The Knesset’s Female Pride

Yardena Schwartz

Yardena Schwartz

Freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer

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With little fanfare, Israel’s parliament has become one of the world leaders in female representation. But there’s still a long way to go.

Since Israelis went to the polls in March, the government they elected has drawn attention for its shift toward the religious Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shaky coalition, and the controversial deal-cutting that came with it. Far less attention, both in Israel and abroad, has been paid to the record number of female members of Knesset. Of 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, women now occupy 30 of them. 25 percent of Israeli legislators are female, outdoing the U.S. Congress, where 20 percent of lawmakers are women.

Some might say this is unsurprising. After all, one of the first female prime ministers in history was Israel’s Golda Meir. Referred to as Israel’s “Iron Lady” decades before Margaret Thatcher earned the iconic title, Meir commanded the Jewish state through the tumultuous years of 1969 through 1974. During that time, she led the country through the Yom Kippur War and the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes.

But aside from Golda Meir, few women have held positions of power in Israeli politics. For many years, they have struggled to make their voices heard in a country where the military plays a central role. Ten years ago, women were just 15 percent of the Knesset, and only 10 percent 20 years before.

Today’s female Knesset members point out that 25 percent is still far from satisfying, given that half of the Israeli population is female. They also note that the number of women in the Knesset is hardly reflective of the many challenges that Israeli women still face. Gender equality, they say, remains disappointingly out of reach.

Statistics bear this out. Figures from the Economics Ministry show that Israeli women, on average, earn 32 percent less than Israeli men. In comparison, according to White House figures, American women earn 23 percent less than their male counterparts. The latest annual Gender Index, published by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, shows that the number of Israeli women working part-time jobs is 89 percent greater than that of men. Women in the Israeli labor market, the study concludes, “are often perceived first and foremost as mothers (or future mothers) and hence as secondary in the context of the labor market.” Many Israeli women hold part time positions in order to meet the demands of their families and housework.

I spoke with five female Knesset members to hear their perspective on the state of women’s rights in Israel, the progress that has been made, the challenges that remain, and how they intend to solve them.

Gila Gamliel (Likud)

Knesset term: 2003-2006, 2009-present. Formerly the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Gila Gamliel was recently named Israel’s first Gender Equality Minister. She is also the Minister for Social Equality. Prior to her Knesset term, Gamliel was a sergeant in the Israeli Air Force, a rare position for a woman. She was also the first and only woman to lead the National Union of Israeli Students.

Yardena Schwartz: You were recently named Israel’s first Minister for Gender Equality. Some have said that the fact this position was created is, in and of itself, a sign of the progress that’s been made in awareness of gender inequality. How do you feel about the state of equality in Israeli politics?

MK Gila Gamliel: We have the highest number of women in the Knesset now, but it’s still not enough. It’s not equal yet. In the government, we have just three women out of 21 ministers. This is not enough either. The percentage is still very low. We need to persuade more women to first become candidates and then elected. A lot of women are not even coming forward as candidates, and this is something I want to work on. I’d like to help women find more opportunities to get involved in politics.

This is on the one hand. Right now my primary focus is working on the gender budget. This means that before we propose the Israeli budget, I ask all the ministers to show the government how they are dealing with the gender issue in their budgets. For example, in sports, in culture, in health, every office has to show how they are focusing on gender equality, how much money they are devoting to the issue. This will be the first time in Israel that gender will be part of the process of submitting the budget. Now every minister needs to think about the gender issue when they submit their budgets. For example, if you want to fund research in health, you need to show how, as a health minister, you are putting money into researching women’s health.

MK Gila Gamliel is the Minister for Social Equality and Israel’s first Minister for Gender Equality. Photo: Kobi Gideon / Flash90

Likud MK Gila Gamliel is the Minister for Social Equality and Israel’s first Minister for Gender Equality. Photo: Kobi Gideon / Flash90

Schwartz: Why do you think we don’t see more women in Israeli politics, both at the legislative and ministerial level?

[Israelis do not vote for individual candidates, but for political parties. The parties field lists of candidates, and those highest on the list will be given seats in the Knesset based on the percentage of the vote each party receives.]

