Women sang – and no one walked out

WIZO holds gala opening of conference in Tel Aviv, with some 800 from around the globe in attendance.

President Shimon Peres at WIZO Conference 311 (photo credit: Kfir Sivan)
President Shimon Peres at WIZO Conference 311
(photo credit: Kfir Sivan)
“I’m shocked by a new phenomenon in Israel. Women are singing and no one walked out.”
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.
He 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 women.
(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 nuclear power.”
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 China.”
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 children.
Peres said that at a meeting with US President Barack Obama, the latter asked him who exactly opposes democracy in the Middle East.
“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 election.
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.