Slowly but steadily, Israeli womens rights improve

There is a story Sue Fishkoff tells when making a point about women's rights in Israel. Speaking from her home in Carmel, the former Jerusalem Post staff reporter prepares to tell it again.

"I like this story because it illustrates the dichotomy of male-female relationships," says Fishkoff, who just moved back to the United States from Israel, where for years she wrote on social issues, including women's rights and Arab-Jewish relations.

"I have a girlfriend, an Israeli woman, who was in a Jerusalem hospital for the birth of her first child, a baby boy. Holding the baby shortly after his birth, the attending nurse told her, `Mazel tov on another soldier for the IDF.'"

Calling the story a demonstration of the male-driven importance of the Israeli army, Fishkoff maintains that the Israel Defense Force has the power to make or break the professional future of a young Israeli.

"In Israel, military rank is everything," explains Fishkoff. "And serving in active combat — something women are barred from — affords the highest status."

Fishkoff, who was recently in San Francisco to speak to a group of young Jewish adults, says that after leaving the IDF, men of high rank will "parachute to the head of companies — something women, essentially, are barred from. It's the Old Boys' Network."

The evening with Fishkoff was sponsored by the Young Adults Division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Open Circle of the American Jewish Committee. It was one of many events being held throughout the Bay Area in celebration of "Israel at 50."

A sought-after speaker, Fishkoff last year was awarded the B'nai B'rith World Center journalism award for the best article on Israel-diaspora relations — a two-part series on the Jews of Ethiopia.

Before working as a full-time reporter with the Jerusalem Post, Fishkoff served as the paper's New York bureau chief, where she covered news affecting Israel and the Jewish community, including the World Trade Center bombing, the Jonathan Pollard case and Israel's changing position at the United Nations.

While Fishkoff feels that Israel is behind the United States when it comes to women's rights, she suggests that there is one area where Israel is "light years ahead."

Israel has very generous laws relating to maternity leave, she says. "You can't fire a pregnant woman, and they can go on leave for up to a year. Furthermore, the day-care system in Israel is excellent, enabling women to continue working after their children are born."

Fishkoff expects that conditions will continue to improve for Israeli women. "Right now Israel is where America was 25 years ago. In the '70s, feminists in America were being called bra-burning lesbians. Up until about five years ago, they were still being called that in Israel."

However, Fishkoff worries that the younger generation of Israeli women are much less interested in joining external movements than they are in focusing on themselves. "It's like the `me' decade we had here. Right now, young people in Israel are much more into traveling to Asia than fighting for women's rights," she says.

Prior to the event, Fishkoff attended a pre-reception for members of YAD's recently launched Ben-Gurion Society. The reception was open to young adults who contribute $1,000 or more to the JCF's annual campaign, which supports Jews in need locally, in Israel and elsewhere overseas. The society will be holding similar receptions with other speakers throughout the year, culminating in a formal thank-you dinner this spring.

To learn more about future programs through YAD's Ben-Gurion Society, call Lisa Tabak at (415) 777-0411.