Barbara Harshav, our irreverent correspondent in Tel Aviv, writes:
These days in Israel women seem to come in one of two colors: white or black — both invisible. The “whites” are those who stood up en masse (clad in white) in the middle of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s speech to 3,000 Likud committee members, waving placards to protest the fact that no female members grace Shamir’s patchwork cabinet. (Likud has one “token” woman in the Knesset — Sarah Doron — who apparently follows orders.) The prime minister paused, stood quietly, smiling indulgently at the yelling women. When he had had enough, he said in a paternal tone (as if he were gently reproving errant daughters), “Yes, yes, we’ve heard you, now sit down and be quiet, and we’ll think about your complaint!’ Translation: Let the grown-ups get back to business.
And the well-mannered women did indeed sit down quietly and didn’t make any more fuss.
Then there are the “black” women — they don’t sit down. Clad all in black, they demonstrate every Friday all over the country for an end to the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, and there’s something pathetic about them too. Every week they stand vigil; every week they are attacked — not for their politics, but for their gender. (“Arafat’s Whores” for example, is one of the milder curses they endure.) Like the women in white, they are, at best, patronized. Let’s just say (putting it generously) that women are not taken seriously in Israeli politics.
One indicator of our being disregarded here is press coverage of political women: there’s a general silence.
Citizens in Israel express their displeasure with government policies either by standing somewhere (clad, for example, in white or black) holding signs; by attending mass demonstrations where you listen to speeches, sing HaTikva (Israel’s national anthem) and fight traffic jams getting home; or by striking (for higher wages or better conditions).
In Israel, democracy seems to mean that everybody votes and then the manipulated bare majority rules — absolutely. In bolder terms, everybody votes and then is subject to a virtual dictatorship until the next election. If Lysistrata showed up here tomorrow and presented her peace plan, it would be Greek to the Israelis.
A new woman’s voice in the darkness belongs to Yael Dayan who seems recently to have undergone a feminist metamorphosis. You know the name: daughter of the late war-hero Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, descendant, on both sides, of pioneer families in Israel, author of several novels [the best-known of which are Death Had Two Sons (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967) and New Face in the Mirror (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1959)] and of a heady, controversial memoir of her father called My Father, His Daughter (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985).
Unlike the “blacks” and “whites” mentioned above, Dayan, born in Palestine in 1939, is a mainstream political activist, a realpolitik pragmatist, a Labor centrist. She is also newly active in promoting women’s rights, having come recently to the belief that peace and women’s issues are conceptually appropriate
bedfellows. Far from the common misconception — that Israel is legally, economically and socially advanced in terms of women’s rights — the truth is that Israeli women are light-years behind the advances that U. S. women have made over the last twenty years.
Israeli women are just waking up … lawyer and analyst Miriam Benson reminds us of that [see p. 12], as does a fiery, intense Dayan.
Yael Dayan talks with Susan Weidman Schneider…
SWS: It seems there’s been a turnaround in your thinking since 1984. Then, at a conference on women’s issues in Jerusalem, you astonished many of us by suggesting that feminist issues were not an important concern of yours. These days, however, you are the co-chair of the Israel Women’s Network political committee, and you frequently address women’s issues. What has made you shift?
YD: As I have become involved with the rights of all groups living in Israel, I’ve become more involved with women’s rights, too. Still, I think that women who are involved only in women’s rights are missing the point.
SWS: Right now, Israel’s parliament has fewer women than at any time in the country’s history; small, right-wing, ultra-religious parties still control areas that affect women’s lives deeply … what are the chances for women political leaders to make change?
YD: Why are we [women] regressing in Israel? Why are we not getting the equality that we were promised? Well. First of all we are a society in battle, in actual battle. So this of course gives priority to men, who are doing the actual fighting. This has been like this for .so many years now that it has set a pattern. Someone who’s a general or a top commander in the field, he will become also a leader in other fields, politics too, and that goes without saying.
And then, of course, the origins of most of our population are from societies where women are inferior. It’s not something that can just be legislated, it’s a deep sociological trait. We’re now into second and third generations of these groups originating in Islamic countries, and this has an effect. Of course, it’s getting better with time.
Another thing is the religious domination, the Orthodox domination of sections of our lives, and this also will take a while [to remedy]. So we have a macho, male society which is not only engaged militarily but is dominated by male tradition religiously and sociologically.
SWS: Do you think that if attitudinal feminist changes take place in women’s and men’s households, they are then likelier to take place in the body politic?
YD: Homes are not so much a problem in Israel because women’s social and everyday life is not as inferior as life in the political system or general system. Legislation and political representation hasn’t advanced as much as the status of women at home.
SWS: How about the large numbers of battered women?