Gamliel: Unfortunately, in Israel we have a lot of parties, and not all of these parties hold primaries. There are several parties where the person who determines the party list is a man. You can see this in [Avigdor] Liberman’s party Yisrael Beiteinu, in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and in [Moshe] Kahlon’s Kulanu. They have a lot of seats in parliament, yet there is no primary to determine the members on their party list. The head of the party is a man, and he decides who is on his list. And, of course, you have religious parties where there are no women at all.

Even in the parties with primaries, you don’t see too many women candidates, because it costs a lot of money and you need to be a member of the party first. Unfortunately, there are not enough women starting out in politics to begin with, because in the Israeli parliament, many members come from the army; if not the army, then from the municipalities and student leadership positions. In the municipalities, we have only six women mayors out of 250 cities. Women represent just two percent of mayors.

As for Israel’s main student association, I was the only woman ever to lead it. The leaders are typically men. We need to get women more involved in municipalities and student associations in order to see more women enter Israeli politics at the highest level.

We may have opened the door. But even though we opened the door, you don’t see so many women walking through it.

Schwartz: How did you get your start in politics?

We have the highest number of women in the Knesset now, but it’s still not enough. It’s not equal yet. In the government, we have just three women out of 21 ministers. This is not enough either.

Gamliel: I started when I was 24, working on students’ rights. Back then I focused on gender equality in academics. In Israel, 60 percent of undergraduate students are women, 50 percent of graduate students are women, and the majority of Israelis with a PhD are women. Yet only 20 percent of university professors are women. And that doesn’t make any sense. This also affects the number of women in high positions in the universities.

I looked into this gap, and it turns out that many universities prefer professors who earn their PhD abroad. This often prevents women from becoming professors, because at the age when they would obtain their PhD, they are between 30 -40 years old and have young children. It’s difficult for women to leave the country for a year or two with their husband and kids. So we tried to figure out how women can earn their PhD abroad through video conferencing, or by traveling back and forth, without having to leave Israel for a year. Now we’re working with universities to see if certain subjects can be more flexible. I’m not saying professors of all subjects should be able to stay in Israel rather than go abroad, but I do think that in the case of the majority of subjects in Israel they can do it.

Schwartz: In your near-decade as a member of Knesset, what are some of the more important accomplishments you’ve made in advancing women’s rights?

Gamliel: As an MK, I passed a law to punish employers who fire pregnant women, and a law making sexual harassment between teachers and students illegal. I also passed a very important law where, in cases of rape, the criminal, once released, will not be able to live or work near the victim. This is actually a very new law.

Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union)

Knesset term: 2013-present. Merav Michaeli is considered one of the most prominent champions of women’s rights in Israel. She is the chairwoman of the Zionist Union faction in the Knesset, and chairs the Caucus for Female Knesset Members. Prior to this, Michaeli worked to raise awareness of and funding for Israeli rape crisis centers. She was also an acclaimed journalist, hosting various radio and television programs, and writing for Haaretz.

Yardena Schwartz: What has been Israel’s greatest achievement in the field of women’s rights over the last decade?

MK Merav Michaeli: I think it’s the cumulative effect of everything related to the fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault. This is something that happened in the U.S. long before it happened here, because you had the revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which we didn’t have at all.

When I started fighting against rape and sexual assault in 1995, it was only the beginning of a cultural, political revolution on a fringe issue. Now, in the last decade, I think it’s really been legitimized. It’s not like the battle is over, but it is already embedded not only in people’s minds but also in institutions.

I think the fact that there are more women in powerful positions is certainly progress as well. Today there are more models of empowered women, which is the most important thing. You can’t be what you can’t see, as we all know.

Schwartz: What made you become a champion of women’s rights in Israel?

MK Merav Michaeli addresses the Knesset, July 23, 2013. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

MK Merav Michaeli addresses the Knesset, July 23, 2013. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

Michaeli: I do not have a point when I remember myself becoming a feminist. As Gloria Steinem said, a woman can be a feminist or a masochist. So for me it was always obvious. Since I was very famous from an early age, and made remarks about feminism on my shows, I became known for my feminist views. Then in 1995, two directors of rape crisis centers in Israel asked me to host their fundraisers. I had been to one a year before and it was absolutely pathetic. It was lousy, sleazy, small, horrible. I told them, “I’ll do everything you ask me to, but why are you contributing to this image that rape is something so dark and taboo? You need to hold it somewhere big and famous where you can bring lots of rich and famous people to make it something huge.”

