Not taking no for an answer

Prof. Aliza Shenhar discusses the challenges facing women’s rights in Israel and how a philanthropic effort led by the Genesis Prize Foundation can help.

(photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
While many women in history have fought for equality, there is perhaps no greater example in Jewish history than Devorah from the Book of Judges.
A judge and prophetess who fearlessly helped lead the people of Israel into battle against the King of Canaan is a story whose message has been largely lost in today’s society.
“She was a prophet. Nowadays can you imagine a woman prophet with our current halachic rules?” Professor Aliza Shenhar asked rhetorically. “She is a role model. We need to remember that in Biblical times women had a lot more potential than today. A woman prophet and judge – in our time it seems impossible.”
There are others. Vashti, in Esther’s scroll, dared to defy the king when he asked she reveal herself to him sexually; Miriam defiantly sang with all the women as they were being led out of Egypt. These are some examples of valiant women whose messages of strength and dignity have seemingly fallen by the wayside in our era.
PROFESSOR SHENHAR is a role model in her own right. Today, she is the head of the Tene-Briut – an NGO that provides support and guidance to members of the Ethiopian community to help them understand the Israeli health care system. She previously served as the president of Emek Yezreel College, and as the rector of Haifa University – the first woman to ever hold a rector position in Israel. She also served as Israel’s ambassador to Russia and in 1991 headed the Shenhar Committee, which examined Jewish education in Israeli public schools.
Shenhar is part of the great collective of strong women who have paved a path of progress toward gender equality. She emerged as one of Israel’s leading experts on women’s rights and Jewish education. As someone who rose to the top of her field against the odds, she suggests women must be empowered to overcome the challenges – and she encourages charities and NGOs to help them to do just that.
“I don’t believe in glass ceilings, but man ceilings. We need to be more active and fight,” she asserted.
It is philanthropy that can help women advocate for themselves, especially the ones who are in marginal positions in society and don’t know where to begin.
The Genesis Prize Foundation recently announced that $1 million from 2018 prize funds will be awarded to Israeli NGOs that promote women’s equality in Israel. The Foundation will work with charities that promote equal rights and opportunities for all women in Israel, especially those who live on the social periphery and/or are a part of a minority group or have suffered abuse. Shenhar believes GPF’s efforts are admirable, not just for what they can do to help women across the country, but also for what they can do for the citizens of Israel in general.
“Women’s rights are human rights. Gender discrimination exists in every aspect of life,” Shenhar said.
Israeli women face many of the issues women face in the developed world with one additional – and major – obstacle: religious extremists are staunchly against equality.
“One of the main problems for women in Israel is the ultra-Orthodox view of them,” she said. According to Shnehar, they are fighting an ongoing battle trying to limit and ultimately abolish women’s presence in the public sphere.
She points to last February, when it was reported that Modiin Illit’s municipality issued a modesty rulebook preventing men and women from interacting with each other. Rules included not sitting beside each other at work, banned joking or even greeting one another.
While this is an extreme example, Israel lags behind other Western countries when it comes to the quality of life of women.
“Israel still has challenges in gender equality in a number of areas. The most notable are wages. On average, men are still paid higher than women. The poverty rate among women is higher than among men. Israel needs to boost its amount of women holding senior positions: There are only four female ministers [fewer than 25%] in our government, which is far behind the OECD average which is about 30%,” Shenhar explained.
ENHANCING THE role of women in society is just one example of the kind of tikkun olam that GPF has been striving for since its inception. As an organization that embraces Jewish values, from supporting interfaith couples to promoting inclusiveness among those with disabilities, it seems that it is a natural fit that it follows in the footsteps of Devorah, Vashti and Miriam this year as it highlights the importance of supporting women.
The competition for $1 million in grants for Israeli women’s NGOs has been launched in partnership with Matan-United Way Israel.
Ultimately, the Genesis Prize believes, promoting “good” within the Jewish community will have a “ripple effect” on the rest of the world.
“In the past five years, The Genesis Prize Foundation has become a pioneer in shining a light on important social problems in Israel and the global Jewish community that are not receiving sufficient attention and funding,” said Dafna Jackson, CEO of the Kahn Foundation. Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn doubled the Genesis Prize funds this year from $1 million to $2 million. The balance of the funding will go toward a matching grants competition in North America, set to launch at the end of June.
“We are proud to partner with GPF in its work to empower women and help them advance in Israeli society. Gender equality and equal opportunities, protection of minority women and empowering women to resist violence is something very important to Morris [Kahn, businessman and philanthropist]. We look forward to working with GPF and making a tangible impact in improving the lives of Israeli women and girls,” said Jackson.
Shenhar agreed. “Philanthropy in general is very important because it teaches women “how to fish.” That is what the Foundation is trying to do. Of course, you will have people saying it’s not enough, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Foundation will be active in promoting women’s rights – eliminating underage marriage, discrimination against women in the family court system, advocating for equal representation of women in public bodies – and they will make a change.
“Overall, Israel has already accomplished a lot, but there is so much left to do. We need to start with awareness. We need to start with women in the lowest socioeconomic level of our society. This is the beginning of the process, not the end.”
THAT SAID, not all is bad in the Holy Land when it comes to women’s rights. Today, 90% of the positions in the IDF are open to women. Representation in the Knesset of women has dramatically increased from seven MKs in 1988 to 28 today.
But sometimes, to combat systematic oppression one needs a hefty dose of Israeli chutzpah.
“I’m a nudnik!” Prof. Shenhar admits with a laugh. “As the head of the Department for Hebrew Literature that has many women on staff, I did not experience much discrimination. But as I rose the ranks, then I began to experience gender stereotypes. I competed with four different men for the rector position, and I had to say loudly and clearly, ‘I’m going to compete with you.’”
The best woman won.
Shenhar hopes with GPF’s help, other women will have the tools to be able to make the same proclamation in order to cement their own victories, big and small.
This article was written in cooperation with the Genesis Prize Foundation.