YD: I think there is a mood of general violence in the country. There are more battered men than before as well, battered children — by mothers, not necessarily fathers. There is a rise in violence in this society.
It certainly has to do with the Occupation [of the Arab territories]. If the society were engaged in just fulfilling its normal functions, and not engaged in things it cannot basically cope with, it would probably be calmer on the whole.
SWS: So you believe that with a real peace in the region women’s lives will improve in all ways. What do you see as women’s role in the peace process?
YD: Women lead the peace movement. They’ve definitely got positions of leadership there. But perhaps if there were more women in politics, there would be fewer women in the protest movement. Women are having an effect [in the peace movement] because it’s a grassroots movement, despite the fact that it’s primarily a women’s movement led by women.
Women in Black is useful, but I don’t participate in it. It’s not my style. I’m not very interested in demonstrating without the political work that goes with it. I do my work within the party. Occasionally I address a Peace Now rally, but that’s so I can suggest that Labor is also present in the peace camp.
Neither Mapam nor any of the other movements nor Peace Now can replace the present government. Only Labor can.
SWS: It sounds like you think women need to play a tougher political game.
YD: It’s not the content of politics but the mechanics that I’m talking about. Women need to be represented in politics, in lobbying, need to try to achieve legislation. We need to get more women into politics and into the Knesset. Hopefully the next election will show results.
SWS: What are you doing to promote women’s role in politics? Under the present electoral system in Israel, citizens vote only for a party “list” with individual candidates placed on the list in an order determined in the smoke-filled rooms of party leaders. Are you encouraging Israeli women to put more women on the list and to get involved in grassroots politics?
YD: Yes, both. Ideally, women need to vote for parties which have women on their [electoral] lists. The political section of the Israel Women’s Network [the Israeli feminist organization headed by Alice Shalvi] concentrates on women asserting themselves politically, on political education, but mostly we are concerned about representation in everything. We want to make sure that women are in political office either by affirmative action or directly.
Each party should assure some kind of quota of women and fight for internal legislation. Later it should be a State law, at least as a temporary measure.
SWS: Are you saying that there should be equal numbers of women and men represented in the Knesset or in a party?
YD: Well, not equal, but about 20 or 25 percent — in the boards of public companies, in the Knesset, in different institutions that are State-controlled.
SWS: Do you think that more women in the Knesset will make it easier to have women’s issues addressed? Like abortion laws or divorce laws?
YD: Some men have devoted their Knesset careers to these issues, so I wouldn’t differentiate, but I do think that more women in the Knesset would show others that it’s worthwhile to fight, that there’s a chance to get to high positions.
If there were more women in the Knesset, they might deal with labor laws: equal pay and equal opportunities and all that has to do with labor. Women get fired before men do, and married women are taxed together with their husbands and not separately. There is a whole list [of injustices], but I would say that the domain of labor is the mos.t important.
Because there are so few female Knesset members, they cannot afford to turn against the party line on big issues. If there were more women in the Knesset, there is no question that this would add to the power of women. They could lobby within their party.
SWS: If the electoral system changes, will this add to the power of women, as well as give religious parties less of a stranglehold?
YD: Yes. In the past — in relation to the religious parties — there was an agreement, a balance. When my party, Labor, was in power and more women were in the Knesset, there was an agreement with the religious parties, mostly with the Mafdal [National Religious Party], and it worked out fine. It was slow and not entirely satisfactory, but it was progress.
Yet now, even though the religious are still a minority — the same number in the population — they have a hold. There is a regression in these right-wing Likud times. It has to do with the electoral system. If both [major] parties were to decide to say “no” to certain things, then once the religious parties didn’t have a hold on one large party against the other, things would work better.
The electoral system must change, and this will add to the power of women, because it will mean that women will represent a constituency, not just a party.
SWS: You think Labor will be able to form a majority government without the religious fringe parties, and that then some of the inequities for women will be addressed?
YD: No. I don’t see that Labor in the near future can form a government without at least one or two religious parties. And there is always a price to be paid, usually at the expense of the weaker .factions … which of course affects women. If we have a chance to advance the peace process and if the price tag [for forming a coalition government] means delaying changes in the abortion law or things like this, it’s the price that we will pay.
SWS: How much of a conflict is this for you if, in helping to form a Labor government, you make concessions on women’s issues?
YD: It’s a conflict which I can live with. If we really can advance towards peace, I see this as a springboard for other changes. Peace and war are irreversible, but other things are less absolute. Since we don’t have a constitution, if there is a change in the law it can be undone later. So it wouldn’t bother me to go along on some concessions and then in better times, say, try and change them. If there is peace, a lot of wrongs will be corrected.
SWS: Do you expect to effect these changes by running for Knesset?
