People of the year: The first women

September 21, 2006 11:06
People of the year: The first women

3 women 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski and courtesy)


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By EETTA PRINCE GIBSON As the first halutzot (pioneers) bitterly learned in the early aliya waves, a few exceptions only prove that the rules really haven't changed at all. They believed that the Zionist revolution would bring social justice and gender equality, and so they paved the roads, toiled the fields and manned the defense outposts together with the men.

Then, as now, the individual achievements of remarkable women may encourage other remarkable girls and women, but they cannot create social change.

And so while UpFront highlights the individual achievements of three remarkable women this Rosh Hashana, they, however noteworthy and admirable, provide no indication that Israel has made any progress toward gender equality or social justice.

As individuals, Knesset Chairwoman Dalia Itzik, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Spokeswoman Miri Eisin have climbed high in the institutions they represent. Israeli society, however, remains mired in sexual abuse, income disparities, social injustice and gendered stereotypes that lock both men and women into preconceived roles that limit their personal creativity and the nation's collective benefit.

Chairwoman Dalia Itzik presides over a Knesset in which only 14 percent of the MKs are women. And when the Knesset reconvenes after the holidays, she may well have to deal with legislation from MK Moshe Sharoni, head of the Pensioners faction and chair of the Labor and Social Affairs Committee, who recently promised to propose legislation according to which rape victims and victims of other forms of sexual abuse will have to present their complaints to the police within 96 hours.

Calling abused women's trauma "ridiculous," Sharoni declared that women who are afraid of their bosses should simply "find another place of work."

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch could not be sworn-in to her new position by the nation's president because President Moshe Katsav, like former Justice Minister Haim Ramon and several other public figures, is defending himself against charges of sexual harassment and asked for a 16-hour leave of absence so not to taint the proceedings.

Beinisch will preside over judges such as Nazareth District Court Judge Aharon Aminof who wrote that a child abused by her father "enjoyed it," and the judge who permitted an abusive husband to "share" the family home with his wife. That husband murdered his wife earlier this week.

As the first woman Foreign Press and Public Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister, Miri Eisin, luckily for her, probably won't be called upon to defend the government's approval of the budget that will, according to social activists, cause long-term harm to welfare services, schools, and basic health. She will not have to justify the decision to charge the poor for the war, instead of stopping the decrease in income tax and hiking corporate taxes.

SOCIETY WILL change when we learn to enable each individual, man or woman, to fulfill his or her potential and aspirations, without stereotypical definitions of men's or women's work; when we learn to value the work that all people do.

Gender equality will be possible when Israel becomes a family-friendly state, with employment polices that truly make it possible for all parents to combine work and child care.

Perhaps on some Rosh Hashana in the future we will all be as proud of the men who chose to be kindergarten teachers as we are of the women who make it in a man's world.

Madam Chief Justice

Dorit Beinisch By Dan Izenberg On September 14, Dorit Beinisch was sworn in as Israel's first woman Supreme Court President. She did not reach the pinnacle of the judicial system by chance but by dint of a long and successful career as a senior attorney in the state prosecution and 11 years on the Supreme Court bench. When her predecessor, Aharon Barak, appointed Beinisch to the court in December 1995, he knew that she would one day succeed him.

When Beinisch began her studies at Hebrew University after leaving the army, Barak was an instructor in her course on theory of law.

"As a teacher," said Beinisch in her farewell speech to him at the Supreme Court last week, "he captured our hearts with his creativity, his original thinking and his search for a cohesive legal system."

Barak remained her teacher and mentor ever after until the day last week when she stepped out of his shadow. On the same day, Barak told his "dear sister, Dorit, 'spread your wings and fly.'"

Beinisch,who is married to lawyer Yehezkel Beinisch and has two children, was born in Tel Aviv in 1942, the daughter of a teacher and a tax official. She served in the army as a lieutenant in the Department of Manpower and moved to Jerusalem to study law after her release. She received a bachelor's degree and was called up to the Bar in 1967. While apprenticing in the Justice Ministry, she earned a master's degree.

Her career in the state prosecution was meteoric. In 1989, she was appointed Israel's first female State Attorney.

During her years in the state prosecution, Beinisch proved to be a principled and fearless attorney who ran afoul of the government in power more than once. In her most famous battle of principle, she publicly opposed a government decision to grant a pardon to three senior Shin Bet officials who admitted to lying in the Bus 300 incident, in which the Shin Bet executed two captured Palestinian hijackers.

Until now, Beinisch has not stood out in the Supreme Court as much as some of her now retired colleagues. On the panels where she sat with Barak or Cheshin, she usually backed their decisions.

