International Women’s Day falls out right around Purim, the holiday celebrating Queen Esther.

Don’t tell it to Shas, and don’t announce it on the streets of Ashkelon, but it was the brave, daring, shrewd exploits of the virginal Esther that saved the Jewish people.

Women, too, can make a difference.

As we all know, women continue to suffer even though their legal status has changed, because it is difficult for society to rid itself of age-old patterns of thought, deep-rooted oppression, and sexist images that are still rampant in movies, newspapers, advertisements, television, etc.

A brief survey of contemporary Israeli society reveals that while about half of Israeli women work outside of the home, the lion’s share of the housework and childcare still falls to them. Most women in Israel make only minimum wage, and men’s salaries are almost double those of women. The unemployment rate is also higher for women than for men.

Women continue to work in jobs that are regarded as feminine, such as education, welfare, nursing, or clerical work, and the number of those who advance to senior administrative positions, both in the public and the private sectors, is still negligible.

At a time when in the third world we are witness to the flowering of women’s leadership, the representation of women in the Knesset and in the Israeli government is shameful.

And this is in spite of the fact that women are more educated, and more women are earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at colleges and universities nationwide. Even in the universities, where there is ostensibly gender equality, only 13 percent of tenured professors are women. It is worth noting that the percentage of women in the Knesset and in the government has additional symbolic significance, since it is a sign of the extent to which the democratic ideal has been realized.

When I served as the Israeli ambassador to Moscow, appointed by Shimon Peres, who was then foreign minister, I was astonished to discover that we have succeeded in marketing the myth of equality all across Israeli society. Many of the women from local women’s organizations with whom I met believed this myth, and commented that “with you it’s different, but with us...”

We have somehow managed to keep secret the discrimination against women by the monopoly of religion and of religious parties and the centrality of the military-security system, with its hierarchical, undemocratic leadership which manages to exclude women from the circles of decision-making. Not to mention the apartheid system on Israeli buses.

How fortunate that the Russian feminists haven’t heard about that one.

I have often been asked if there is any chance of creating a women’s political party in Israel. Aside from the fact that Israeli women have a complicated relationship with feminism, it seems to me that the issues that divide women into factions – issues of religion and state, Right and Left, majority and minority – will not allow it.

Moreover, in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, it was decided in 5768 (2008) to award the Israel Prize to the three largest women’s organizations – Naamat, Wizo, and Emuna – for their contributions to the advancement of women in Israel, for fighting violence against women, and for their educational work. It was noted that thanks to their contributions, Israel became an international leader in advancing the status of women.

The awarding of the Israel Prize on Yom Ha’atzmaut, according to the Israel Prize website, underscores the organic, intrinsic connection between political and cultural independence.

Bestowing the prize on Yom Ha’atzmaut serves to remind the nation, time and again, that its independence is dependent on its cultural richness, which cannot exist unless the nation strives to maintain all facets of its identity. These words should spur us on: “The Israel Prize has been awarded to a wide range of citizens, both men and women,” notes the official website, but only 13% of the prize recipients are women. It is worth noting, too, that about half of the recipients are members of the academy. Are there no women in academia who are deserving of the prize? Today, when life in this country has changed so dramatically, the time has come for a woman presidential candidate. And there are several women who are fit for the task.

The author is the provost of the Yezreel Valley College, and the former Israeli ambassador to Moscow.

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