complexity forces those of us struggling to attain full gender equality in Israel to adopt a policy of compromise, bridging of gaps and patient educational work — rather than one of radical feminism, for which many of us may wish.

The reality is that today in Israel, human and women’s rights are not yet fully accepted as normative, and are thus not adequately protected.

My colleagues and I devote a lot of effort and energy to holding dialogues, the goals of which are to reconcile differences and mend schisms between religious and secular, old-timers and newcomers, Jews and Arabs. Even though our work is basically of a political nature, I believe I am right in stating that it is carried out with love, compassion and attentiveness. This is, perhaps, our unique contribution as women.

Our goal is clear — to attain full equality for women, to prevent discrimination, abuse and violence against them, and to empower and advance the female segment of the population. We believe that in so doing we are not only serving women, but are also strengthening Israeli democracy.

I have no doubt that once peace is attained in the Middle East, the struggle for the advancement of women and their equality will assume a high priority in our society, and become a subject of cooperation among women in the whole region.

Yael Dayan, a Labor member of Knesset running on the Meretz list in the January 28 elections, is chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

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