Uriel Heilman - Israeli women
Israeli women gaining, but equality remains elusive

Israeli women gaining, but equality remains elusive

When Tzipi Livni took the stage in Jerusalem last November at the annual conference of the North American Jewish Federation system, she stood blinking uncertainly for a few moments under the glare of the klieg lights while the cavernous hall thundered with applause.

After the raucous crowd finally settled down, Livni, Israel's foreign minister, launched into an emotional quarter-hour pitch for values in the Jewish state.

"This gathering is about Tikkun Olam," Livni said, using the Hebrew term for "repairing the world." "Tikkun Olam needs to start in doing something for yourself, in understanding better who you are, before you are doing for the others.

"We need not to forget the ultimate goal of the State of Israel," she added. "We need to keep the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, because this is the raison d'etre of the State of Israel." But, she emphasized, "It's not a matter of religion. It is more a matter of nationality. A Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis. It's what we are; it's what each and every one of us feels inside."

The address wasn't the typical stuff of Foreign Ministry speeches. But then again, Livni was not your typical foreign minister.

When she took over as head of Kadima, Israel's largest political party, Livni became the highest-profile woman in the Israeli government. But she's not the only one.

Several key leadership positions in Israel today are occupied by women, for the first time ever. The president of Israel's Supreme Court, Dorit Beinish, whose position is akin to that of chief justice in the United States, is a woman. The speaker of Israel's Knesset is Dalia Itzik; she also served as interim president of Israel after a disgraced Moshe Katsav left office due to a sex scandal. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, is Israel's first female representative to the U.N.

In Israel's most recent municipal elections, held in November 2008, some 300 women were elected to city councils around the country, practically doubling the number of women serving in municipal government, according to the Israel Women's Network.

Outside of government, too, more and more women can be found at the top.

Galia Maor, the CEO of Israel's largest bank, Bank Leumi, was named "Woman of the Year" in 2008 by the leading Israeli financial daily Globes. She also was listed by Fortune magazine as one of the world's 50 most powerful businesswomen. The CEO of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Ester Levanon, is a woman. The president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is Dr. Rivka Carmi, who previously served as director of the Genetics Institute at Soroka Hospital, in Beersheba.

The list goes on and on.

A Slowly Changing Concept

That so many leading positions in Israel are held by women is all the more remarkable for its almost commonplace treatment in the Jewish state. A female CEO? Most Israelis simply shrug their shoulders. A woman leading Israel's largest political party? Israelis seem to hardly notice it.

In considering this phenomenon, it might seem that women leaders are old hat in Israel, which elected its first female head of state back in 1969: Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was the world's third female head of government in modern history.

But Meir's election was an aberration more than an indicator of a trend as she was considered a larger than life figure in modern Jewish history. Before Meir came along and for many years after, Israeli society was dominated by male figures, particularly when it came to positions of power.

Today, however, with so many women in key leadership positions in Israeli government, business, law, and academia, the prominence of women in Israel is not easily dismissed.

"I don't think we've reached the 'era of the woman,' but there's no doubt that, in 20 years, there has been a big difference," says Rina Bar-Tal, chair of the Israel Women's Network, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the status of women in Israel. "Many changes have been made, both on the awareness side and on the practical side."

The proliferation of women at the top surely is a symbol of progress for Israeli women in achieving parity with men. But, in assessing whether these gains are real or merely symbolic, the more significant question is whether women on the grass-roots levels of Israeli society also have seen change.

"Women are still far from equality, but the entire conception of women in society has changed," says Levana Zamir, president of NETA-Women in Management, an organization that promotes Israeli businesswomen. "Twenty years ago, people asked women what their husbands did for a living; today, they ask women what they do for a living. Among the younger generation of women, it's understood they'll have a career. Women are expected to have ambition nowadays. For 100 years, there hadn't been such a significant change in society."

Today, more than 50 percent of the Israeli workforce is female. More than half the graduates of bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. programs are women. Israeli law mandates that women be paid the same as men for performing the same work. The law provides affirmative action for women and, in 2001 the Knesset extended gender-based affirmative action to the public sector. Mothers receive 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, a key sign that the state values the role women play both in the professional world and in the home.

