“I’m shocked by a new phenomenon in Israel. Women are singing and no one walked
Though the statement was made half in jest by Regional Development
Minister Silvan Shalom, it was a reflection of the ongoing crisis that is
fragmenting Israeli society.
Shalom was speaking on Monday night at the
gala opening of the Enlarged General Meeting of the Women’s International
Zionist Organization (WIZO) at the Tel Aviv Hilton, attended by some 800 women
from 40 Jewish communities around the globe.
He was alluding to the
brouhaha that has erupted over religiously observant male soldiers being ordered
to remain in the room when women are singing, even though listening to them runs
counter to Halacha (Jewish law).
The vast majority of singers at the WIZO
convention were female, but everyone stayed in the room when they started to
sing. Then again, few if any of the men present were religiously observant, let
alone haredi (ultra-Orthodox).
Shalom said that he came from a
traditional Jewish background and his mother is very religious, but she had
never heard of the prohibitions that ban women from shaking hands with men and
singing in their presence. (Shalom’s mother is not Ashkenazi and some of the
stringencies of the Ashkenazi haredi community may not have reached her native
Tunisia.) Shalom confessed that he could not understand the ban in view of the
fact that the Bible cites several instances of women singing: Miriam at the
crossing of the Red Sea and Devora after the defeat of the Canaanites.
also talked about the women leaders of today, such as Supreme Court President
Dorit Beinisch and the heads of the Kadima and Labor parties, Tzipi Livni and
Shelly Yacimovich, and hinted that there may soon be another political party
headed by a woman.
Although he did not elaborate, it was obvious that he
was referring to his wife, journalist Judy Shalom Nir Mozes. In December, she
tweeted that in view of recent discriminatory practices against women, she is
considering forming a women’s rights party that will run for Knesset seats in
the next election. Part of the platform, she later told Army Radio, would be
cutting off funding from institutions that discriminate against
(Meanwhile, existing female MKs have stated to various journalists
they would not support an all-women’s party.) Silvan Shalom himself certainly
has a good record of non-discrimination. He was the first male MK to sit on the
Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, a point he made at
the opening of the convention.
He also noted that the director-general of
his ministry is a woman.
Delving back into the history of women’s rights
and suffrage, Shalom said that New Zealand in 1893 was the first country to
grant women the right to vote.
However, he said, New Zealand women were
not permitted to run for election at that time, although it took much longer for
other countries to give women the vote.
By contrast, said Shalom, at the
Second Zionist Congress in 1898, women were given full membership – meaning that
they were permitted not only to vote, but to be elected.
“We are facing
so many problems with our enemies that we don’t have to fight with each other in
the state of Israel,” he said.
Shalom, a former finance minister, is
eager to get more women into the workforce so they can contribute to both their
family incomes and the national economy. He spoke about introducing legislation
that would change the current weekend – which takes place on Friday and Saturday
– to the period of Saturday and Sunday.
Mothers must be home when their
children get out of school early on Fridays, said Shalom, and this impedes their
chances of finding employment. If the weekend included Sunday in place of
Friday, mothers could work from Monday to Friday.
Shalom went on to
discuss cyber-terrorism, saying “our battle is not just with aircraft tanks and
soldiers.” He also noted the need for the free world to impose tougher sanctions
on Iran. “The Iranians believe that the only way to stay in power is to be a
He said that the European Union, the US, Canada and Japan
could be very effective if they join forces in imposing harsher measures, such
as enforcing a boycott on Iranian oil and imposing sanctions on the central Bank
of Iran. Furthermore, “we don’t have to wait for Russia and
President Shimon Peres, who spoke before Shalom, said that the
barometer of a just society – its ethics and values – was measured by the role
played by women. Wherever there is discrimination against women, he said, there
is no justice, hope or future.
Discrimination, he insisted, is worse than
slavery. If a woman is denied education, she cannot educate her
Peres said that at a meeting with US President Barack Obama,
the latter asked him who exactly opposes democracy in the Middle
“Husbands,” Peres said he replied, adding that they deny their
wives equal rights and opportunities. “There is no democracy without equal
rights for women.”
Peres, who frequently discusses democracy, made a faux
pas in regard to the democratic process. In talking about presidents, he said
there were three in the room: Outgoing World WIZO President Helena Glaser;
incoming president Tova Ben Dov; and himself.
In actual fact, presidents
of numerous international WIZO federations were present, but the faux pas was in
mentioning Ben Dov as the incoming president. Ben Dov, who is chairperson of
World WIZO, is not alone in the race for the presidency, although it is
generally presumed she will get the majority of votes in today’s
The other candidate is Celia Michonik of Columbia, a veteran
WIZO activist who is currently World WIZO’s chairperson of Public Affairs, UN
and NGO Department; she is favored by the South American WIZO delegates.