I gave them this speech about how it should be done, and they looked at me like, “How do you do this?” I asked them, “Don’t you have people donating to your cause?” They said no one is willing to be identified with rape, and even those who help will only do it incognito. So I made a list of every prominent woman I knew and put together a group called Ezrat Nashim [literally, “help for women”], or the Rape Crisis Center. My agenda was to make it a legitimate cause, to make it possible to talk about rape, and to have it covered by the media and understood by the public. We organized a huge campaign. We got all the media to cover it. And we did this in just six months. We had a huge event with famous people.

This was the beginning of 1997, and it was Netanyahu’s first term. Actually, it’s funny, Sarah Netanyahu endorsed it. I can’t see her doing that today. So that was where it really began for me. I started with rape crisis centers and realized that I’m very good with fundraising, raising awareness, working with members of the government, lobbying officials, and pushing legislation. Back in 1995 the Rape Crisis Center had 5,000 calls a year. Now it’s almost 45,000. Their budget has increased 12 times over, and government support has increased five times over.

When there are more women with a strong political will for peace, then that makes a difference. But it’s not enough to just have women involved; you need to have feminists. And you need to have women and feminists who are peace-oriented.

Schwartz: What is the most important issue for feminism today?

Michaeli: Peace is the number one feminist cause. Generally speaking, wars are being made by men. Women are, as with many other things, subjected to the consequences of what men do. Both in terms of being hurt themselves, losing their loved ones and their children as casualties or as soldiers; and being victims themselves not only as casualties, but also of rape as a war crime. Women are more likely to solve problems peacefully. So peace is the number one feminist cause.

Schwartz: Do you believe that if women played a larger role in politics and decision-making, Israel would have already reached or at least gotten closer to a peace accord with the Palestinians?

Michaeli: I believe that a big component of being able or unable to reach peace is political will. And certainly when women were strongly involved in such cases as “The Four Mothers”—who in the nineties campaigned to withdraw IDF soldiers, their children, from Lebanon—they succeeded, and saved many lives. So I say that yes, when there are more women with a strong political will for peace, then that makes a difference.

But it’s not enough to just have women involved; you need to have feminists. And you need to have women and feminists who are peace-oriented. We need to have more women simply because we need equality. Even if they don’t think as I think about peace, they need to be there. But yes, I do think that when we have more female MKs and ministers, yes, hopefully, we will be able to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Schwartz: What is the greatest challenge to women’s rights in Israel?

Michaeli: There isn’t one greatest challenge. There are many. One of them is marriage. The fact that we still don’t have civil marriage in Israel is certainly a problem. Many women will be married through religious marriage, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, because there is no alternative, and they don’t realize what the meaning and consequences are. They will have to go through humiliating divorces or won’t be able to divorce at all because their husbands won’t let them. They will go through divorces that will deprive of them of rights that should be theirs, because the husband has more leverage in the divorce process.

So this is a major issue and a huge obstacle. In the past there have been governments without ultra-Orthodox members, and without religious parties at all. Yet secular politicians in Israel are afraid to touch this issue, because they’re not adequately informed about Jewish marriage laws. So they’re afraid to touch something they don’t really understand.

MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) speaks to the press during an introduction day for new members of the Knesset, February 3, 2013. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

MK Merav Michaeli speaks to the press during an introduction day for new members of the Knesset, February 3, 2013. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

Now this government has both the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox, and really there’s no difference between them on this issue. So civil marriage is not in sight. Actually, not only is there no progress on this issue, but there’s some backsliding. Because what this government did was it transferred the responsibility over the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Ministry, which means that the standards will be even more religious and less just. It may get even worse now.

Another challenge is the growing battle over women in the public sphere and the phenomenon of women’s exclusion. It started with singing, and spread to public speaking at ceremonies and even professional conventions that will not allow women to either speak or participate. We have a growing problem in higher education with increased separation between men and women. And besides the problem of separation itself, women in some cases are not allowed to teach men. Men are allowed to teach women, of course, but in some places women are not allowed to teach men.

Schwartz: How do you hope to create a more even playing field for women in Israeli politics?

