Israel Through a Gender Lens

Issue #5: Women’s Wisdom

Women Wage Peace: On the Political Power of Knowledge, Solidarity and Hope

On a bright Friday morning earlier this month, more than 200 Women Wage Peace activists from near and far crowded the lecture hall at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law for the inaugural session of a new program: Women Wage Peace Talk Security, designed to harness the power of knowledge, theory and practice to increase women’s participation in decision and policy making processes, most urgently in matters of security and foreign policy.
The inaugural session featured two leading scholars in the field of gender studies: Prof. Dafna Hacker, Head of the Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, and Prof. Miri Rosmarin, lecturer at Bar Ilan University and Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Institute.
Dafna Hacker took us on a journey of feminist her-story, from late 19th century to current days. “Women should not shy away from power”, she said, “and our collective power grows out of our solidarity with women of diverse communities”. Miri Rosmarin urged us to use our political power as women to place our perspectives front and center and to address gender power relations as the infrastructure that enables the continuation of the conflict: “Women have a broader spectrum of political emotions; they bring hope – a powerful political emotion – and the quest for a better future”.

Prof. Miri Rosmarin addresses WWP activists. Photo by Anat Saragusti

Storytelling and Critical Pedagogy

How many of you visited Ofakim, Kiryat Shmona or Yafi’a on your trips to Israel? Not many, if I was to take a guess. These communities, in the north and south districts of Israel are often off the grid of missions and study tours. But if you were to visit them one day, you will find the women activists who are transforming their communities, fostering resilience, agency and hope.
I had the privilege of facilitating two storytelling workshops: one for the women volunteers of the Resilience Center in Ofakim, a small Jewish town in the Negev, and one for members of the General Assembly of Mahapach-Taghir (Transformation), women activists from Jewish and Arab underserved communities. It was an immersive learning experience in intersectionality and a resounding reminder of the sheer power of stories in constructing critical thinking.
Ask a woman curious, appreciative questions, and the stories will pour out like a fountain, rich with memories of formative events, traditions and legacies handed over from one generation on to the next. Ask women to share their stories and they will offer rich narratives of loss and love, pain and pride, hardships and hope. As women to tell you about their journey towards agency, and they will teach you a valuable lesson about resistance and resilience.
They will tell you about aggressions their endured and the abilities they discovered in themselves; about the first time they realized they have the capacity to lead and about the appetite for change that comes with small and big achievements. They will tell you about the support they offered and received and will proudly show off their children who started out as school kids in the communal learning center they helped or the local youth movement they initiated, who are now making their first steps as leaders in their own right.
Next time you come to Israel, make sure you take the time to meet these women and let yourself be found in their stories.

“From Memory to Story” workshop in Ofakim. Photo by Yahaloma Zchut

Issue #4
Local She-roes

If you are following the news from Israel, you know we are going for national elections again in September. In upcoming issues, we will report on what feminist organizations and activists are doing to make their voices heard in national politics. However, un this week’s update, we want to shed light on local initiatives by women who are working to make their cities better and safer for all women and are setting an example for other localities.

Itach-Ma’aki (Together with You) Women Lawyers for Social Justice: City for All

This unique program strives to advance equality for women in Israeli cities by developing and implementing a holistic model for municipal-level gender equality, institutionalizing women’s participation and leadership in local policymaking and making city services appropriate for women’s distinct needs. The ‘City for all’ model is inspired and informed by a community of diverse women created in Rishon Letsion, a Jewish city on the coastal plain. The program operates in Acco and Haifa, two Jewish-Arab cities in the north of Israel, and Tayibe, an Arab city at the heart of Israel, and works to increase effective leadership of Advisers for Gender Equality, integrate gender inclusive structures within city hiring, program design and allocation of resources. To watch a short video about City for All click here 

She-roes of Beit Shemesh

The unholy alliance between institutionalized religion and politics has far reaching implications on the lives of women and girls in Israel; from issue of personal status, through exclusion in the public sphere and being banned from singing in publicly funded events, to lack of political representation in Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, to name a few.

However, women are putting up a fight and refuse to be excluded and silenced. Such is the case of a group of amazing women in Beit-Shemesh who, with the help of IRAC – Israel Religious Action Center, have claimed back their city. Dr. Nancy Strichman, an evaluation specialist, lecturer and an avid cheerleader for social change and civil society groups, dedicated a beautiful article on the Times of Israel Blog to these women and their allies:

“A group of local wonder women in Beit Shemesh have an especially large reserve of special powers- courage, unflappable determination and patience- and they have been able to create new alliances to bring change to their city”. Read more here

Issue #3
Elections! Again?

“Prime minister failed to mediate between Lieberman and ultra-Orthodox parties, sending Israel to its second election in six months”, says the Ha’aretz English edition headline of May 30th, 2019.
As a storyteller for social change, I often seek to make sense of political events by having conversations with people. Anger, confusion and deep mistrust in political leadership and its motivations were the responses I encountered this time. “We have yet to heal from the April 9 elections”, people said, referring to the highly toxic and divisive recent campaign.
In seeking to make sense of political events, I am always equipped with my gender lens, my dear and trusted companion that constantly urges me to ask questions such as: “how does this effect women?”, and, “what can women do to change this reality?”. Hence, I turned to my colleague and mentor, journalist and political commentator Anat Saragusti, and asked her to write a short article that will shed light on the dramatic events of the week.

