The situation of women and feminism in Israeli politics is full of contradictions. It seems to be getting better all the time, yet there is plenty of room for improvement, particularly in the language we use to describe women in positions of power.
A woman, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, is at the head of our peace talks staff, a job that could impact the future of everyone between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and even beyond, but she's always the only woman in the negotiating room, though that mostly is not Israel's fault. Three lists in the Knesset are led by women – Livni's Hatnua, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich in Labor and Zehava Gal-On in Meretz – but the same number of parties refuses to have female representatives. There are more female MKs than ever before – 27 – but that's only 22.5 percent of parliamentary seats, as opposed to 50% of the population. And, of course, we had a female prime minister, but that was 40 years ago.
Perhaps the foremost contradiction is that females have held many of the most senior government positions, but are unable to escape condescension and derogatory language from men.
This contradictions came to light yet again this weekend, when senior Yediot Aharonot
columnist Nahum Barnea, who is quite liberal in most issues, decided to stoop to grade-school levels and give the leader of the opposition a rhyming moniker: Yacimo-bitch.
What warranted the nasty nickname? Barnea wrote on Friday that the Labor leader was the only politician to release a critical statement after former and soon-to-be foreign minister Avigdor Liberman was acquitted of corruption charges
. Just because he's not criminally corrupt, doesn't mean his actions weren't unethical and corrupt, she said.
What a bitch, right?
Or maybe, what an opposition leader. After all, it's Yacimovich's job to criticize the coalition. Plus, she has consistently spoken out against unethical behavior among politicians, so it's not like her comments on Liberman came out of nowhere.
Plus, Meretz MK Issawi Freij made very similar comments half an hour before Yacimovich, and no one called him a bitch.
Do any major journalists call Finance Minister Yair Lapid a bitch when he baits haredi politicians or calls Yacimovich a socialist extremist? How about her competitor in the party leadership race, MK Isaac Herzog, who has accused her of using Labor institutions to give her an advantage in the primary? Don't bother looking it up; the answer is no.
As Yacimovich pointed out in a Facebook post criticizing Barnea, this isn't the first time he has directed sexist language at her. In 2011, he accused her of trying to be an "outright sex object" for allowing herself to be photographed running on the beach in a long-sleeved, high-necked shirt with not-particularly-short shorts.
Yacimovich called Barnea an "unrelenting chauvinist," but he's not alone.
As a general rule the press in Israel – and elsewhere, but that's not in the scope of this article – often focuses on things that should not be important. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's comb-over is derided in the media and the state of his paunch is analyzed - it's smaller these days, but is that really important? Economy Minister Naftali Bennett came to the defense of his "bro" Finance Minister Yair Lapid on Facebook recently after the latter was caught standing on a stepstool during a speech and mocked for being short.
Plus, vulgarity is par for the course in the Israeli press. One much-used Hebrew expression for confident politicians is "the urine went to his head," for example.
Yet, there's a basic difference in the way male and female politicians are criticized. Urine can go to anyone's head, if one chooses to use that expression, but are overconfident, critical MKs called cocky, or, if you'll pardon a particularly disgusting expression, douchey? Again, don't bother looking it up; the answer is no. Only women have special, demeaning words just for them.
Here's my tip for Yacimovich and other female politicians: Don't let journalists get away with treating you differently.
Whether she realized it at the time or not, Yacimovich allowed herself to be a victim of this phenomenon before the election in January when Channel 2 came to her home to interview her. She memorably opened her freezer and showed containers full of food she prepares for her two children in advance, so they'll have home-cooked meals even when she works late.
Israelis love family, and plenty of politicians of both genders talk about their children, particularly on Facebook. Yet there seemed to be a female-politicians-in-the-kitchen trend since, months earlier, Livni allowed video cameras into her home, capturing her sacrificing to make meat stuffed peppers for her family – while barefoot, though not pregnant - even though she's an avowed vegetarian.
I was reminded of those Yacimovich and Livni interviews while watching the popular US political drama Scandal
, just a few hours before I was scandalized by Barnea's language.
Josephine Marcus, a Democratic presidential primary candidate played by Friends
alum Lisa Kudrow, sat down for a major TV interview, and was asked about sexism by the male journalist sitting in her home. Marcus gave a powerful answer about coded chauvinism in the media:
"The only reason we're doing this interview in my house is because you requested it. This was your idea. And yet here you are, thanking me for inviting you into my 'lovely home.' That's what you say to the neighbor lady who baked you chocolate chip cookies. This pitcher of iced tea isn't even mine. It's what your producers set here. Why? Same reason you called me a 'real live Cinderella story.' It reminds people that I'm a woman without using the word… For you it's an angle, and I get that, and I'm sure you think it's innocuous, but guess what? It's not… You're advancing this idea that women are weaker than men. You're playing right into the hands of… every other imbecile who thinks a woman isn't fit to be commander-in-chief."
Let's stop playing into those hands. Let's not let anyone else get away with it, either.