“Courteous.” The word is used again and again to describe Israel’s new Prime Minister Menahem Begin. He indeed embodies that quintessentially non-Israeli quality—politeness. Not for him the cult of the casual so carefully promoted by previous governments; his style is formal—an easy formality, true, but nonetheless old-world and, in the Israeli context, charming.
This may be a refreshing change in some respects. But it also marks a return to old-world values regarding women.
Menahem Begin—a deeply religious man—is an advocate of the “women-and-children-first” principle. He often mentions the need to ensure that Israeli women and children won’t be persecuted or slaughtered, that Israeli women and children will live in peace. The implication is that it is Israeli men who will ensure that this is so. The overtone is the old dictum that “man’s function is to do, women’s function is to be.”
Actually, it is questionable to what extent these old-world values were ever rejected in Israel. For close to 30 years, Israeli Labor Party leaders have paid lip service to the principle of sexual equality; they had to, for it was part and parcel of Israel’s official ideology, and an essential, if unspoken, part of the socialism that informed the politics of some early Israeli leaders. And it provided a positive image of Israel as being better than its neighbors. But even the lip service to equality faded into insignificance as the politics of pragmatism replaced the politics of ideology and as Orthodoxy came into its own.
Now Israel has a new government—the right-wing Likud government—with no socialist principles demanding even a nod of obeisance. Its commitment to women’s equality is non-existent. Israeli women will certainly fare worse under Likud than under Labor, but how much worse is the question. Where Labor governments ignored women’s rights to deal with “more pressing” issues for nearly three decades, the Likud government’s policy will be based on three main determining factors: the perception of women, cited above, as helpless creatures to be defended, rather than active participants in their country’s defense; the traditional Judaic view of women as the means of ensuring the sanctity of the home and the continuation of the Jewish people; and concern for fertility with women seen as the means of achieving a higher Jewish birthrate.
Begin has already given a clear indication of what the future may hold for Israeli women under his regime. The coalition agreement between Likud and Agudat Israel, the ultra-Orthodox party, contains three distinctly anti-women clauses. And perhaps the most disturbing thing about these clauses is that Likud did not agree to them in order to compromise with Agudat Israel—there was no conflict of interest or of principles requiring compromise. All three points reflect the Likud attitude, if not its declared policy. Likud promised Agudat Israel:
• that it would work to ensure that “who is a Jew” be defined according to the full measure of halachah, (Orthodox) Jewish law;
• that women could merely declare themselves “religious” to get exempted from compulsory Army service without having to provide any proof, as had been required in the past;
• that it would work to repeal the clause in the recently passed reformed abortion law allowing women legal abortions for social and economic reasons.
The “Who is a Jew” clause, while it affects both men and women, is an indication of a far more rigid observance of the religious laws of personal status (including marriage, divorce and conversion procedures), whose overall extreme sexism cannot be overstressed or excused by feminists in search of a personal mode of Jewishness [see “Crimes Against Women in Israel” by Joanne Yaron in Lilith, Vol. I, no. 3]. Parenthetically, the third coalition partner in the Likud government is the National Religious Party, which has long been the watchdog of the status quo on religious control of personal status.
The clause on exemption of religious women from the Army needs no Knesset (Parliament) approval and is already in effect. How big a change will it create? Probably very little. At present, only about half of Israel’s 18-year-old women do their “compulsory” Army service. Nearly one-quarter are rejected because their educational level is too low. About 18% request religious exemptions, which the Orthodox support for reasons of “sexual morality.” The percentage may increase by up to 5% but probably little more. The problem is not these women but the 25% who are rejected.
The promised repeal of the reformed abortion law is, in effect, a step backwards from half-a-step forward. Although the reformed bill extended the categories of women who were eligible for legal abortions, it did not imply the right to abortion on demand. To get abortions, women would still have to appeal to professional committees to plead a case rather than demand a right. Whether Likud will be able to force through the repeal is questionable, but since preparations to put the reformed bill into effect (it becomes law in February 1978) have been practically nil, one could well question the relevance of the issue.
Generally, Israeli women can expect a more determined effort by the Likud government to promote higher birth rates. Demographically, Israeli Jews are in trouble. Population studies project that if Israel keeps the West Bank, the number of Arabs under Israeli rule will equal the number of Jews inside the Green Line (pre-1967 borders) by the turn of the century. The demographic problem is not new; Likud inherited it from its predecessors. ‘Way back in the thirties, David Ben Gurion (later Israel’s first Prime Minister) advocated that all Jewish women fulfill their “demographic duty” by having large families. Nowadays, this is known as “internal aliyah” (immigration). While it is doubtful that the experimental family planning clinics opened in the last two years will be closed down, it is possible that no funding will be made available for new clinics. The majority of Israeli women will thus continue to use primitive contraceptive methods backed up by illegal abortions (estimated conservatively at 60,000 a year).
Israeli women have had little to say about all this. There has been no widespread public dissent. Among the few voices of protest was that of Israel’s fledgling feminist movement, numbering some 250 activists.
The movement’s most effective action so far was the formation of the Women’s Party by a dozen concerned feminists, among them then Knesset member Marcia Freed-man. The Women’s Party ran in the May, 1977 elections on a platform with planks on issues ranging from women’s sexuality, recognition of housewives as professionals, children’s rights, rape and prostitution to equal pay, women’s legal status and education. The party garnered over 5,500 votes-well below the 18,000 needed for one seat in the Knesset, but an astonishingly high number for so new and inexperienced a political party.
Nine women were elected to the Knesset from the other parties (down from 11 in the first Knesset). Among the Ma’arach (Labor-Mapam Alignment) women M.K.’s, two have become strong fighters for women’s rights. One is Ora Namir, head of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Status of Women (belatedly set up by then Premier Itzhak Rabin as a gesture to International Women’s Year). The other is Mapamnik Chaika Grossman, a hero of the Bialystock Ghetto Uprising. As chair of the outgoing Knesset’s Public Services Committee, Grossman fought tooth and nail to get the reformed abortion law through the Knesset committees without having it shredded to pieces. Namir’s and Grossman’s experiences on the Commission and previous Knesset committees have considerably radicalized them on women’s issues, but how much influence they can wield as members of the opposition remains to be seen.
The most radical of the women M.K.’s is Shulamit Aloni, a lawyer who is a relentless fighter for civic and civil rights and against religious coercion. Women’s rights for her, are an integral part of this struggle. But Aloni (on whose Citizens’ Rights Movement Freedman was elected to the previous Knesset) is now a one-member party in the Knesset and her power is limited.
In the anti-feminist camp stands Geula Cohen, the loud, gutsy Likud M.K. Cohen’s style must be everything that Begin abhors —she is unruly, outspoken and hard to control. But she is a fervent supporter of Gush Emunim (the ultra-nationalist expansionist movement) and a firm believer in the right of the government to decide what is good and what is bad for the people. She is in firm agreement with Education Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party on the need for more “Jewish values” in the classroom and on nipping in the bud the nascent spread of sex education in the schools, which is so badly needed.
The report of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Status of Women is due out at the end of this year. Many of its recommendations will be, in the Israeli context, radical. But the chances of these recommendations being carried into practice—never high under Labor—are now that much lower with Likud in power.
There can be little doubt that the struggle for women’s rights in Israel has suffered a setback. Israeli women had never had it as good as women outside Israel imagined. Now, it seems that the sparks of progress which appeared in the last few years may be stubbed out.
This may indeed happen, but it will be over the shouts and protests of a vociferous minority.
Lesley Hazleton is a Jerusalem journalist whose book The Israeli Woman: Myths and Realities is scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster early in 1978.