The Banality of Ego
By Anat Saragusti

The main reason behind the decision to take Israel through another election could be summed up with one word: Ego.
Neither advance espionage equipment nor sharp political savvy would have exposed any other reason for the Knesset to convene at the dead of night on May 29 and decide to embark on another election in three months.
The decision has no practicality to it. It’s all personal. Netanyahu claimed to have won the previous election. But when it came time to put his mandate where his mouth is, he failed. The bottom line is Netanyahu couldn’t form a government. And that is why he didn’t win. Furthermore, the negotiations Likud held with its potential coalition partners proved that even the demands set were, how to put it? Completely personal. All they were interested in was the Immunity Law and the High Court Override Clause. These two were meant to provide Netanyahu with a safety net if and when it was decided to indict him after a hearing. These two prerequisites presented by Likud weren’t meant to better the lives of the public, nor Netanyahu’s voters. Neither was designed to deal with the burning issues on the public agenda: A failing health system, social gaps, the deep divides within society, crumbling infrastructures, lagging public transportation, the withering agriculture, a sinking welfare system, the ever-expanding exclusion of women, the precariously escalating incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens, the delegitimization of the left, and above all – for better or worse – the presentation of Trump’s “deal of the century” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will now be postponed for many months.
Good or bad, the reveal of Trump’s deal could have altered reality, if only for bringing diplomacy back into the agenda, rejuvenate the discourse around peace, and perhaps even lead to some kind of breakthrough.

This decision must be looked at through two different prisms:
A profound crisis of faith in the political system. When everything is personal, when leaders betray the mandate given to them by the public, when cynicism overtakes sincerity, something in the fundamental pact between us, the public, and our elected leaders, is fractured. The contract which states that we vote for them and they promote the issues we care about was not fulfilled.
This crisis painfully expressed itself in the last election with the generally low voter turnout, but particularly low among Arab citizens, who barely crossed the 50 percent threshold.
The second prism is the practical implication of this decision: the continued freeze over all government activity – the way it has been since the last election was announced in December. A transitional government can’t make important calls, further new topics, allocate budgets or anything.

And above it all hovers, of course, the gender perspective.

These ego struggles were played by men. It’s hard not to sink into the poignant notion that what happened was the result of male thinking which considers everything a zero-sum game. It’s either you or me.
The outgoing Knesset, which managed to sit for solely a month, was characterized by an especially low number of women. But that’s only a small part of the picture. If a government had been formed, it is doubtless that not only it would’ve had few women, but that women wouldn’t have had a real seat at the table, and it is highly unlikely we would’ve seen a woman in the security cabinet, where the critical decision regarding state security, war, and the peace process are made.
Neither side of the political map had enough women with experience, or an ambition to sit on these forums. For this to change in the upcoming election seems far-fetched. Issues that matter to women, such as violence against women, equality in the job market, breaking the glass ceiling and more – were not set front and center in the previous election. It seems dubious that parties seeking our votes would make gender the top of their agenda – not simply by the makeup of their slate, but in a more rooted way, which brings to the things that matter to us to the forefront.
So we all lost in these ego games: The politicians who voted against the conscience and interests, the state – which will now descend into heavy spending, the political system itself, and the voting public, of course. What transpired here is a malevolent use of the democratic toolbox.

Many thanks to Daniel Gouri De-Lima for the English translation of the article

Issue #2: Guns, Eurovision and Iftar

It has been yet another busy week in Israel. The public debate concerning the negotiations to form the new government in the shadow of Netanyahu’s “Immunity Law” initiative and the talk of an “Economic Summit” in Bahrein, were the two hot-button issues on the agenda. Oh, and the heat wave.

You can read all about these issues on any Israel English news website of your choice. Hence, in this week’s update, we want to share with you stories you will most probably not find there. But these stories are important; they are inspiring, sometimes disturbing, uplifting. They are the stories of women who are dedicating their lives to making Israel a better place. In this week’s issue, we bring you stories from Women Wage Peace, Gun Free Kitchen Tables Coalition and from Nena Bar, a feminist disability rights activist.