Michaeli: I proposed legislation in the last Knesset that requires parity [an equal number of men and women] on the list of every party that wants to run for the Knesset, as a mandatory requirement. All of the female members of Knesset signed it, and 15 of the men. We’ll see how it does in this Knesset. I have to say, I was surprised by the number of men who signed. I didn’t expect to find 15, given that the Orthodox won’t sign it, nor will those who identify with their belief in a sort of “right” to avoid having women or to forbid women from representation on their lists.

Rachel Azaria (Kulanu)

Knesset term: 2015-present. Rachel Azaria is one of the newest female Knesset members. Yet she has been active in Israeli politics for years. She was the founder of the Yerushalmim party in 2008, a Jerusalem City Council member from 2008-2013, and Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem from 2013-2015. Before she became a politician, Azaria was an environmental activist, and remains a board member of Green Course, Israel’s largest environmentalist NGO. From 2004-2007, she was the director of Mavoi Satum, the premier advocacy organization for Jewish women who have been denied a get—a religious divorce—by their husbands.

Yardena Schwartz: What do you think it says about Israeli society that there are more women serving in the Knesset than in the U.S. Congress?

MK Rachel Azaria: It may not be the way we appear, but I think we’re a very liberal society. Over the past few [Knessets] we’ve seen a process. In the beginning, it was clear that you had to have women on the party list, but they weren’t in realistic slots. They had no chance of getting into the government, because they were at the bottom of the list. But then women’s rights organizations carried out campaigns saying women need to be in realistic slots. In the last election, parties with several women on their lists were praised. And this time it wasn’t just that whoever had a lot of women on their list got applause. Lists without women were shamed. But it’s a process. I think, in the next stage, women should be nominated for serious positions in the government. Because in the end, even if you’re in a high place on a party list, it doesn’t mean you’ll get a serious ministry. I think that will be the next stage for women in politics.

We haven’t reached equality. We’re working hard to get there. There were eight deputy mayors in Jerusalem. I was just one female out of eight men. During the campaign, and in the municipality, I felt how much harder it was as a woman. Nationally, there is only one woman who heads a party list [Meretz]. In the past there were more.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria attends a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on a proposal to raise the land tax, June 22, 2015. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria attends a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on a proposal to raise the land tax, June 22, 2015. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

I think it’s part of the process. The parties want women in slots that can actually get in. It’s easier for people to vote for men. They’ve been voting for men forever. If you think of history, the people who shaped the country were men. So a woman isn’t something that’s obvious. I think that’s a big challenge.

I think that politics is one of the last places to catch up, actually. This is the second time in Israel that we’ve had a woman at the head of the Supreme Court. The chief of the Bank of Israel is a woman. The head of one of Israel’s largest banks is a woman. Many officials at the top of the Finance Ministry are women. So in finance and justice, women are clearly ahead of where we are in politics. And, of course, we’re way behind in the army. Top military positions were opened to women only 20 years ago. It will take time to get there with the army and with politics. In the Knesset, we’re catching up, but in the government less so.

Schwartz: Why do you think it’s so important to have more women at the table?

Azaria: Women’s perspective on life is very different than men’s perspective on life. Once upon a time all medical research was on men. And then they discovered that, with heart attacks, the medicine they were giving women wasn’t good for them, because all of the research was done on men.

You can see it in urban planning. Cities were planned by men for men. Not because they didn’t think of women, but because you think of what you know. Many of our cities are not safe for women at night. If women planned them, they would be much safer. For example, women think of schools as part of a neighborhood: Can children walk to school or not?

In the end, even if you’re in a high place on a party list, it doesn’t mean you’ll get a serious ministry. I think that will be the next stage for women in politics.

With everything in life, our perspective is different. We need to be at the table, because otherwise the world will continue to be organized by men for men. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just how it is when women aren’t at the table. I was often the only woman around the table at the Jerusalem municipality. People would have proposals and I was the only one who realized they wouldn’t work. It occurred to me that the men weren’t thinking about the other 50 percent of the population.

Schwartz: How did being a woman make it more difficult for you during your time serving in the Jerusalem City Council and then as deputy mayor?