"I think there's a great improvement," Shalev, the U.N. ambassador, told B'nai B'rith Magazine recently. "Women are really shattering the glass ceiling."

Shalev points out that similar changes are taking place in the American political arena, where Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin shattered glass ceilings on their side of the Atlantic in the recent presidential election campaigns. At the United Nations, Shalev adds, there were only eight female ambassadors a decade ago; today, there are 25, with Shalev and Susan E. Rice, the proposed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations of the incoming new administration, the latest additions.

"This is really the age of women, and I think Israel is at the forefront," Shalev says.

The Other Side of the Coin

At the same time, some women's rights advocates still deride Israel as a chauvinistic society. Here, too, they say, one need look no farther than the government for examples.

In 2006, Israel's president was accused of rape, leaving office a year later in the wake of a sex scandal that had become a national embarrassment. Around the same time, Israel's justice minister, Haim Ramon, was found guilty of sexual harassment and forced to resign, although he returned to government just six months later, to take up the post of deputy prime minister. In 2000, Yitzhak Mordechai, Israel's transportation minister and a former defense minister, was convicted of sexual misconduct.

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, author of "Women in Israel: A State of Their Own," says these episodes are symptomatic of a society that is not committed to gender equality.

If anything, she says, the ascendance of women to high-profile positions of power masks Israel's gender problems.

"All these [achievements] are not indications of real, substantive change," says Halperin-Kaddari, who is chair of Bar-Ilan University's Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. "Women's representation in public life and in decision-making positions, although you [the writer] have pointed out some outstanding positions and gains, are exceptions to the general rule.

"The everyday lives of all women in Israel have not really been altered. If anything, they have actually worsened or are about to as a result of the economic crisis, like the situation of all women in the world. Gender-based violence against women has not been diminished; wage gaps have not been decreased."

Halperin-Kaddari points to two major factors unique to Israeli society that hamper women's progress in the country.

One is the military. Although Israel's army has a reputation for egalitarianism that dates back to the fighters of pre-state Palestine, and 18-year-old women are subject to two years of compulsory service, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) actually barred women from serving in combat roles until a landmark lawsuit in 1995. (Women's service in combat during Israel's 1948 War of Independence was born of necessity and was abandoned shortly after the state's creation.)

Today, very few women serve in combat roles, and there are far fewer women than men serving in positions where they acquire skills that later can be applied to high-wage careers in civilian life, such as high-tech.

In Israeli society, the army also serves a role similar to college fraternities in the United States: It is during their compulsory three-year military service that men forge the old boys' network and lifelong connections that come in useful later in life, when they're looking for jobs, places to live, or business connections. Many maintain those connections through annual reserve duty, from which women are exempt.

Changes are also afoot in the IDF, however.

In 2000, Israel's law of military service was amended to mandate gender equality throughout the military, with a few exceptions. In 2001, the Israel Air Force graduated its first female jet fighter pilot, Roni Zuckerman. Since then, a handful of others have followed her lead into flight school.

More than one-quarter of the IDF's officers are women, the number of women serving as secretaries or clerks in the military has dropped by one-third over the last decade, and 88 percent of all positions are open to women, according to the IDF spokesman's office.

The IDF created its first fully co-ed combat unit four years ago, the Karakal battalion, and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah constituted the first time Israeli women fought in battle in current times. The war also saw Israel's first female soldier killed in action, helicopter engineer Sgt. Maj. Keren Tendler.

"In my opinion, nobody thought that girls would go in," one female air force medic, "R.," said shortly after the war, in remarks provided by the IDF spokesman. Even just a few weeks before the war, she did not believe Israel would send women into fighting in Lebanon.

"I would not have believed that we could reach such extreme situations," R. said. "You go in, to the same area which had been struck by an anti-tank missile barely seconds ago. The feeling is crazy-you don't know if your friends were in the helicopter."

