Attempts to segregate women in Israeli society will be high on the agenda at the quadrennial Enlarged General Meeting of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) in Tel Aviv that starts Sunday.

The conference, which is expected to draw some 800 delegates from 40 countries, will include a panel upholding women’s rights in light of events over the past few months.

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“The recent events surrounding the exclusion of women intensifies the challenges that confront the existence of the State of Israel as a state of equality and democracy,” said Helena Glaser, president of World WIZO, who is ending her term of office after eight years. “WIZO, supported by the Jewish communities of the world, will not let women in Israeli society be pushed aside, therefore damaging the character of the state.”

Concerns over women’s rights in Israel were raised last September when a haredi soldier walked out of a military ceremony that featured women singing, which he said violated his religious beliefs. His protest stirred much public debate and he was later dismissed from his officers’ training program.

The issue reemerged in December when haredi males harassed female passengers who refused to sit in the back of public buses that operated in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Meanwhile, in Beit Shemesh, haredi locals spat on an eight-year-old girl on her way to school because they deemed her dress immodest.

This string of incidents provoked a backlash in the media and both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni spoke out against the segregation of women.

In addition to women’s rights, attendees will also discuss the attempts to delegitimize Israel by its political foes.

“On a worldly level, [the conference] reflects our power to cope with worrying phenomena such as the delegitimization of Israel in the world,” said Tova Ben Dov, chairwoman of the World WIZO Executive. “Only strong communities, which keep close contact with the State of Israel, can cope with the growing criticism against the Jewish people.”

Speakers at the conference will include Livni, President Shimon Peres; Silvan Shalom, Negev and Galilee regional development minister; Yuli Edelstein, minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs; and other members of the Knesset.

Like many other Jewish groups, WIZO has been hit hard by the global economic downturn. Last week, WIZO Italy House in Jaffa said it might have to close because of a lack of funding. The center, which caters to local children at risk, said its donations have been cut in half in recent years. Many other charities that rely on WIZO have also had to cut back on spending in recent years.

Glaser admitted raising funds has become increasingly difficult since 2008, the start of the global crisis, but said WIZO was in a process of revitalizing itself so that it appeals to a younger crowd, raises more funds and remains in strong standing.

“What makes us special is that all these years we knew how to adapt,” she said. “As a person I’m someone who wants change and fast and that process is taking place.”

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