Azaria: During my campaign for city council, they wouldn’t put my face on the buses. Every candidate had his face on a bus. That’s just part of a campaign. And that was really upsetting. I knew other things would challenge me as a woman running for Jerusalem City Council, but I didn’t think that would challenge me. I knew I’d have more babies, and I’d have to prove myself more. Especially as a young woman, you need to work hard to be taken seriously. You need to know the material better than anyone. I knew I’d have to work hard. But to not be allowed to put my campaign poster on a bus? I did not expect that.

My campaign didn’t give up. We went to the Supreme Court, and we won. Since then it’s become a big cause for me, and now it’s something people are much more aware of. It still happens, but now people get upset about it right away. In the beginning I felt like a crusader and now I feel there’s a huge army working on these issues.

Schwartz: How did being a woman make you a better public servant?

Azaria: I brought voices to the table that weren’t being heard. In the Jerusalem building committee, it was ten men and myself. I always tried to think about how the neighborhood could be safer for women at night. Things like wide sidewalks, cafes on the street, these are some of the things that make cities feel safe. I was often saying that even though landlords want their buildings to be used for housing because it provides more rent, cafes are good for bringing safety. That’s a voice that would never have been there.

After becoming deputy mayor, I worked against excluding women’s images from public spaces and advertisements in Jerusalem, and lobbied for more Jerusalem streets to be named after women. I also made Jerusalem easier for young families by decreasing the pre-school age to 11 months, and making afterschool care free or subsidized for low-income families. I also established a support program for families of Jerusalem reservists called up for army service.

MK Rachel Azaria speaks with Economy Minister Aryeh Deri during a Knesset plenum session, July 15, 2015. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria speaks with Economy Minister Aryeh Deri during a Knesset plenum session, July 15, 2015. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

Schwartz: What do you hope to accomplish in your first term to improve the state of women’s rights?

Azaria: The K-3 education system in Israel is very expensive. It means many women don’t go back to work or it takes longer for them to go back. This affects their salaries when they go back to work, they don’t accumulate sufficient retirement funds, and their children are in day care, which doesn’t help them develop the way they should. So I’m proposing a program that will cut down the costs of early education.

And, of course, I plan to work on the issue of chained women [women who are refused a religious divorce]. The issue of the get is by far one of the greatest challenges to women’s rights.

Hanin Zoabi (Joint Arab List)

Knesset term: 2009-present. Hanin Zoabi is the first Palestinian woman to serve in Israel’s parliament on behalf of an Arab party. She is one of the most outspoken and controversial members of Knesset. In May 2010, she took part in the Gaza Flotilla campaign to protest Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip. She was on board the Mavi Marmara when violence broke out between activists and IDF troops, leading to the death of nine passengers. Zoabi was arrested by Israeli authorities.

Upon her release, she announced that Israeli soldiers had stormed the ship “to cause the largest possible number of fatalities in order to stop such initiatives in the future.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai asked the attorney general to revoke Zoabi’s parliamentary immunity and her Israeli citizenship. The requests were rejected. Zoabi received hundreds of death threats and was assigned two bodyguards.

In July 2014, Zoabi received more death threats, this time for what was seen as her justification of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel. Five days after Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the boys, Zoabi said in an interview on Israeli radio, “Is it strange that people living under occupation and living impossible lives, in a situation where Israel kidnaps new prisoners every day, is it strange that they kidnap? They are not terrorists. Even if I do not agree with them, they are people who do not see any way to change their reality, and they are compelled to use means like these.” Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset for six months.

Prior to entering parliament, Zoabi was cofounder and director of the NGO I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel.

Joint Arab List MK Hanin Zoabi attends the weekly party meeting at the Knesset, June 29, 2015. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

Joint Arab List MK Hanin Zoabi attends the weekly party meeting at the Knesset, June 29, 2015. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

Yardena Schwartz: Does it encourage you to see the rising number of women in the Knesset?

MK Hanin Zoabi: For me, the number of women means nothing, because we still have 91 men [now 90, after Likud MK Danny Danon resigned and was replaced by Sharren Haskel]. And we cannot say that we are doing good or bad because of the number. What is important here is the ideology, the values, the political attitudes of these women. Sometimes, when we say women, we have this expectation of a political perspective which is more attuned to justice, equality, and freedom; because we are usually the weaker members of society, suffering from violence, living on the margins. We often expect that every person who experiences some kind of marginalization or inequality will develop more of a sensitivity to justice and develop a more democratic perception of reality. But this is not the case.