R. was part of the team that evacuated the wounded and dead from the helicopter crash that killed Tendler.

"It does not matter who is a male and who is a female," R. said. "If a helicopter crashes, we both have to perform the same tasks, quickly and professionally. We really are not different."

The Orthodox Factor

The other unique issue that hampers women's empowerment in Israeli society is Orthodox-dominated religious control of certain matters of state, such as marriage and divorce law. In Israel, there is no separation of religion and state, and the courts that oversee matters of marriage and divorce apply centuries-old rules that often favor men over women.

Specifically, under Orthodox interpretation of Jewish religious law, husbands have the power to deny their wives religious writs of divorce, known as gets. This is a problem even for secular women-if a husband denies a woman a get, the Rabbinate will not allow her to remarry. And, in Israel, where there is no civil marriage, marriage via the Rabbinate is the only option.

Some recalcitrant husbands exploit this legal loophole to extort their estranged wives, demanding cash, property rights, custody over children, and other stipulations before granting their wives a divorce.

While there is some legal recourse for these "chained women"-called agunot-to apply pressure on their husbands, the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate and the religious courts it oversees rarely apply such pressure.

"The situation has gotten worse in recent years," says Halperin-Kaddari. "Rabbinical groups support men who condition the divorces on demanding their wives give up their rights."

Several groups have cropped up over the last decade or so to try to combat this phenomenon; although there are not that many women in this situation, it has become a rallying call against Rabbinate domination. But, lacking legal power, their actions have little impact beyond the court of public opinion.

Last November, the Rabbinate was supposed to hold a groundbreaking conference in Jerusalem on the issue of agunot, but the forum was canceled at the last minute due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

The director of Mavoi Satum, a group that offers legal, financial, and emotional assistance to "chained" women, argues that the Rabbinate can do more to address the problem. In theory, the Rabbinate has the power to apply pressure on recalcitrant husbands, from freezing their bank accounts to throwing them in prison. But such tactics are rarely put into play.

One group, Kolech, has formulated a prenuptial agreement to preclude the denial of a get by a husband. But it's not clear whether the agreements are enforceable in Israel's religious courts and, in any case, the number of couples who adopt such agreements is thought to be negligible.

While the Orthodox establishment does not countenance female rabbis, an increasing number of women are serving as religious advisers-or yoatzot-passing judgment on matters of religious law for women. And, in December, Kolech announced that it would begin training women to serve as formal judges on rabbinical courts. Though the Rabbinate has not sanctioned co-ed courts, Kolech insists the day is nearing when women judges will be appointed to rabbinical courts.

Even in the Orthodox synagogue, women are no longer hiding behind the mechitza-the curtain that separates men and women during prayer services. At one popular egalitarian Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, Shira Chadasha, women read from the Torah and lead services just as their male counterparts do-albeit on separate sides of the mechitza.

The number of women becoming rabbis in Israel's non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements is growing as well, but the Conservative and Reform movements in the country are still struggling to gain a broad following.

An Economic Aspect

The most significant change for Orthodox women, however, has nothing to do with religion: Over the last 10 years or so, ultra-Orthodox women have flooded the workforce as never before.

Many have attained degrees in Orthodox schools and women's-only colleges, and they have gone to work at schools, joined businesses, or become entrepreneurs. In families where the husband is a yeshiva student, the wife has become the primary bread-earner even while managing the household.

In the Jerusalem suburb of Modiin Illit, an outsourcing company called CityBook Services is one of a host of businesses around the country that cater to Orthodox women's needs. The company provides a women-only work environment, and shifts end at 3 p.m. so the women can go home to take care of their families. More than 120 women work at the company.

"Eighty percent of the people we have here had never worked in an organized way. Those who did, worked in education or as a secretary," says Eli Kazhdan, the company's CEO. "They wouldn't work in a regular place because the environment is not conducive to their religious lifestyle."

All told, some 1,200 ultra-Orthodox women work in Modiin Illit at more than a dozen companies.

Arab-Israeli women, too, are entering the workforce in greater numbers, due to greater access to education for Arab girls and young women. As more Arab women pursue higher education, they defer marriage and achieve financial independence, something that is quite rare in the Arab world outside of Israel.

