FEMINISTS AND SOCIAL change organizations have mounted a campaign against
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s decision to raise the mandatory retirement age
for women so that it will be the same as it is for men.
Under a law
passed in 2004, women, but not men, may retire at age 62; if they wish, they may
continue to work until age 67, when retirement is mandatory for both
That same legislation mandated the establishment of a public
committee to examine the implications for the national budget and for women of
raising the retirement age.
But the finance ministers did not establish
any such committee until early 2011, when Steinitz established the “Nissan
Committee,” a multidisciplinary special committee, headed by the ministry’s
budget director, Udi Nissan. The committee, which handed in its proposals in
late June 2011, recommended that the mandatory retirement age for women be
raised to 64 by 2017 and 67 in 2026.
Since, according to that same
legislation, the finance minister is permitted to raise the age to 64 without
further debate or approval if the committee recommends it, Steinitz moved
quickly, attempting to keep his decision under the public radar. But little in
the Knesset remains under the radar for very long, and the decision rapidly came
to the attention of several feminist-minded MKs, who shared the information with
The “Coalition of Organizations Against Raising
Women’s Retirement Age in Israel,” a hastily-formed ad hoc umbrella group of
women’s and social rights groups, mounted a sophisticated public campaign of
lobbying, letter writing, and savvy, intensive use of the media against
Also acting quickly, MKs presented a series of bills
to the Knesset to stymie Steinitz’s intention, which passed in their first
meetings by a cross-party majority of 67 to 1 (Steinitz being the one).
Following standard Knesset procedure, the bills have been referred to committees
for fine-tuning and integration and are expected to be brought for second and
third, final, readings when the Knesset reconvenes in the fall.
and the government don’t seem to understand that Israel has changed,” fumes
Dorit Abramovitch, the feminist campaigner who coordinated the efforts.
Referring to the wave of social protests in Israel, she continues, “The public
will no longer allow the government to make decisions that affect our lives
without even informing us about them.
That’s not democracy and the public
will not tolerate this any longer.”
Yet despite the extensive public and
political opposition, Steinitz still does have the option of unilaterally
deciding to fix the retirement age for women at 64. Steinitz’s media advisor
Sharona Mazlian-Levi informs The Report that the minister has “yet to make a
final decision on this matter,” but declined to provide more
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE equal age requirement indicates
that feminists have clearly progressed beyond anachronistic demands for formal
and numerical equality to more nuanced understandings that sameness in the
context of inequality is substantively unfair.
The Nissan Committee’s
recommendations for raising the retirement age are predicated on the argument
that this will increase women’s participation in the workforce and thus broaden
the tax base from which the National Insurance Institute (NII) draws its pension
and other payments. The more years women participate in the workforce, the
argument goes, the larger their monthly payments will be and the more money that
will accrue to the NII, since it will not be forced to supplement low-level
pensions with income maintenance payments. Women, they argue, can only benefit
And indeed, while 72 percent of men aged 55-64 participate in
the workforce, only 53 percent of women in that age group do, according to data
for 2009 provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
But binding women
to the labor force by law, insists Barbara Swirski, executive director of Adva,
a Tel Aviv-based social-economic think tank, will only make them poorer. The
reasons that women are not participating in the work force, she contends, are
related to “Israel’s highly discriminatory labor market,” in which women face
the twin problems of ageism and sexism.
“The reason so many older women
aren’t working isn’t because they don’t want to,” she says. “It’s because older
women are the first to be fired and the last to be hired.”
according to data provided by the Mahut Center – the Forum for the Promotion of
a Multi-Age workforce, nearly half of the Israeli women in the 45-64 age bracket
are in a state of “deep unemployment” (meaning they have been unemployed for
more than 270 days). Less than one-fourth of men are in the same
Thus, raising the retirement age puts women in a particularly
Explains Abramovitch, “If a woman is fired at the
age of 60, or even 55, she has almost no chance of finding another job. At least
under the current situation, she ‘only’ has to wait until she is 62 to become
entitled to her pension.
In reality, raising the age of retirement
doesn’t mean more years of paying into the system – it means long years of
poverty. And when the woman is finally entitled to receive that pension, it will
never be enough to pull her out of the debt and despair that she will have
Furthermore, Abramovitch notes, in Israel’s
traditionally-oriented society, women are expected to devote more time to
housework and child-rearing. They thus have less opportunity to advance their
careers. “And so they wind up working in physically challenging work, like
cleaning and child care, where they make minimum wage or less. Forcing them to
work additional years would not only be unfair – it would be cruel.”
continues, “Of course, men suffer from ageism, too. But they don’t suffer from
sexism, and it is the combination of the two that makes the situation for women
even more difficult. We need programs to correct the inequities of the labor
market and address the needs of both men and women, including sanctions against
ageism and incentives for hiring and keeping older workers. But until the
government institutes such policies, numerical equality is an abusive
Steinitz and the Treasury are just trying to cynically increase
the government’s coffers on the backs of women.
