Womens rights are in jeopardy, maintains Israels top feminist

Women's rights in Israel have "absolutely, undeniably" improved over the past four years, said Alice Shalvi, chairwoman of the Israel Women's Network.

But asked whether women's rights are in jeopardy, Shalvi noted, "I think one has to say, `Yes.'"

Shalvi, founder of IWN and Israel's leading feminist (she also happens to be an Orthodox Jew), was in San Francisco after joining 1,000 women at the first Feminism and Orthodoxy conference in New York, a gathering she applauded.

What American women have but Israeli women lack "is a strong modern Orthodox community," she told a group from the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation's Women's Alliance at a recent breakfast meeting.

This, she noted, is one of the reasons she's concerned about sustaining the advances that have been made in the last four years for Israeli women in the military, the workforce and politics.

In 1993, though "many people were captives of the myth that equality was achieved," there were no women on boards of government-owned companies (utilities, transportation and the postal service, for example). In legislation that IWN helped to formulate, the Supreme Court ruled that government-owned companies must have members of both sexes on their boards.

Today, 24 percent of board members are women.

"There's still a traditional `old boys network,'" Shalvi said. "But we are making progress."

There are three female Supreme Court judges. Some 55 percent of Israeli women earn a bachelor's degree, and 40 percent earn advanced degrees. One-third of Israel's Ph.D. candidates are women, as are one-half the country's law school and medical school students.

In the Israel Defense Force, the only positions still closed to women are combat units, though Shalvi admits that the "prestigious chief of staff positions" are still held by men.

Thirty women are currently training to be pilots. This is the result of another Supreme Court decision brought about by IWN with Alice Miller, who was denied the right to test for the position solely because she is female.

Because of the ruling, Miller was allowed to test, but failed because she was considered "too highly motivated," Shalvi said.

"My grandson, who is a very laid-back young man, was accepted," she mused. Nevertheless, the women pilots receive "full support from their male colleagues and there is no hazing."

Because of their presence on boards, women have begun to be used as "experts" on television and are quoted in newspapers. Female correspondents cover newspapers' defense, political and economy beats.

The IWN has compiled a directory of 300 women in important positions.

"We have presented it to everyone in government and media, encouraging them to choose women," she said.

It is the religious courts, however, that cause real concern for Shalvi and the IWN. "We have made no progress whatsoever," Shalvi said, citing as particularly troublesome the areas of divorce and "who is a Jew," which in turn affects marriage, health and other family matters that are under the jurisdiction of the religious courts.

"You and we must be on alert that the Orthodox parties do not undermine the power of the Supreme Court," she warned. The IWN has been unable as well to work in the Orthodox community. "Ultrareligious women can't afford to be associated with us," she said.

The IWN has been able to effect modest changes, however, by working carefully, quietly and strictly behind the scenes.

For example, a new law allows judges to remove a batterer from a home until there has been a court hearing — an important change that keeps pace with the increase in domestic violence reported in recent years.

But, said Shalvi, "A lot of the magistrates don't even know the law exists."

When a conference of dayonim (religious court judges) was to take place in a Dead Sea resort, the IWN set up workshops by a well-known therapist who works with violent men to teach judges the law and how to recognize when battering is taking place.

Initially, Shalvi's group planned to have female experts teach the course, but quickly learned that "the dayonim wouldn't listen if a woman gave the course. He gave it from a man's perspective and they listened."

As an added plus, Shalvi said, the judges' wives came to the seminar and now provide a new group of potential allies.

In another instance, the IWN learned that more ultrareligious women were dying of breast cancer. Because of modesty, she explained, they were unwilling to have mammograms. The IWN worked with the rabbinical authority to get rabbis in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem's ultrareligious community, to issue an edict that women must get mammograms.

In addition, they arranged for the services of female doctors.

The IWN is now launching a campaign to identify women who have completed leadership training courses who are appropriate for local public offices, and to help get them elected. This will be a springboard to women in higher national positions.

"It's like your Emily's List," the U.S. fund-raising group, "but without the financial backing, unfortunately," she said.

Shalvi believes their chances for success are good. "Women are 52 percent of the total vote. We just have to get them to vote."