Critics in the Arab-Israeli community-some women included-view these women's newfound independence as a threat to the family unit and to tradition. As with critics in the Jewish community, they argue that women's rights should not necessarily mean fashioning a role for women that is identical to that of men.

Women's Choice

The question of what constitutes women's progress is as old as the debate over feminism. For some it is a choice between career and family, but for most it is a matter of doing both.

"The feminist movement in Israel in the past 20 years has talked to women about being able to do both-obtain a profession and education, and be moms and have a family," says Bar-Tal, of the Israel Women's Network. "In the United States, women were told to make a choice: Do either/or. That created a wave of women who either don't have a family or a career. In Israel, it's very different."

While economic needs have helped propel women into the Israeli workplace, established attitudes also have kept women in their traditional household roles.

"It's very difficult, because the woman is still responsible for the kids, for the home. But she's also expected to be a CEO, a pilot, or something else," says Zamir, of NETA-Women in Management.

Women's advocates say that women in the workplace are expected to behave as men do-with no special accommodation.

As Israel's highest-profile female politician, Livni often is heralded as the archetype of the career woman. She frequently is described in the Israeli press as cold and calculating, even as she is dismissed as inexperienced. Some columnists and colleagues have criticized her for not being manly enough, and others for being insufficiently feminine.

Livni dismisses such talk. In an effort to soften her image during the election campaign, the foreign minister granted a reporter from Israel's Channel 10 an interview in her home; her husband participated. Early on in the broadcast, the reporter asked Livni, who stood at the kitchen sink making coffee, whether she cooks. "Of course," Livni replied; she prepares dinner every Friday night.

When the interviewer suggested this tidbit might "shatter the persona of the tough career woman who doesn't cook," Livni protested.

"Why does this go together? I didn't expect that from you," Livni admonished the female reporter. Women, Livni was saying, can do one without giving up the other.

Later in the interview, the reporter suggested that one needs both self-confidence and arrogance to run such a complicated country. She asked Livni how she, or "any woman at your age and your experience up till now, can be prime minister of the most complicated country in the world."

A visibly annoyed Livni replied: "Would you ask a man this question, by the way?"

In reality, of course, women may need special accommodation, and this is where government has a role to play. Paid maternity leave, affirmative action, and government-supported early childhood programs all are designed to level the playing field and help women reach positions in society where they, too, can help shape the Jewish state.

Wage equity laws, sexual harassment laws, and other workplace provisions, meanwhile, are designed to eliminate double standards women often encounter at home, in the workplace, and in society at large.

Observers say Israel's laws are years ahead of the United States' when it comes to supporting women trying to juggle careers and families. But, advocates say, Israel lags behind when it comes to enforcement.

Despite the mandate to the contrary, many Israeli women are still paid less than men for equal jobs. Gila Maor, even though she runs Israel's largest bank, has a salary far lower than those of her counterparts. Women in Israel routinely are asked at job interviews about their family status-which is illegal in the United States-because many employers are wary of hiring women they expect to get pregnant.

"It's a myth that whatever woman wants to do, she can make it, and it's up to the individual, and there's no systematic discrimination or problems," Halperin-Kaddari says, adding Israel needs more affirmative action, including the allotment of a designated number of seats in the Knesset for women, to bring women to full equality.

Whether such provisions are fair or subvert democratic and meritocratic processes is debatable. In the meantime, women in Israel are continuing to make gains on their own. When Kadima voters went to the polls in December to choose their Knesset slate, four women made it into the top 10 slots, with Livni coming in at No. 1 and Itzik, the Knesset speaker, at third.

In Israel's national elections in February, more Israelis voted for the Livni-led Kadima than any other party.

Sixty years ago, after Israel was founded, the state was extolled as an egalitarian utopia where men and women worked side by side. But, except for a few kibbutzim, gender equality was more myth than reality.

Now in its seventh decade, with women like Beinish, Itzik, and Maor at the helm of key Israeli institutions, the country appears to be inching ever closer to those ideals.