It is not a question of whether we have the right number of women. It’s a question of whether we have a feminist perspective. Women can be chauvinists no less than men if they’ve adopted the chauvinist system of values. Likewise, sometimes men can be more feminist than women. Most parties in the Knesset don’t believe in full civic equality or national equality. Most of them support a Right-wing hegemony that dominates Israeli society. So we can expect that women Knesset members within these parties will develop this system of values. And with this system of values, they cannot be catalysts for change, whether it’s political change or social change.

Schwartz: How do you hope to advance Arab women’s rights in your current Knesset term?

For me, the number of women means nothing, because we still have 91 men. And we cannot say that we are doing good or bad because of the number. What is important here is the ideology, the values, the political attitudes of these women.

Zoabi: I’ve been working for six years in parliament to increase Arab women’s employment, and I will continue to do this. The most important factor we can change in Arab society, and which will have the maximum effect, is increasing the percentage of working Arab women. With this we are fighting against poverty, taking into consideration that 55 percent of Palestinian society lives under the poverty line, and 65 percent of Arab children are under the poverty line. Of course, women will also achieve self-determination by working. It’s also a tool to tackle violence against women. More economically powerful, independent women can defend themselves from various sorts of violence. This is important not just for women but for society.

Increasing Arab women’s employment will also have a powerful effect on developing the infrastructure of Arab villages and towns. This is the most important factor we need in order to develop Arab society and villages, because if you want to increase the percentage of working Arab men, these men can go to work in Jewish industrial areas. But if you want to increase employment of Arab women, you must develop the Arab villages, because women will not drive one or two hours outside of their homes. Arab women want, just as Israeli Jewish women want, to work a maximum of 30 or 40 minutes from their homes and their children. So you need to develop the infrastructure, the villages themselves. It’s not a matter of just empowering Arab women, but empowering and developing Arab society itself.

I will continue to concentrate on this, the issue of violence against women, and the issue of equal political representation for women.

Schwartz: Why is violence against women such a pervasive issue in Palestinian society?

Zoabi: We are a more conservative society. We adopt social values and social norms which don’t recognize our equality with men. It’s easy for men to be violent against women, because there is a level of forgiveness for those who perpetrate violence against women. Within Arab society there’s more patience toward those who act in a violent way, and there’s even acceptance of norms and social attitudes which legitimize the inferiority of women. That being said, this is not the majority. But even if 90 percent condemn violence against women, and just one, two, or three percent act in a violent way toward women, the 90 percent won’t hold them accountable. We don’t punish them socially. We are indifferent, and indifference toward violence reinforces violence.

Schwartz: What advancements have been made in Israeli-Arab society over the last decade in terms of women’s rights?

Joint Arab List MK Hanin Zoabi speaks during a Knesset plenary session, May 6, 2015. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Joint Arab List MK Hanin Zoabi speaks during a Knesset plenary session, May 6, 2015. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Zoabi: The role of Arab women in the public sphere is increasing. Of those who finish high school, about 55 percent are women. Of those who graduate with a BA, more than 55 percent are women. The same with an MA. So we must stop seeing this in an Oriental view. It’s complicated, and it’s improving.

Schwartz: Do you think you would be able to hold the kind of political position you have in Israel if you lived elsewhere in the Middle East?

Zoabi: There are more successful Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Tunisian women in politics and economics than Palestinian women in Israel. So my answer is very clear: Yes. This is not the case at all.

[Women do serve in the parliaments of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Other than Tunisia, however, women play very minor roles in these countries. In Egypt, just two percent of parliamentary seats are occupied by women, compared to three percent in Lebanon and 12 percent in Syria.]

Schwartz: Do you think you would be able to criticize the government as much as you do here if you lived in a neighboring country?

Zoabi: If you’re talking about Saudi Arabia or Jordan, we are talking about dictatorial regimes. Even the men there are oppressed. Is there more freedom of expression in Israel than in the Arab world? I would say yes. But it’s more complicated than that.

