Op-Ed by Steph Black
Happy International Women’s Day! On this momentous day, let us commemorate the history of feminism in Israel and explore the state of Israeli feminism today. Like its US counterparts, the State of Israel has experienced a feminist evolution through distinct periods of time, or waves.
The first period of Israeli feminism took form during the Yishuv or pre-Israel Statehood years. Women during this time demanded full inclusion in their burgeoning socialist labor force and political sphere. The fight for civil equality with men was also an important marker of this wave of feminism through women’s advocacy for their right to vote and be named in the Declaration of Independence. Women’s demand for a vote equal to men’s was crucial to their equality during the pre-State years.
Israel’s second wave of feminism reached its peaks in 1967 while the state experienced post-war euphoria, and again with the appointment of Golda Meir as Israel’s fourth Prime Minister in 1969. Women began entering the labor force in unprecedented numbers. What became apparent over the next few years was that women, though participating in the workforce, had been relegated to “feminine” occupations: jobs that revolved around family and caretaking roles. Women during this time made up less than 7% of Knesset members and less than 4% of local governments. They were ostensibly absent from decision making positions in essentially all political, social, and economic spheres.
The Yom Kippur War sparked a deeper and more widespread understanding of women’s tenuous positions as equal members of society. Three weeks of mass military mobilization of male citizens left the Israeli society at a near standstill. Women simply weren’t given enough positions in the workforce to keep the country moving and were decidedly absent from the war effort. They were relegated as caretakers: tending to soldiers, knitting and cooking, and looking after widows and orphans. The War intensified the domestic division between men and women in Israeli society, while also raising awareness of women’s inferior position.
This awareness led to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to reexamine their position on women in the military. With the determination to better the institution and improve military strategy, the IDF noted how invaluable women’s work within the military structure could be, a trend that continues today.
During this time in the 1970s, issues around violence against women (including rape and domestic violence), a trend of unsafe back-alley abortions, and other widespread forms of oppression and disdain for women and feminism harkened a newfound interest in the feminist movement. This sentiment culminated when then-Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin appointed a commission to examine the status of women throughout Israel, for which research lasted from 1975-79. The report brought forth the reality of the unequal status of women in Israeli society.
In addition to the report, a list of 241 recommendations was submitted to the Knesset that suggested tangible action that would work to promote the status of women, many of which are still on their way to be implemented.
Today, Israeli feminists are still fighting for equality within a state that is marred by right-wing, religiously controlled institutions. A real wage gap exists between men and women, with women earning only 80% of what their male counterparts earn and only 52% of what they earn in executive positions. Violence against women is also still an issue in Israel, as are various forms of religion-based discrimination.
Israel is often portrayed as an idealistic oasis of women’s liberation and freedom in the Middle East. Many American right-wing organizations tout Israel as a beacon of equality for women in the Middle East while simultaneously peddling Islamophobic narratives about Israel’s neighbors and reinforcing inequality within their own organizations in the US.
Yes, Israel was the third country in the world to elect a female Prime Minister. Yes, women serve in the military. And yes, Israel is a country like any other. By placing it on a pedestal for perfect gender equity, we erase the very real issues that persist today. Women are erased from the public spheres which they occupy and are not allowed to pray with a Torah at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall.
There is clearly still work to be done. Israeli feminism and feminists do not deserve to be romanticized or patronized but rather taken seriously for their advocacy. On this International Women’s Day, let us recommit to forwarding feminist values both here in the U.S. and in Israel.
Steph Black is a senior at American University studying Women’s Gender and Sexuality studies. She is a proud Jewish-feminist (or Feminist-Jew) and spends her time protesting, reading, and writing about these topics. When not working as an activist, she can be found with her cat, Goose, or museum hopping around DC.