Israel High Court Rules for Women in Discrimination Case

In a precedent-setting lawsuit, the organization that represents Israel’s interests abroad has been found to have discriminated against a women employee.

Israel’s High Court of Justice decided in October that the Jewish Agency had discriminated against Naomi Nevo when it required the sociologist to retire at 60 years of age in 1985, five years earlier than the requirement for men. This decision will have far-reaching implications in other matters of discrimination in Israel, as it discusses the very concept of discrimination.

While this decision does not change current law in Israel — the Knesset passed the Equal Retirement Age for Men and Women Law in 1987 — it presents a new approach to evaluating issues of discrimination. Justice Gavriel Bach pointed out that, in general, all persons were equal before the law unless there were “real and substantial differences between them which were relevant to the purpose to be achieved!’ In this case, he determined, there weren’t. “To force them (women) to retire early, under modern conditions, just because they were women, was unjust and unreasonable discrimination, which was quite unacceptable!’

Justice Bach found that Nevo “had been deprived of her basic rights of equality and freedom of occupation!’ Justice Shoshana Netanyahu concurred and expressed her regret that “in Israel, in our times, it was not clear and self-understood that forcing a woman to retire earlier than a man was unjust discrimination!’

The Jewish Agency had argued that the purpose of the earlier retirement age for women, which had been regulated by collective bargaining agreements in effect since 1953, was to improve the position of women employees, not to worsen it. In contrast, Justice Bach ruled that earlier retirement conferred no benefit, but carried with it a number of disadvantages, both economic and emotional.

Because of the wording of this decision, experts in matters of civil rights in Israel believe that the doors are now open for other cases of discrimination to be brought before the courts. “There’s fine language in the decision which should help in challenging other discrimination against women!’ explained New York activist Roger Herz. “The Feinsod Herz Fund continues to welcome proposals for funding to assist efforts, including litigation, to secure equal rights for women in Israel!’

Nevo, who is now deputy chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, was represented by Francis Raday, a professor of law at the Hebrew University, and Avigdor Feldman of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. Funding for the long battle was provided by Philippa Strum and the American-Israeli Civil Liberties Coalition, the Feinsod Herz Fund and U.S./Israel Women to Women.