Why Laws Hardly Improve Women’s Status in Israel

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari’s densely informative text Women in Israel: A State of their Own (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) is based on the author’s “Report on the State of Israel Concerning the Implementation of the U.N Convention on the Elimination of AH Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)” Halperin-Kaddari is a professor of law at Bar- Ilan University who combines feminist legal theories with a broad, sociological perspective on gender and Israeli society. She looks at all aspects of women’s lives: legal issues—affirmative action and mothers’ rights in the workplace— along with social issues, such as employment, health, social benefits, the media, family, violence against women, and women’s representation in public life,

Most countries trying to enforce a unified religious/cultural identity are not democracies. Israel, uniquely, is both a developed country with a democratic structure and one in which the government tries to maintain a special religious and cultural identity in a diverse society. Halperin-Kaddari claims that this paradox has led to Israel’s failure to adopt a single national standard for women’s rights that would comply with international human rights standards. Also, Israel’s government does not seem to believe that there are any problems with women’s status in the country. According to Halperin-Kaddari, there are two exceptional factors in Israel affecting women’s status. First, the formal and informal effects of religion; second, the national security agenda. Israel is also unique in that family issues are governed by both religious and civil systems.

Halperin-Kaddari shows how Israeli society slowly became aware of discrimination against women, and describes the steps that were taken to combat it in “The Legal Setting,” the first of the book’s three sections. “Progress and the Limits of Law” examines women’s status in different arenas in Israel, such as education, and employment. Each chapter describes the laws and history of legislation on an issue, followed by a sociological discussion of the broader meaning and social context of these rules and regulations. In the third section, “Power Politics, Body Politics, and Radical Feminism,” Halperin- Kaddari explores how Israeli society deals with women’s sexuality, violence against women and other family issues. The final chapter contains new material that was not included in the CEDAW report, about Ethiopian, Mizrachi, and Druze women, and other marginalized groups in Israel and a brief discussion of issues facing lesbians.

Halperin-Kaddari notes that one of the main issues in addressing systemic discrimination against Israeli women is the lack of specific information on women’s status. For example, women are not counted as a separate category in Israel’s Annual Report on Poverty. And there has been no evaluation of reforms in different areas, such as the Prevention of Violence in the Family Law of 1991.

Israel has many progressive laws on the books, including the Women’s Equal Rights Law of 1951, enacted shortly after the founding of the State, and the much-lauded Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law. Yet despite these impressive-sounding statutes there hasn’t been much improvement in women’s status. Why? Halperin-Kaddari concludes that these progressive laws were created without any standards to enforce them. Other factors also come into play. Israel’s government has not allocated resources to tackle these social problems. And religious bodies still control issues of personal status, such as marriage and divorce, so problems in these areas cannot be solved using civil law.

Halperin-Kaddari answers the main question of those fighting for human rights—Can law be used as a tool of social change?—with a qualified “Yes, but it’s not enough.” She and other progressive legal scholars argue for the necessity of practical and social/cultural infrastructure to support the changes mandated by new laws. Laws are not independent social forces, but are “connected to the interests they represent,” argues Halperin-Kaddari, vaguely echoing the feminist avowal, “the personal is political.” Despite this cautionary qualification, Halperin-Kaddari believes that Israeli society is at “a turning point where legal discourse and the accompanying legal feminism seem to facilitate a social change.”