Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, once nicknamed the “First Lady of the Likud,” is the Knesset’s elder stateswoman. She’s been in the political game longer than any other woman and most of the men around, working to advance women in Israel from her freshman term as an MK in 1992.
This year, as chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols and chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for the Advancement of Women, Livnat seized the opportunity to focus Independence Day celebrations on women, appointing 14 women from backgrounds and professions to light torches in the official ceremony.
Livnat discussed women in Israel with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the 66th Independence Day celebrations.
Why did you decide to make women the focus of this year’s ceremony?
Whenever I get a new job, I make sure I have added value as a woman. When I became chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, I suggested that the topic be “Time for Women,” and it was accepted by all of the ministers.
Some people wanted the torchlighters to be people who are educators or scientists, but I pointed out that there are women in all of those areas.
Plus, other topics have been done before, but this is the first time the focus is on women.
How did you choose the women lighting the torches?
Today, there are women making breakthroughs in every area.
There are even ultra-Orthodox women. Adina Bar-Shalom [who will light a torch] opened colleges for haredi women years ago and now more and more women are joining that framework while remaining haredi. They learn and work and progress.
I’m not telling people what to do, but women should be able to realize their potential. That’s a great thing.
Maxine Fassberg, CEO of Intel Israel, started from nothing and built her career with her own two hands. Now, she promotes more women to senior positions in Intel.
We have a big range of ages, from [former Irgun Zva’i Leumi, Stern Group member and MK] Geula Cohen, , to Gal Yosef, head of the National Student Council, who’s a leader at age 16.
Are there going to be any other activities in honor of women following the torch-lighting?
The torches are the central thing. Beyond that, I’d like there to be more activities dealing with the issue, because I think it’s very important. I want there to be cooperation with the Education Ministry and the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women. We’re working on more possibilities.
What kind of activities do you think there should be to promote women?
We’re just getting started. There are a lot of areas where there needs to be progress. There are women in senior positions in the business world, but there’s a very large wage gap and a glass ceiling that needs to be broken. There aren’t enough women in management in the public and private sectors. We need to fix that. I think these gender gaps need to be a priority.
What can the government do to close the wage gap and increase the number of female managers?
I’m trying to investigate why this is happening, especially in the public sector. The Civil Service Commission is investigating it in-depth and has just started to collect information.
Until the investigation is over, I don’t want to speculate.
In March, the government authorized your and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s proposal to require all ministries to create plans within 120 days to prevent discrimination against women in areas under their authority. This has been an issue for years, with extensive media coverage and even demonstrations. Why did it take the government so long to act?
I started working on the issue as head of the Ministerial Committee for the Advancement of Women years ago when the topic started heating up in Beit Shemesh and there were complaints of [gender-segregated] buses, sidewalks and even funerals.
I asked the attorney-general to look into it, and, unfortunately, it took him a long time, but the results are positive. He told the ministers to give clear instructions forbidding the exclusion of women.
Some things are already in effect. [Haredi radio station] Kol Barama had a public radio license and didn’t allow women on the air, but that changed. I fought them and the attorney-general joined me. Now women have to be part of their broadcasts.
These are processes that take time and we can’t expect it to happen instantly.
You said that you try to help women from every position you have. What are you doing in the Culture and Sport Ministry?
I founded the Council to Advance Women in Sports, with its own budget to encourage girls from age eight to join sports.
Could Israel pass a law like Title IX in the US, which essentially requires equal funding for sports for males and females?
We haven’t reached an equal budget for both genders yet. However, when I entered this job there were hardly any broadcasts of women’s sports on TV and very few people came to the games.
Today, the stands are full of fans, male and female. The games aren’t aired on prime time, but I see a positive change. There’s starting to be greater awareness. Not as much as I’d want there to be, but it’s a slow process.
In your 22 years in politics, do you think there’s been a positive change in the status of women in Israel?
I worked intensively to advance women and grant them equal opportunities even before it was popular. Now it’s more “in” and more and more women and even men are demanding the same.
Today, there’s more recognition and understanding that women can have any job and do it at least as well as men and that women aren’t just meant to be at home.
What about groups in Israel that are less tolerant of that idea?
Some populations still don’t accept it, but even with them, there are changes. It’s a slow process.
When I was education minister, I did a lot to make this issue part of the curriculum. I appointed a committee that, for over a year, went through all school books and took out any gender stereotypes.
I decided not to reprint books with stereotypes. I found texts like “Father went to work, mother made food at home and the son waited for father to come home to get help with his homework.”
We made sure to take those things out.
Traditionally, and not only in Israel and Judaism, women had the job of being home and raising children. It was like that for thousands of years. It’s hard to change people’s state of mind.
We have to work hard and we need patience, because change takes time.