In the beginning of my career I published what I believe to have been the first polemic in English discussing the status of women in Israel. I called it "The Status of Women in Israel: Myth and Reality".1 One brilliant Israeli legal scholar, upon reading it, said it was "very nice but she did not understand what I wanted." In other words, asking for gender-based equality appeared to her to be an exercise in obscurantism. Other Israeli women colleagues in the 1970s (and beyond) vehemently insisted they "were not feminist", much to the overt satisfaction of the decidedly male faculty. It would be an understatement to say that my feminism did not endear me to my colleagues.
Times have changed. The myth of equality was decidedly debunked, a feminist movement was developing, laws were amended and new ones were enacted, and considerable scholarship was published. In 2012 I decided to invite a few of Israel's bright and young feminists to speak at a roundtable on the status of women in Israel, to gauge how things may have changed and where they think they are going. The result was the roundtable published in this issue of Israel Studies.
Noya Rimalt, a professor of law at the University of Haifa offers a sad account of the status of women in Israel today. She points out that the Global Gender Gap Index, produced by the World Economic Forum, ranks Israel as number 55 out of 135 countries, far behind most western countries. She opines that such canonical cases as Shakdiel or Alice Miller, hailed for recognizing the rights of women to the equal protection of the laws, are merely landmark cases (enhancing a myth?), not representative of the actual status of women in Israeli society. Only politics, she insists, can move the heavy ship of Israeli sexism away from its chartered course and towards the promised land of gender equality.
Rimalt's presentation emphasizes the role of political activism in enhancing the status of women. Only an invigorated feminist movement, determined to put the status of women on the national agenda and to claim the right of 50% of the population to equal treatment, may improve [End Page 1] the position of women. Women must understand their responsibilities as civic actors and get together to improve their situation. Rimalt does not undervalue the role of law and of legal institutions in providing change, but she holds that actual civic participation is yeast without which this dough will not rise.
Daphna Hacker, a professor of sociology and law at Tel-Aviv University, highlights the perils of politics. She directs our attention to a particular angle of Israeli society: the custody of young children. Israeli law, following Jewish law, has recognized a doctrine known as the "tender years presumption", expecting the mother to retain custody of young children during and following a divorce. That presumption, Hacker points out, does perpetuate gender stereotypes. The mother is expected, culturally and legally, to care for the young child. Hacker recognizes that this presumption is problematic from the feminist perspective and points out that other progressive legal systems have abandoned it (she does have an alternative policy in mind) and advocates replacing the presumption with one giving custody to the primary care giver.
However, Hacker observes a peculiar phenomenon. Who in Israel are politically active to repeal the presumption? Not members of the feminist camp who are stigmatized by the presumption, but their detractors. Groups of men organize and employ aggressive and very sophisticated techniques aimed to erase the presumption from the law books. What they aim to achieve, through savvy manipulation of social media, the legislative process, and litigation, is to retain and enhance the powerful role of fathers (men) in a perpetuated patriarchal order. These organizations talk the talk of equality but they are not motivated by the dignified principle of gender equality. Instead, they are moved by a shrewd and astute program of using the principle of equality in order to clip its wings. The march to progress is not linear, and feminist philosophy may be hijacked by social forces determined to destroy, rather than empower it. It is...