In Jerusalem, it's a woman's world

Profiles of six key figures who are promoting women’s rights in the capital. And one of them is a man.

Women of the wall (photo credit:  REUTERS)
Women of the wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the Western world, International Women’s Day – marked every year on March 8 – is a celebration of everything from respect, appreciation and love toward women, to women’s independence and economic, political and social achievements. For the past decade or so, Israel has participated in this initiative, and with this year’s International Women’s Day falling today, it seems like a good time to look at the situation of women in Jerusalem.
According to Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies researcher Yael Israeli – who compiled JIIS findings based on data from the Central Bureau of Statistics and additional information from the National Insurance Institute – 50.4 percent of the capital’s residents (numbering 405,177) at the end of 2011 were women. Of these, 58% (236,501) were over 20 years old.
Jerusalem’s birthrate is rising, with 4.24 children per Jewish woman and 3.71 for Arab women in the city. In the country as a whole, women give birth to 2.98 children each, whereas in Tel Aviv, they have only 2.12 children.
Jerusalem’s women also work less than their counterparts in the Center of the country. Of the city’s 21,960 working women who gave birth during 2011, only 46% were entitled to paid maternity leave through the National Insurance Institute; the rest of the women received only the grant that every woman in the country who gives birth receives.
Women in the capital tend to marry early: While 61% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 are single, only 32% of women are still single between the ages of 25 and 34. Further on, though, 56% of Jerusalem women aged 75 and up are widowed, compared to only 18% of men the same age in the city.
Jerusalem women earn less – NIS 6,570 a month on average, compared to NIS 8,560 for a man. Most of the city’s working women are educators (29%) or social workers (20%); respectively, only 13% and 7% of men occupy these positions. Only 3.7% of the Jewish women in Jerusalem during 2011 held management positions – less than half the number of men in such posts, but still better than in the past – only 2.8% of Jewish women were managers in 2009.
Safra Square is an exception to the above trend, with women representing 35% of its management staff. The Knesset, too, now has 27 female MKs – more than ever – but not one is from Jerusalem.
IN HONOR of International Women’s Day, In Jerusalem takes a look at some of the major figures active in women’s issues in the capital.ANAT HOFFMAN
Head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and chairperson of the Women of the Wall prayer group, Anat Hoffman was born in Jerusalem into a family of secular Zionist pioneers; her g r a n d p a r e n t s were the founders of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. For 14 years, she was a city council member on the Meretz list. She was not officially a representative for women’s issues, but when she left, 40 out of the 63 boxes of documents she filled during her terms were dedicated to women’s status issues.
From her request that operators answering the municipality’s phones should not exclusively use the masculine forms of words in Hebrew, to the gaps between men’s and women’s salaries (she ran the first survey on this issue in the city, finding that over 50% of female employees earned as much as 46% less than men in the same jobs), Hoffman says she almost always looked for the feminist aspect in every matter she handled. She found out that municipality cleaners received extra salary payments known as tosafot busha, or “shame bonuses,” for tasks like cleaning the streets and emptying garbage bins. When she asked why women working as caregivers to seniors didn’t get the same payments, she was told that these were female tasks that were not performed in public, and therefore didn’t merit an additional salary.
“The basic – and revolutionary – idea that women are also human beings was unknown to the municipality’s leaders then, and I made [former mayor] Teddy Kollek’s life miserable on those issues, which he used to call ‘the last issue on the agenda’ at each city council meeting,” she recalls.
Asked in which area she feels she brought about the most substantial change – at city council, at IRAC or as chairperson of Women of the Wall – she refuses to choose, saying that change is a way of life for her. Still, she says, the system of management she has initiated at IRAC is one of the achievements of which she is most proud – “because in my opinion, it is more how you do things than what you do that, after all, really matters.” The organization – which petitions the High Court of Justice in cases of inequality regarding matters of religion and state – has a non-hierarchic management structure, under which only Hoffman’s personal secretary relates to her as a direct supervisor. This feminist approach to teamwork combines efforts toward a shared goal instead of encouraging personal rivalry.
