Israeli feminists say nation still lags behind in equality

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After weeks of protest from Israeli women's rights groups and Jewish feminists around the world, Prime Minister Ehud Barak added a second woman to his expanded 23-member cabinet last week.

Many women welcomed the appointments of Dalia Itzak as environment minister and last week of Yael "Yuli" Tamir as absorption minister. But faxes from women's groups continue to stream into Barak's office, demanding that he keep his campaign promise to women, who represent half the electorate, to appoint more women than any previous Israeli government.

To fulfill that promise, he would have had to appoint a total of three women to his cabinet.

The apparent ease with which he broke that vow unleashed a barrage of criticism from women, especially since even Tamir was appointed only after male candidates declined Barak's offer.

"This was too little too late, especially since we heard that a woman was not his first choice," says Yael Dayan, a popular female member of Barak's Labor Party who was passed over for a cabinet post.

"Chauvinism is built into the system. We have a big problem with politics."

Barak has hinted that he will keep his promise in the future. But women like Dayan are not holding their breath.

"It is disgraceful that there is not a single woman participating in the peace talks. It is disgraceful that there are not more director generals of ministries and chairpersons of government companies," she said. "All we hear are promises, promises, but I hope something will change."

Feminists say their underrepresentation in politics reflects wider social problems. Discrimination, they say, is caused by the dominant role the military plays in society and politics and by the rising power of fervently religious groups. Serving as a general is often a springboard to the Knesset.

In Israel's recently elected Knesset, women hold only 13 of 120 seats. Although this is a slight improvement from nine in the previous Knesset, some women say their situation has actually deteriorated because the fervently religious Shas Party, which is exclusively male, grew from 10 to 17 seats.

According to the Adva Center, an independent Tel Aviv social research institute, Israel ranks 53rd out of 94 countries in representation of women in the legislature. The center says most developing countries, including sub-Saharan Africa, have a better record of women's representation in politics than Israel.

"Israel's low ranking with respect to representation of women in political life is inconsistent with its high ranking in terms of per capita output," the center stated in a recent report, pointing out that Israel's economy is in the upper one-fifth of the world's developed countries.

For Shelley Yacimovich, a popular Israel Radio political talk show host who has pushed feminist issues into mainstream discourse over the past five years, the closed political boys club is merely a symptom of a wider problem.

"The political representation reflects a very grim social situation," she says. "Israel is both a militaristic society with militaristic values and a clerical society with very conservative values."

Yacimovich still remembers how her editors frowned when she launched her first morning show with a full hour dedicated to discussing the case of a man who burned his girlfriend to death.

"They said, 'How can you do this? This isn't worth an entire hour,'" she recalls.

Despite the criticism, Yacimovich has pressed ahead in raising women's issues, with special emphasis on boosting public awareness of violence against women.

"Feminism is a social revolution," she says. "There is no magic formula, and it will take many years, but we must press on."

Na'amat, Israel's largest women's organization, says violence against women has reached epidemic proportions. The group asserts that 200,000 women have been beaten by their husbands or boyfriends, making one out of every seven Israeli women a victim of violence.

Israeli newspapers have been recently inundated with horrific headlines, including the story of Amnon Cohen, who last month allegedly murdered his wife, Leah, and his two children, and then set them on fire. Cohen had suspected his wife was having an affair over the Internet.

Since 1990, 123 Israeli women have been murdered by their partners.

Aside from the violence, Yacimovich says, the more widespread problem Israeli women face is discrimination in wages and employment.

Women earn about 30 percent less than men in the same jobs in many fields. In the civil service, that figure can climb as high as 50 percent. Only a tiny proportion of senior positions in the civil service and the private sector are held by women.

"This is the most urgent issue, because at the end of the day, money is power," Yacimovich says.

At least, says Yacimovich, public awareness about violence against women is increasing.

Barak himself once rejected criticism of his alleged chauvinism by saying that he understands women because he has three daughters at home. Feminists say this comment patronizes them.

But what about the late Golda Meir? Israeli men commonly dismiss criticism by pointing out that a woman served as prime minister. Yet just as common is a joke that Meir "had balls," a reference to her toughness.

Feminists say this proves that Israeli men think only people with male qualities can reach positions of power.

Yet at least one male member of Barak's cabinet is dismayed at the lack of female representation — and he is an Orthodox rabbi.

"One of the things lacking here is the female aspect of politics," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, appointed to the cabinet last week as the prime minister's representative for social and diaspora affairs.

Scandinavian countries boast the highest proportion of women in politics, with women accounting for 37 percent of the legislature, and Melchior — the outgoing chief rabbi of Norway — thinks Israel should go the same way.

"This is the only way to change the aggressive nature of Israeli politics," Melchior says.

Itzak, Barak's first female appointee to the cabinet, also sees a need for more women in high places.

Chauvinism, she said, is "so deeply entrenched in Israeli society, that I'm afraid we have a long, long way to go."

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