Israel has ways to go for gender equality - opinion

Only a joint force of committed and influential women will succeed.

 BELLA ABZUG wears her trademark large hat during a discussion with fellow activist Jane Fonda in 1995, at a function celebrating 20 years since the establishment of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). (photo credit: REUTERS)
BELLA ABZUG wears her trademark large hat during a discussion with fellow activist Jane Fonda in 1995, at a function celebrating 20 years since the establishment of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
(photo credit: REUTERS)

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually, with a variety of celebrations and festivals around the world. In Israel, it is impossible not to notice the large supply of events that women can choose to participate in. But sometimes it seems that among all the colorful events and parties aimed at empowering women, and despite the daily discourse and growing public consciousness when it comes to promoting women’s rights and women’s status, still this day misses its original purpose. It is not another nice holiday, but an opportunity to bring a critical voice to be heard and dare to say the road to true equality between women and men is still long and winding.

I was recently exposed to the work of the American Jewish feminist Bella Abzug. A lawyer by profession, who fought for equal rights for women and worked in various arenas. She was the first woman elected to Congress on a platform of women’s rights, with her campaign slogan being “This woman’s place is in the house – the House of Representatives!”

Bella Abzug was not satisfied with parliamentary activity, but understood the power of activism to empower women and promote their rights. Therefore, she founded and led diverse women’s movements, such as Women Strike for Peace – a women’s movement for the advancement of peace in the United States. She also founded the National Women’s Political Conference and in the 1990s, founded the World Women’s Organization for Human Rights, Gender Equality and the Environment. Bella Abzug’s belief was that “women will run the 21st century... It’s going to be the women’s century.”

Bella Abzug joins a line of feminist Zionist Jewish women, such as Henrietta Szold, Rachel Yanaith Ben Zvi, Mania Shohat, Rivka Ziv and many others who have worked hard to promote women in society and have laid the feminist foundation in Israeli society.

All those women had the courage, strength, vision, leadership and commitment to promote women’s rights. They acted for equal rights in every possible way. In field work, by doing, in the establishment and leadership of women’s organizations, in creating opportunities for women to make their voices heard in the development of female leadership, and by changing legislation and parliamentary activity.

THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In recent years, we have witnessed a growing number of women in the Knesset. In the previous Knesset, we reached a record number in the history of Israel with 38 Knesset members and today, we are not far away from that number of Knesset members, which currently stands at 35 women, who are an integral part of parliamentary activity. The increase in the number of women in the Knesset is necessary, but it alone is not enough to promote women’s rights. Even today, in Israel 2022, we need more Abzugs in order to succeed in making a significant difference.

I do not mean any disrespect in the work of our Knesset members, I am happy for any Knesset member who joins our list of elected officials and raises female representation in a place that I consider to be most influential in Israeli society.

However in my view, this day is also an opportunity for the public to call on them to prioritize legislation that puts women at the center and provides significant budgets for promoting women’s rights. This does not only mean budgets for crisis times and dealing with sexual or gender violence, but also for encouraging and empowering women, and developing leadership that grows from the field.

It is not only in the Knesset that leading and influential women can be found. There are many women leaders in civil society who are inspirational and if Israel will be smart enough to expand and invest in their activities, they will intensify and make Israeli society more equal.

Yuvi Tashome is an example of an influential woman who grew up in the intentional communities movement and became a leading social leader in Israel. Tashome, a young woman who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, through Sudan, at the age of five, established communities of young Ethiopians and native Israelis living together, with the aim of creating a more equal and just society here.

Her activities were honored when she lit a torch on the 63rd Independence Day of Israel, and even received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship. Tashome is a model of women’s ability to lead change and make an influence from within civil society.

The path we must take to fully equal rights for women is one that requires joint forces between a struggle of our elected officials to promote women’s rights and a civil society that promotes gender equality as a way of life. The call for equal rights for women cannot be made just above the Knesset stage. Our Knesset members should go out into the field, meet Tashome and other activist leaders, and assure them and all of us that gender commitment is their top priority.

Change can’t just come from top to bottom or bottom to top, change will come when all of us – elected officials, influential women and ordinary citizens – realize there’s a long way to go until we can really celebrate this day.

The writer is the CEO of the Shahaf Foundation and former CEO of the Israel Women’s Network.