The same method prevailed, she adds, in the creation of the Women of the Wall prayer book, which offers an equal place for the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform parts of the prayer.
Cultural activist Elisheva Mazia was born in Moshav Nahalal, a legendary site in the history of the Zionist movement, and later moved with her family to Tel Aviv.
After her army service, she started studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2003. Although she says “the cosmopolitan character [of the city] attracted me very much,” she never planned to remain here after graduating. But today, 10 years later, she sees Jerusalem as her home – one she feels committed to improving as much as she can, at least for her generation.
Just two weeks after her arrival on campus, she was already involved in activism, first pertaining to student life, and later to a wider range of issues, all connected with the needs of students and young people in the city.
“Most of the activity on the campus for students was in the hands of advertisers,” she recalls. “We had lots of ads for banks, cellphone [companies] and so on – nothing, or almost nothing, aimed at our needs in terms of culture and social activities as students in this city.”
But that would soon change. Mazia was deeply involved in the creation of New Spirit – an association dedicated to students’ interests – which won the student elections and became the leading organization on campus. Mazia, group founder Yakir Segev (later a city councillor on Mayor Nir Barkat’s list) and Ro’i Folkman (later a head of strategic planning at the municipality under Barkat, and today a senior official at the Jerusalem Development Authority) became a leading trio in nearly every aspect of Jerusalem student life.
A couple of years later, she says, it became clear to her that New Spirit should expand its activities beyond the campus and become a no-less-leading body for other young people in the city – that it should, in fact, change the city’s cultural and social scene in general.
“When I arrived here, I didn’t even know that there were pubs,” she recalls. New Spirit, of which she is the director, is now a large and successful association offering a broad range of projects and solutions for the young generation – from the “toolbox” project (assistance for new college graduates) to the “Young Communities” project (about 20 of them by now) which organizes activities and institutions to help young people to remain in the city.
Asked why, so far, she hasn’t transferred her achievements to the political sphere, she says she is convinced that she has much more freedom and power to promote things as director of New Spirit than as a city councillor.
“I’m not saying that I’ll never go into politics, but frankly, for now, with the private budgets I have [from foundations and donors], I can do much more than [I could as] part of a coalition at city council,” she explains. “These achievements will hold on even if another mayor, less committed, comes to power.”HANNAH KEHAT
A look at her biography would hardly indicate that the young Hannah Kehat would one day become such a red flag in her own community.
Yet today there is no argument that this woman, who was born and raised in a haredi (ultra- Orthodox) family, has brought about a revolution in religious society when it comes to women’s status.
Asked if she had any idea what would come of her activity to improve women’s status in Orthodoxy, Kehat says she never knew it would open such a Pandora’s box.
“I began to do things because I just couldn’t bear the disdain toward women in our society,” she recalls. “I came from the academic world, and in our synagogues, stupid jokes about women were still acceptable, women were disregarded, and I simply wanted to improve that. I didn’t realize where it would take me.”
Her efforts, however, soon brought a tsunami of issues to her door that demanded to be dealt with, and she created Kolech, an organization that deals with religious women’s issues from a feminist point of view. She realized how deep and painful the problem was, and that handling it was not going to be easy for her. She paid – and still pays – a high price for her activities, visà- vis her relationship with her family, although she is the first to admit that it could have been worse.
“In my extended haredi and religious family, ties still exist – they talk to me, and that’s no small thing. In fact, it is even a kind of support, in terms of that society,” she says.
Though she is well aware of the changes she has effected, Kehat is far from confident that the battle for feminism in religious society is won. She says it is an ongoing struggle.