YD: Well, I’ll try. I’ll run for a Knesset seat within the Labor framework. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, I’m professionally a writer and I will resume my writing … and do my political work outside of the Knesset.
SWS: Would you describe yourself as always having been a political person?
YD: Yes. I was always involved with political activity without running myself. I can’t remember one election year when I was not campaigning for someone. If I do not get a Knesset seat, I would see myself in some extra-parliamentary position, perhaps in the Foreign Ministry. I think I could very ably represent Israel in the United Nations, or as ambassador in Washington.
SWS: Do you think that to American Jews your name and your connections with your father would be an advantage? After all, he was a prime architect of the Camp David agreement framing the peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
YD: No, on the contrary. A disadvantage.
SWS: Would people perceive your policies as more right-wing because they associate you with your father?
YD: Look, I think that had my father lived in these times, he too would have wanted to move the peace process along.
SWS: I’ve heard you talk about what you call the “asymmetry of the dream” in relation to peace in the Middle East. What exactly do you mean by that?
YD: We started as a society of immigrants; the Palestinians started as people on their land. They’ve expected their state to be delivered to them by outside forces; we had to do it ourselves, and so on down the line. There is no comparison, neither in the time element nor in the content. The point is that they are not going to wait for 2,000 years to have a homeland. Where they are now is where we were before, and the way we demanded and got our rights, they deserve just as much.
SWS: You’ve toured the U.S. this past spring with Palestinian activist Faisel Hus-seini and you’ve spoken of “two states for two peoples!’ In the process of working out an end to the occupation of the territory administered by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War, what do you consider non-negotiable?
YD: I think Jerusalem is an issue that has to be addressed in a different way from the rest of the territories, of course. Some of it is unnegotiable, but unnegotiable means only that we will retain our sovereignty over it. It does not mean that it cannot be shared. One can perhaps come up with different options.
Palestinians who have residence in Jerusalem should have citizenship outside, and they should be eligible to vote for the Palestinian entity at the same time that their residence would allow them to vote within the Jerusalem municipality.
It’s like absentee votes for Americans. You allow them to vote wherever they are, but the point is to come up with an arrangement by which Jerusalem remains united. And yet perhaps part of it can be the seat of government for the Palestinians. It depends what the entire thing works out to be. Anyway, Jerusalem will never be the first issue to be tackled: it will the last one.
SWS: Well, I was thinking about the territories in general. Are there parts of the territories that you would feel are not open to negotiation?
YD: There are areas which are not inhabited and offer us clearer borders, like the Latrun area, which there is no way to return. There may be other small places which are inhabitated by Arabs and which were in the previous borders which can be exchanged now and returned, but these are minor corrections.
SWS: Do you think that, in general, the large portion of the occupied territories will be returned?
YD: Oh sure, excluding the territory around Jerusalem. The newly built quarters of Jerusalem there’s no way to return, of course. All this will go on some kind of key, according to which most of the Palestinian population will be free of occupation and be sovereign, while Israel will not lose the security of some of the places in the territories. Sometimes it’s not land, but other guarantees.
There’s no way to annex people. You can annex land, but not people. Israeli Arabs within the Green Line [pre-1967 borders] would stay. It would be easier than ever to visit back and forth to the new Palestinian entity. Five minutes, closer than from Chicago to New York.
SWS: What do you think will happen to Jews who have settled in the occupied territories?
YD: They will have to opt whether they want to live under Israeli sovereignty and move back, or remain where they are and be a minority within whatever entity it will be. They’ll have their options. Nothing has to be forced on them, but they can’t have it both ways.
SWS: How do you advise women who want to be part of the system making changes in present-day Israel? What can you say to women who want to enter politics?
YD: They have to work within the party system — every party — and on the national level with other parties. It cannot be only an effort within the party. The power of women has to be expressed by sheer numbers. It must be mobilization — whether it’s academic or grassroots. Ideally, women will not vote for parties which don’t have women on their lists. Ideally, women will become aware of the importance of advancing women into decision-making positions.
We need lobbying, legislation and education. More and more women must register as party members and then elect convention members. Then they can easily put women in as 20 to 30 percent of the convention. And so it goes all the way up. We must make sure there are good candidates, and that they are willing to run. They must have economic power because otherwise running is impossible. There needs to be specific fundraising for women in all parties, to enable women to run.
SWS: How can American women help?
YD: Rather than contribute money to campaigns of parties, I would advise contributing to women within parties. Earmark it to women. What we’re thinking of right now in Labor is to do a special fund that will take contributions from everywhere, to be used for women campaigning in the next elections. This is something that is being formed now. And if American women are interested in contributing, they can write me through the Women’s Network [PO Box 3171, Jerusalem, Israel].
