Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked that women are like tea bags because “we don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water.”
To a large extent, Israeli women, like Israeli society as a whole, have been in hot water since the founding of modern Israel. Since the Jewish people’s return to our historic homeland, Israel has accomplished much despite, or perhaps because of, the “hot water” inherent in the Middle East. The struggle to achieve and maintain independence has hardened the Israeli ethos, creating a collective strength that allows Israelis to maintain a normal existence in an abnormal situation.
One of the most significant factors in the amazing Israeli success story is how Israeli women have played instrumental roles in politics, security, diplomacy, the legal system and every other area that defines Israeli society. Like other national emancipation movements of the 19th century, the Zionist revolution was imbued with secularism and egalitarianism between the sexes. Modern Israel’s ongoing existential threats have obligated all Israelis, women and men, to play a role to ensure survival and prosperity.
Historically, women were on the front line of the defense of the pre-state Yishuv and served en masse in the Haganah and the Palmach. Israeli women are subject to two years of mandatory army service, where they serve in various front line capacities such as air force pilots and forward field intelligence. While they are not in active ground combat, women are responsible for much of the training for all of these units.
On the civilian side, Israeli women are leaders in many areas. In politics, women are the leaders of the main opposition party as well as the Labor and Meretz parties. There are more female members in the current Knesset (24 out of 120) than in any previous Knesset. The current chief justice and many other judges and prominent district attorneys are women.
In the private sector, women play leading roles. For example, both the outgoing and incoming chairpersons of Bank Leumi, the largest Israeli bank with a significant international presence, are women.
Women who do not work are the exception. As in many western countries, women often are paid less than men, but this gap is closing.
All this might explain why the nation erupted in outrage last Hanukah when members of an ultra-Orthodox sect in the town of Beit Shemesh intimidated an 8-year-old religious girl on her way to school. The incident spotlighted the friction that has arisen as growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox move outside of their traditional “closed areas” and try to expand their practice of separating women in public.
Other incidents have included intimidating public bus drivers and passengers to force women to sit in the back of the bus, forcing women to cross the street when approaching a synagogue where men congregate and vandalizing advertisements featuring women.
The Hanukah incident was the “hot water” that galvanized women from opposing sides of the political and socioeconomic spectrum to unite and demand that the government take an unequivocal stand.
Although women are equal in Israeli civil life, in the religious sphere issues such as marriage and divorce are exclusively in the hands of the male rabbinate.
That anomaly dates to the establishment of the state in 1948, when Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion broke with his traditional ideology and allowed the ultra-Orthodox to exercise exclusive control over religious affairs by ceding to them the chief rabbinate. Additionally he exempted members of the ultra-Orthodox community from military service. Though criticized at the time, the decisions seemed fairly innocuous since the ultra-Orthodox population was small and the country was almost universally secular with a dominant ruling party.
But in the 30 years since I moved to Israel, the demographic landscape has changed dramatically. There is no longer a dominant ruling party, and the major parties must form coalitions with smaller parties to rule. The religious parties position themselves to be the “balance of power” and thus exert disproportionate influence on the government. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox population has increased dramatically.
Nurit Tzur, the CEO of the NGO PresentTense, recently wrote, “The most substantial bias that exists in Israel today against women is perpetrated by the country’s chief rabbinate, with the backing of politicians and lobbyists, both secular and religious, who care more about coalition politics than the full and equal participation of women in public life.”
She continues, “Some might object to this characterization saying that Judaism has deep respect for women and their rights. However, the fact is that the type of Judaism to which the government has given a monopoly over Jewish custom and tradition in the state – namely the Orthodox type – might revere women but only when they know their place.”
This duality in the lives of Israeli women is a cultural battle between polar opposites: The majority of equality vs. the minority of coercion. I am fairly optimistic equality will win this battle for the following reasons.
The same week of the ugly events in Beit Shemesh, five female pilots completed their Air Force training and received their wings as IAF pilots.
Also that week, former President Moshe Katzav began serving a seven-year prison term for rape on the basis of testimony of two women who worked for Katzav when he was minister of tourism.
A recent survey entitled “A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance and Values,” conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute with Avi Chai Foundation, found that while Jewish Israelis’ religious affinity has increased notably since 1999, with greater religious observance, the vast majority of Israelis, whether they are secular, recently religious or Modern Orthodox, favor upholding individual freedom of choice and personal preference. This includes allowing civil marriage not under the auspices of the chief rabbinate; allowing cinemas, cafes and restaurants to remain open on Shabbat: and elevating Reform and Conservative movements to equal status with Orthodox Judaism.
The recent social protest movement I wrote about last month has taken a stand against the ultra-Orthodox exemption from national service and the government handouts they receive.
The movement to change the electoral system has been bolstered by the addition of the highly respected former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan. A more representative system would make it less vulnerable to the demands of the small parties.
Since 80% of coalition ministers are married to modern, liberal women, I’m confident they will at some point make women’s rights a priority if they want to go home in the evening.
The bottom line is that 100 years of Zionism, in which women have played a vital role, cannot be reversed by religious extremists, even if they currently have tacit government support stemming from political expediency. The vast majority of Israelis are diametrically opposed to coercion, and committed to an open and mutually respectful society, as long as it adheres to universal Jewish principles, which Israel does. Therefore, while there may be occasional distressing events, apocalyptical predictions of an ultra-Orthodox avalanche of coercion and bias against Israeli women is not rooted in reality.
Government support or not, the events of Hanukah 2011 have provided the necessary dose of hot water required for Israelis from all walks of life to confront this threat and demand that fundamental rights of equality be universally enforced in civil life and, perhaps in the near future, in the religious sector as well.
Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv, is married with five children. He can be reached at email@example.com.