Women's rights activists in J'lem 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Lately, there has been much discussion and hand-wringing about the status of
women in Israel. As an Israeli woman – a professional and a mother – I have not
only observed the debate and its coverage with great interest, I am living
And I can say first-hand that while women in Israel do have
issues to contend with, the situation here is not quite as dire as one might be
led to believe.
In fact, recent trends such as women’s images
disappearing from advertisements and outraged cries by some against hearing
women soldiers sing in military ceremonies have been a kind of clarion call,
waking up both women and men and focusing energies on defining the kind of
society most Israelis want to live in.
Far from perfect, Israel remains a
reliable defender of women’s rights. All women in Israel, regardless of race,
religion or ethnicity, enjoy broad freedoms, rights and protections, including
the right to vote, freedom of speech and career choices. Women are protected by
law from discrimination.
Women occupy Supreme Court seats, lead political
parties and are present in all walks of life.
This is certainly not the
case in much of the world. And in how many other countries in the world does any
woman, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, religious or secular, married, single,
straight or gay receive free fertility care, including unlimited IVF treatments
until she has two children? Despite impressive strides, Israel – like so many
other countries – still contends with gender equality in a number of areas.
Among the most notable are wide wage gaps, particularly in executive positions.
In this, Israel is certainly not alone even among the most liberal of Western
Yet what has happened in Israel in the recent past, and is of
so much interest abroad, is a confluence of a number of trends all stemming from
the same root: the growing influence of a small number of people trying mightily
to impose their way of life on the rest of us, particularly concerning issues of
It is this effort to marginalize women where concerns have
been raised – and more importantly, are being fought and won.
case of women’s images disappearing or forcibly being removed from billboards
and advertisements in Jerusalem so as not to offend the ultra-Orthodox. When the
crusade became public, there was an outcry and a reversal of the
The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, stated: “We must make sure
that those who want to advertise women’s images in the city can do so without
fear of vandalism and defacement of billboards or buses showing
Women’s groups, youth groups and nongovernment organizations took
to the streets in demonstrations and gatherings.
Facebook pages related
to the issue were formed, calling on secular and modern Orthodox groups to work
together to preserve Israel’s tolerant character. Editorials against the trend
were published fast and furiously. TV news shows focused on the subject and now
women are again appearing in ads.
Or take the hot issue of segregated
buses, which has been reported widely in the international media. These
segregated bus lines generally travel through neighborhoods where separation is
an accepted norm. But it is illegal in Israel to force the segregation of men
and women in the public sphere.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled this year
that women traveling on public buses cannot be ordered to sit in the back. Now
signs in buses say that passengers can sit wherever they wish and that anyone
harassing passengers could face criminal charges.
Inspector-General Yohanan Danino ordered his officers to adhere to a “zero
tolerance” policy for discrimination against women, saying it was considered a
From the very top, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu very publicly
rebuked haredi efforts to exclude women from the public domain, saying that
“equality between men and women is absolute – that is how it has always been,
and that is how it will continue.”
Israel is hardly turning into Iran, as
some both here and abroad contend.
Israeli women are free to live
whatever lifestyle they choose. As befitting a true democracy, the majority will
not, in the end, allow a small minority to force its values on the nation. This
Hanukka, let’s celebrate and protect the vast freedoms Israeli women
The writer is the executive director for global affairs at The
Israel Project, an educational organization that provides factual information
about Israel and the Middle East to the press, public officials and public.