Speaking up about gun violence in our streets and homes

Gun Free Kitchen Tables coalition, comprised of feminist and human rights groups, has petitioned the High Court of Justice to issue an interlocutory injunction to stop the application of criteria promoted by outgoing Public Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, which significantly ease restrictions on carrying civilian firearms. While the court did not grant the injunction, it did order the State to present the work of Ministry staff on the issue. The conversation on this critical issue will continue, thanks to the coalition’s relentless work. Rachel Beit Arieh, founding member of Politcally Corret, a leading independent feminist news and content platform writes:

“Members of the Gun Free Kitchen Tables Coalition, working to minimize the proliferation of arms in the public sphere, say Minister Erdan’s assessment that more firearms means more security, isn’t factually based or rooted in evidence, but relies on the minister’s hunch. “It presents a skewed perception of what security means,” Suchio said”. Click here for the full article

Bursting the Bubble of Exclusion

Last Saturday, Israel hosted the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. Kan 11, the public broadcast corporation, launched a most impressive production, highlighting the wealth of local talent and creativity. For the first time since the contest has been broadcasted, a separate channel was dedicated to making the show fully accessibly to deaf people. Nena Bar, a feminist disability rights leader and advocate wrote in an op-ed column on Tel Aviv TimeOut Magazine about the healing power of been seen, heard and included on and off the stage:

“While all of this did not gloss over the disgrace of the lack of accessibility in the Independence Day ceremony (only a week prior), it shows that here we have it, a revolutionary model that allows us to tell broadcasters: Burst the bubble and learn this new, egalitarian vision presented by Kan. As someone who’s experienced the invalidation of sign language because of an archaic perception of deafness, I felt elevated and complete at the sight of a screen speaking in sign language. The body gives into the vibrant movements of the language in space, and for a moment I felt like I had room in it. In these moments I wanted to reach out and touch the hand of the girl I was, who never watched TV, and say to her – here, it’s happening”. For the full article, click  here

Lee Dan, sign language interpreter, at the Eurovision Song Contest. Kan screen shot

“There is no better security than peace” 

Indeed. Sometimes, the most powerful truths are told by unsung heroines, like Naheed, an Arab activist from Jaffa, who spoke at a joint Iftar dinner this week.

During the month of Ramadan, Women Wage Peace is holding joint Jewish-Arab Iftar dinners, breaking the fast together and forging a stronger partnership, in stark contrast to the toxic political atmosphere.

Wishing our readers Shabbat Shalom and a peaceful weekend.

Issue #1: Voices from the field

“We are doing OK, all things considered. There are times in the day when it gets unbearable, but it motivates me to act and to repair”. 

This is the text message I received from my colleague Niva Re’em, Executive Director of Collot BaNegev (Voices in the Negev).

This text conversation took place shortly after the April 9, 2019 National Elections in Israel, when PM Benyamin Netanyahu once again won the race, and another cycle of lethal violence erupted on the southern border. I reached out to Niva whose home and community were under constant missile attacks from Gaza, and found myself supported and inspired by her unwavering commitment to repair, her resilience and faith in our collective capacity as activists and leaders to bring about positive change.

But if you opened the TV or browsed the media headlines, you were unlikely to hear voices like Niva’s. As is often the case, when the conversation is about politics and security, the voices of women are absent.

The 21st Knesset will have 29 female members, as compared with 36 in the previous one. Less than 25% of the members of Knesset are women, and more than half of them – 15 of 29 – are new. Many of them have no record of championing women’s rights and gender equality. It remains to be seen how the new government and Knesset will fare on women’s rights and gender equity.

The decrease in the representation of women in the Knesset should be a cause for concern for those of us who support women’s rights and gender equality in Israel. In an article written for a special 2019 national elections project by the Heinrich Boel Foundation, journalist and feminist activist Anat Saragusti, gives us a sneak into the present and near future:

“Therefore, one can say with near certainty that there will be even fewer women sitting around the next government table (in the outgoing government, 4 of the 22 ministers were women). Furthermore, the expected composition of the government will deprioritize gender equality and other issues important to women, will not advance gender mainstreaming, and will not make provisions for an equitable distribution of state resources”. Click here for the full article.

The exclusion of women, their voices, needs and concerns is a real challenge. But feminist organizations, leaders and activists are working hard to address this challenge.
For example, a new joint project of the Israel Women’s Network and Calcalist, a leading news outlet on economy and finances, monitors the performance of different government ministries through a critical gender lens:

“The Interior Ministry promotes exclusion. The Ministry of Public Security is not doing enough to prevent violence against women, and the Ministry of Finance is delaying raising the retirement age for women. In a special project of the Israel Women’s Network and Calcalist, we examined the extent to which government offices are working for the benefit of all citizens.” Click here for the full article.

Earlier this month, Israel commemorated Memorial Day, to collectively mourn and remember those who sacrificed their lives in wars and in active duty. Heli Jacobs, a bereaved daughter, Orthodox feminist activist and business entrepreneur and participant in the “Connecting for Impact”* cohort , wrote a poignant piece about how wars never really end and continue to have a steady presence in our lives, and especially in the lives of those who lost their loved ones:

I want us to linger on the damage and not the memory, on the confounding discipline of celebrating Memorial Day and what follows the moment that the flag returns to full mast – what kind of a society is growing here, what sort of children and mothers go about the streets as they carry war inside them – what is the depth of a life inside constant conflict?” Click here for the full article

*Connecting for Impact is a joint initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the Tel Aviv University Gender Studies Program, designed to leverage the collective impact and enhance the sustainability of the feminist arena in Israel.

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