ISRAELI WOMEN PRESS FOR CHANGE
How are women’s issues really faring in Israel?
To answer that question, we need to note two significant factors. One, Israel has no written constitution. Two, Israel’s governmental structure does not provide for direct representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament; instead, voters choose a party and are left with the party’s choice of Knesset members.
Thus the average Israeli citizen is unlikely to feel that she has a direct or effective forum for addressing injustice, discrimination, inequality and violation of civil rights. (A proposed Civil Rights Bill — the first step toward creating a constitution — was quashed by the government in 1990 because of pressure from religious political parties. This bill would also have instituted electoral reform.) Even when activists are organized enough to lobby on a given issue, they have no direct representatives to approach with letters, petitions and phone calls.
Despite these obstacles, there have been some positive changes. Many of these stem from the work done by a 92-person committee established in 1975 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to examine the status of women in Israel. The committee, headed by Knesset member (MK) Ora Namir, submitted a report, known as the Namir Report, with 241 specific recommendations for change; only 37 have been fully implemented.
Some highlights of the recent changes in women’s status in Israel:
• Prohibiting discrimination in job advertising, hiring, work conditions, advancement, training and firing policies, a new Equal Employment Opportunities law was passed in 1988, after many years of lobbying by several different women’s organizations. The new law grants the right to parental leave and family sick leave for either parent. It also outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, with no enforcement mechanism in place to deal with violations, cases must be handled through the courts.
• Equal retirement ages for men and women became law in 1987. The passage of this Knesset bill was the result of a long battle by several women’s organizations, including a much-publicized lawsuit by Naomi Nevo against the Jewish Agency. Nevo had wanted to work until age 65, the usual retirement age for Israeli men, but the Jewish Agency forced her to retire at 60.
• A rape victim can no longer be questioned in court concerning her past sexual history, due to a 1988 amendment to the criminal code on sex offenses. The requirement for corroboration in rape cases was abolished in 1982.
• Recently, a bill dealing with domestic violence was proposed in the Knesset. The bill would enable the victim to get a temporary restraining order against the batterer, and there would be mandatory arrest for violating the order. The Namir Report had also called for the establishment of battered women’s shelters; today there are only four.
• The Ministry of Education issued instructions to teachers and principals in 1987 asking them to remove sexist books from the classroom and to emphasize sexual equality in the curriculum.
• Public schools will be moving back to a “long school day” program. Since 1982, school dismissal has been between 12 and 1 p.m., causing serious child care problems for working parents. One woman who recently spent a year in Israel declared that the truncated school day and the havoc it wreaked with her schedule as a working parent was a primary reason for her not staying there.
• Sex education in the schools was mandated in 1987, but implementation and monitoring of this requirement has been slow.
• In 1989, the Ministry of Religion proposed a law to allow the civil courts to impose civil sanctions on men who refuse to give a get (divorce bill) after the religious courts have ordered them to do so. However, women still cannot divorce their husbands or be judges or witnesses in religious courts, and only men may remarry without terminating their prior marriage under certain conditions (the problem of Agunot).
• The Leah Shakdiel case, a major victory for women’s rights, ensured the right of women to serve on municipal religious councils.
More than a decade after the Namir Report’s recommendations were first issued, there is still much unfinished business on the Israeli women’s agenda:
• Abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy. Israeli law currently allows for abortions only after review by a three-person hospital committee. Abortion is only granted if a woman is younger than 16 or older than 40; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or extra-marital sex; if the fetus will have a defect; or if the pregnancy will cause a physical or mental health hazard to the mother.
• Equal pay for work of comparable worth in traditionally male and female jobs.
• Increased career options for women in the army by advancing women officers to senior ranks.
• Guarantees that women will fill 25 percent of the slots on all political party “lists!’ Labor and Mapam have 20 percent guarantees for national elections, but there is no mechanism for enforcement so the guarantee is ignored; Shinui opposes such a guarantee, and the other parties have not stated their positions. In the last election, the number of women in the Knesset went down to 7 out of 120, the lowest ever in Israel’s history. These disappointing results have prompted several prominent feminists to consider reviving the Women’s Party in Israel, which had a short-lived history in the late 1970’s.
In addition, several new areas need addressing. Groups of women in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, claiming that the medical establishment pays no attention to women patients’ rights, are trying to establish an effective women’s health movement.
Women are also lobbying for the right to pray as a group at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a case which is currently before the courts.
Finally, many women’s groups are considering whether to continue pursuing change through halacha (Jewish law) or to demand changes in civil law to provide for secular marriage and divorce.
Benson is a New York-based attorney who recently spent six years in Israel working on behalf of women’s issues. This article was based on research conducted under the auspices of the Israel Women’s Network