“Equality is supposed to
be an end-result; it’s not a means to reaching other goals, such as trying to
balance the budget,” she states.
Agrees Swirski, “Raising women’s
retirement age without correcting the faults in the system, including making it
easier for women to enter, remain, and advance within the labor force, merely
make things worse for women. Instead of legislating formal equality, the
government should view the lower retirement age as a form of equalization or
compensation for the discriminatory situation in the workplace.”
COHEN, A CHECKout clerk at a branch of a large supermarket chain in Jerusalem,
says she is “counting the days” until she can retire.
“I’m 59 now, and I
can’t afford to retire early, because I’ll have no income. I’m paid by the hour
and I only make minimum wage, and it’s really not enough to live on.
I have no choice.”
Short and diminutive, with dark grey hair covered by a
nondescript, faded kerchief, Cohen talks with The Report during a mandatory
15-minute break from her shift, which is automatically deducted from her salary.
She looks around, almost furtively, as if to see if anyone is listening to her
conversation, although she is standing outside in the parking lot. She drags
heavily on her cigarette and sips the coffee in a mug that she has brought from
home. The supermarket does not supply coffee or snacks for its
Cohen says she knows that she probably wouldn’t be affected by a
change in the law, but “just the idea frightens” her. “I only finished 11 years
of school, and then I got married and then the children came. I hate my job, I
hate earning minimum wage, and yet I’m thankful every day that I have a job. If
I get fired, I’ll never get another job. Who will hire me at my age? I raised my
three children and I only went to work when they were older. But then I had
breast cancer and was sick for quite a few years. I’m fine now, and I don’t get
any disability benefits.
“I work shifts and nights; before Shabbat, I
work until really late so I can get a bit more money. It’s hard work – customers
are often angry if I don’t work fast enough or don’t lift heavy things, like six
packs of bottled water, quickly enough.
And management is constantly
watching me, to see if I slow down or I make a mistake, because then they’ll
fire me and hire someone younger.
“It’s hard work,” she continues. “There
are computer lists and bar codes and things that didn’t exist when I went to
high school. I’ve never had a chance to study.”
She concludes, “I really
do think about my 62nd birthday. I’ll retire. I’ll celebrate with my husband.
He’s a janitor, but he’s older than I and will also retire in three years. And
then we’ll spend our old age together, quietly. We won’t have much money, but at
least we will have some time.”
OFFICIALS IN FAVOR OF RAISing the
retirement age openly acknowledge that the stability of pension funds and the
future of social welfare are also significant factors.
Esther Dominissini tells The Report, “With longer life expectancy rates,
especially for women, we must create additional resources to support and provide
pensions for these longer life spans. The reserves of the NII are shrinking and
it will become increasingly difficult to pay benefits.
We already face a
deficit of some 2 billion shekels, based on actuarial tables.”
Abramovitch, “That is the kind of macro-economic thinking that the social
protests are fighting against. Covering the budget deficit at the expense of
Israeli women is cruel and immoral.”
It also may be bad politics. Only
one other MK expressed any support for raising the retirement age – Einat Wilf,
from Atzmaut, the break-away party established by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
But Wilf absented herself from the vote.
Support for the proposed
anti-Steinitz law was so widespread – crossing the spectrum from Yisrael
Beiteinu on the right to Meretz and the Arab parties on the left – that the
government did not even attempt to impose coalition discipline on its members,
thus undermining its own finance minister.
Abramovitch attributes the
success of the campaign to several different factors. “I don’t think that the
MKs have suddenly all become raging feminists,” she notes wryly.
do think that the coalition was able to work well and effectively and bring the
real travesty of this move to their attention.”
The summer protests have
emphasized social justice, Abramovitch says, and women have also been
collectively empowered by the conviction of former president Moshe Katzav on
charges of rape and sexual assault. “Women have become aware that they have to
struggle for justice for themselves.
And politicians have come to realize
that there is a gender gap developing in Israeli politics.”
Western countries, Israeli voting patterns have never revealed a gendered voting
pattern, or what is commonly referred to as a “gender gap.” But this, says Prof.
Hanna Herzog of Tel Aviv University may be changing. “In the 2009 elections,”
she tells The Report, “the attempt by some of the parties to mount a negative
campaign against Tzipi Livni [head of Kadima and candidate for prime minister],
focusing on the fact that she is a woman, backfired. In fact, it heightened
women’s awareness of gender issues. When women are undecided about candidates,
the gender factor can make a decisive difference regarding whom they’ll vote
And since women usually make up about 2/3 of the undecided voters,
taking women’s issues into account may be not only fair – it may also be smart