Israel gives Israelis more freedom of expression because it knows that their freedom of expression will not change the rules of the game. We enjoy the freedom of expression that is part of the democratic system, which Israel wants to guarantee to its Jewish population. But the minute Israel realizes that our freedom of expression can embarrass Israel in the international community, it has a mechanism for taking away that freedom.

You really can’t talk about freedom of expression to Hanin Zoabi. They tried to disqualify me in 2013 and 2015. They have incited against me. They even said I wanted to throw Jews into the sea. They tried to assassinate me politically. So you can’t say Palestinians enjoy freedom of expression. Especially me. They have used everything, even trying to pass a special law to disqualify me from the Knesset. They threatened to revoke my citizenship. It’s freedom of expression as long as you don’t cross red lines, and freedom of expression has no meaning when you say things that fit with the social and cultural hegemony. When you challenge nothing, you don’t need freedom of expression.

Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid)

Knesset term: 2013-present. Karin Elharrar has spent much of her adult life fighting for the rights of the most marginalized members of Israeli society—the disabled. As a lawyer and a handicapped woman who uses a wheelchair, Elharrar has sought to increase awareness of the needs of disabled Israelis. Prior to entering politics, Elharrar was director of the legal clinic at Bar-Ilan University, where she specialized in the rights of senior citizens, Holocaust survivors, and the disabled.

Yardena Schwartz: On what issue do you think progress is most needed in order to advance women’s rights in Israel?

MK Karin Elharrar: I really do believe that we should work on the marriage and divorce issue in Israel. Women are still very much inferior to men on that issue. As far as wages and job equality, I think there are no alternatives but affirmative action. And that’s the way to start things. It worked for people with disabilities, and I think it will work for women. As I see it, the first time a company is forced to hire a woman, but the next time they see the advantages of hiring women; so it isn’t something they are forced to do.

I think that affirmative action is definitely the way to start bringing more women into the consensus, to start making them a fully equal segment of society. Like people with disabilities, women are still marginalized in every field of life you can think of; if we talk about health, if we talk about education, everything.

Schwartz: What do you think should be done in order to resolve the inequality inherent in marriage and divorce laws in Israel?

Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharrar leads a meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee, June 8, 2015. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharrar leads a meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee, June 8, 2015. Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90

Elharrar: Marriage is still under the rabbinical courts. A Jewish woman who wants to get married and recognized as a married woman or part of a married couple must go to a rabbinical court. So this means that getting a divorce is also done through a rabbinical court. And according to Jewish law, women have fewer rights than men. I don’t think we should abolish Jewish law, but we should make it something you can choose. If you choose to be married by a rabbinical court, that’s fine. But you should have other alternatives.

We tried to enact the civil marriage law in the last Knesset but we didn’t succeed. I really do think Israeli society is going through a major revolution on this issue. I don’t think we’ve changed yet, but I think there is progress and we’re still in the middle of it.

Schwartz: Why do you think the civil union law failed in the last Knesset?

Elharrar: The Jewish Home party said we shouldn’t change the status quo, and that this was something we should not even talk about. They didn’t even want to discuss the issue. In the coalition agreement, they had been given the right to say what happens in matters of Jewish faith and religion.

Now, in this government, we went backwards in very significant ways. Now we have [ultra-Orthodox parties] Shas and United Torah Judaism, and they are much more extreme on this issue. I think it’s not even an option to talk about it at the moment.

[Shortly after this interview, Yesh Atid presented another civil union bill. On July 8, it and a similar bill proposed by the Meretz party were rejected by votes of 50 to 39.]

Schwartz: Do you think the influence of ultra-Orthodox parties in this government will put women’s rights in reverse?

Elharrar: Unfortunately, the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] don’t think women should be a part of politics. There was a party of Jewish religious women who wanted to run for Knesset and the Haredim didn’t really give them the chance to be elected. They convinced their community not to vote for them. The daughter of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef [the late spiritual leader of the Shas party] wanted to join Shas, but eventually she didn’t. So, as we see, women are not allowed to be part of the religious parties and I don’t see them being permitted in the near future. Maybe in the far one. But we do see Orthodox women becoming more politically active than in the past. The fact that they want to run is progress, and there is courageous work being done by religious women’s NGOs. Rape and sexual harassment in their community are things they were never talking about and now they are much more active in talking about it.

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