Feminism has made great strides in Israel in the last several years, but much progress is still necessary to create a more equitable society there, according to a recent study conducted by Pittsburgh-born Nancy Strichman, now a lecturer at Hebrew University.
Strichman, the daughter of Pittsburgh historian Barbara Burstin, was in Pittsburgh to lead a discussion on the “Feminist Agenda and Women’s Groups in Israel” for a Ladies Who Lunch program at the Center for Women on Aug. 2, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Women’s Foundation and the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section.
“It’s clear that this important topic has resonated with our community,” said Debbie Green, president of NCJW Pittsburgh, adding that Ladies Who Lunch was begun two years ago as a “gender-focused educational, and sometimes fun, series.”
NCJW, along with the Dafna Fund, sponsored Strichman’s study, entitled “Past Achievements and Future Directions of Women’s and Feminist Organizations in Israel,” a yearlong research project based on interviews with about 300 individuals in Israel.
The women interviewed included activists, nonprofit staff, academics, funders and journalists, Strichman said, and involved people of diverse backgrounds. The topics covered encompassed such issues as economic independence, political representation, artistic expression in art, film and literature, and healthy sexuality and reproductive rights.
Strichman explained that in the 1990s, pressing issues for feminists included the wage gap, advancement and equality in the army, and domestic violence. Those issues were subsequently addressed through such means as legislation, and the opening of rape crisis centers and shelters.
Significant achievements in the Israeli feminist landscape include reproductive rights, which Strichman said, are now “a non-issue,” and growing formalized support to ensure women’s representation at all levels of government. In addition, there has been an increase in the number of artistic outlets for women to “get their stories told,” she said, and there is an increasing number of educational and employment opportunities for women across many sectors of Israeli society.
There also has been much progress made, she said, in getting the government to view certain issues — such as health care — through a “gender lens,” along with an increase in the public discourse on women’s rights.
“Women’s issues are now seen more like community issues,” Strichman said. “There has been a phenomenal shift.”
Israeli women have long been sharing their stories of abuse and discrimination, Strichman noted. Even prior to the #MeToo movement, there were several Israeli websites on which women published their personal accounts. But there has also been a rise of “social media activism,” with “ultra-Orthodox women getting on platforms and discussing sexual abuse,” she said.
Many challenges remain, however, according to Strichman’s study. There are “patriarchal structures that remain intact along with growing religious fundamentalism,” she found, along with an “ongoing challenge of integrating diverse voices.”
Orthodox political power is increasing in Israel and becoming “more extremist,” she explained, with some communities mandating segregation of the sexes on buses and sidewalks. Because many haredi Orthodox men are now entering the Israeli army, “men-only” army bases have emerged, so “that ultra-Orthodox men will feel safe going.”
Strichman noted that in the past several years, a number of “ultra-Orthodox religious women’s groups have sprung up.” There are groups fighting for the rights of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to issue them a Jewish divorce), and also “ultra-Orthodox women who are fighting to get political representation in ultra-Orthodox parties.” Currently, she said, in the two major haredi Orthodox parties, women are prohibited from holding political office.
Other women’s groups in Israel include Women of the Wall, which advocates for equality in prayer for women at the Kotel, although that issue is “not on the agenda for most Israeli women; it is a non-issue for them,” according to Strichman.
Muslim women’s organizations have also grown in the last 15 years, she said, and last year, a woman was appointed as a sharia court judge for the first time.
Although there has been an explosion of women’s nonprofit groups in the Jewish state, there is a shortage of funding, Strichman noted, and no national convener.
“So, there is a lack of networking to bring together women activists in Israel,” she said, as well as a disparity in transferring advocacy to political power. PJC