It is possible that her subdued temperament on the court will help remove the Supreme Court from the limelight in which Barak placed it. Although she is almost certain to follow in his legal path, she may try to avoid the more controversial issues that he exploited to advance his revolutionary legal doctrine which won many admirers but antagonized many others.

Taking on Larry King

Miri Eisen By Sheera Claire Frenkel Israel's newest soldier on the public relations battlefield may come from the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces, but when it comes to the media, the head of Israel's Foreign Media Relations has her own battle plans. "I hope that one of the things that we can change in the priorities... is how much time, money and manpower are put into the issue of public image," said Eisin, who operates a two-person team, herself and a producer, from an office in the prime minister's bureau. "Israel's public image, its media image, is an immense challenge. I've been involved in it for four years now - which is nothing." Eisin, the first female to serve as the head of the prime minister's foreign relations department, is used to being a lone woman in the field. In the IDF she was one of 15 female colonels out of 450. Her intimate military knowledge was put to good use last month, when she was called upon to defend Israel's war with Lebanon. "Effectively, she was thrown into the deep end of the pool," said a colleague of Eisin. "The whole world was watching when she had her first day on the job." Among Eisin's more memorable television appearances during the Lebanon War were interviews with NBC's Martin Fletcher and CNN's Larry King which she gave from the wreckage in Haifa. Eisin spent much of the war in the north, often speaking to journalists from the very sites that had been hit by rockets hours before. "What I want to do is give our side of the story and have the [foreign media] bring it out," said Eisin, although she acknowledges that the other side is also fighting its own media war. "I don't expect them to not show the other side. For me a good week is when Israel is not the main story in the world," she said. "To me that's a much more normal week. It doesn't happen very often." Eisin was raised in northern California and when she was nine moved with her family to Tel Aviv, where she still lives with her three children. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science and Middle Eastern studies from Tel Aviv University, a master's degree in security studies from Haifa University, and is a graduate of the Israeli National Defense College and the Staff College. She rose to the rank of colonel in the IDF's Intelligence Corps, where she was head of doctrine.

Speak and be heard

Dalia Itzik By Sheera Claire Frenkel When Dalia Itzik received her first cabinet post as Minister of the Environment in the spring of 1999, she couldn't help hide her disappointment. It was where you put somebody that you wanted to hide, she complained to a close associate in the Labor Party.

Don't worry, she was told, you'll make something of yourself wherever you are.

Seven years later, and Itzik is the first female Knesset Speaker in Israel's history. Not content to make waves with her gender alone, Itzik has made several controversial moves since her election as Speaker and clarified to everyone that she has no interest in hiding.

During the war, Itzik made it clear that although the Knesset Members were on their summer recess, nobody could accuse them of playing while the war was raging. Calling a special session every week of the month-long violence, Itzik was also the first to invite Olmert to address the public on the merits of the war.

Less than 48 hours after a cease-fire was called, Olmert gave his victory speech to the Knesset; but Itzik managed to burst into the headlines when she announced an ambitious plan to form an emergency government which would unite most parties under Olmert's leadership.

"At this time, as our nation struggles to rebuild itself from this war, it is important that the people of Israel have a strong unified government to look to," said Itzik.

Despite the objections of her own party, and the rejection of the prime minister, Itzik has continued with her plan to unite the parties, meeting with party leaders to test what it would take for them to join the government.

On September 10, Itzik even managed to become Israel's first female president, (albeit temporarily), when she replaced Moshe Katsav for 16 hours to swear in Dorit Beinisch as Israel's first female Supreme Court President.

September was a particularly good month for Itzik, especially since her legal woes were put to rest when Attorney General Menahem Mazuz announced that he would not launch a criminal investigation against her for donations made to the Shimon Peres election campaign while she was head of election headquarters.

Itzik, who has been a close associate of Peres since she first entered politics, left the Labor Party with Peres to join the Kadima Party.

Through her career as Minister of Environment and Minister of Trade in the 15th Knesset, and Minister of Communications in the 16th Knesset, Itzik has earned a reputation of bringing in her own people to the office and doing things her own way.

During her first week as Knesset Speaker, Itzik announced that she was going to give the building a facelift. Ignoring the jokes about a women's place in the workplace, Itzik gave the Knesset its first major makeover in over 40 years. When MKs return to work at the end of October, gone will be the Kelly-green carpets and worn-in grey sofas. New carpeting, lighting and modern black furniture have been brought in, and a new rule dictates that committee rooms must have fresh flower centerpieces brought in at the start of each week.

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