“You have to be crazy to launch and win a revolution,” she says. “You have to be totally committed, all the time – no rest is possible. If you stop for a moment, you lose things gained. In fact, even if you don’t stop, but you’re busy on another issue, you soon realize that things you thought were accepted are back almost to square one. It is never-ending.”RACHEL AZARIA
The Jerusalem-born Rachel Azaria began her activism in an environmentalist movement, but soon focused on halachic matters for women. For a few years, she was director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps women obtain a get (Jewish writ of divorce).
Azaria represents a relatively new and growing stream of modern Orthodox feminist women who combine religious obligations with modernity and social activism – something that brought her to run for the city council elections in 2008, where she won a seat. After a promising beginning as part of Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition, a serious disagreement between the two on the proper way to handle the fight against women’s exclusion from the public sphere led her to join the opposition at city council.
She says that when she understood that the only effective way to translate values into practical life was through politics, she decided to jump in. The battle for values, she feels – and not only religious ones – must be fought from where decisions are made.
That is true also of feminist issues, she says. In her political activities since she was elected, she believes that her mere presence, as a young mother, at places where even the simplest decisions took place brought about change.
“Take a simple thing like planning a public park,” she says. “A mother of young children would think not only about the aesthetics of the planning, but first about the need to have some shade there. Otherwise the park is not suited for practical use.
Only when I attended the meetings at the municipality did I realize how important it is to be part of this process.”
As a religious woman, Azaria says she had to get involved in many issues for which, until then, the decisions and planning had been in the hands of men “who obviously were not aware of many sensitive aspects – like the appropriate location for a ritual bath, which shouldn’t be in the same building as a synagogue, as happens so many times, and so on.”
But most of her fame came from her intense involvement in the struggle against women’s exclusion from the public sphere, and especially the fight against gender-segregated buses. Her activity on that issue won her much support in both secular and modern Orthodox circles, but turned her into a red flag for haredi city council members.AMON SELIM
Amon Selim has achieved something incredible: in a patriarchal society, she has managed to avoid an arranged marriage, has acquired an education and has created an association that encourages and supports young women of her community to do the same.
Selim is a Rom (or Doma as it is called in this region), better known as a Gypsy. But she is also part of the city’s Arab community (most of her community lives near the Old City’s Lion’s Gate). Caught between the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish societies, Selim is very careful not to seem to be taking sides.
She enjoyed the full support of her father, but realizing that that was not the fate of most of the girls and young women of her community, she dared to work toward change in a very conservative and, as she presented it herself on many meetings, chauvinistic environment. Today, the Domari Association she heads (supported by the New Israel Fund among others) helps young women in the community get higher education, so they can earn their living independently, thus not having to get married at an early age.URI AYALON
Uri Ayalon is the directorgeneral of Tnua Yerushalmit, a local organization representing mostly non-haredi residents, and he is a strong candidate for feminist of the year.
The 43-year-old Conservative rabbi – married to Rivka, a teacher, and father to two daughters (one of them a member of the Katamon soccer team) – is the man behind some of the major feminist campaigns in the city for the past two to three years.
It started with the struggle to put women back in public spaces – in advertisements and posters – and continues today with monitoring public (and private) publications in which pictures of women are banned or excluded.
Ayalon seems happy to be considered a top feminist, and explains that the praise should be primarily addressed to his parents.
“I was raised in a Zionist family in Argentina, in which my sisters and I received a strictly egalitarian education,” he says. “I am a true product of that education, which I am careful to transmit to my own daughters. There is no other way than education to achieve a real, profound change in the people’s attitude toward women.”
His organization is a social movement, not a political one, and – although there are close links – is not to be confused with Yerushalmim, the party that Rachel Azaria represents at the city council. In his capacity as director-general, Ayalon promotes numerous campaigns to change the attitude toward women in the city – a leap forward from a year and a half ago, when the group’s main concern was to convince private advertisers that they should not cave in to hooligans, and allow pictures of women on posters.
“Today we monitor all the venues, including and specifically the public sphere,” he explains. “We expect them to be the first to change their attitude – especially the municipality, the Israel Festival [which he had to convince to add posters of events in which women participated], and much more.”