For several decades Israeli feminism focused on law in its efforts to promote greater gender equality in Israel. The common wisdom was that legal reforms provide the most effective tools for undermining social structures of inequality and empowering women in the public sphere. Over the years this understanding motivated numerous legal battles that were aimed at using the law as an agent of gender equality. Starting in the 1980s various female litigants, aided by civil rights and feminist organizations, approached the Supreme Court as part of their efforts to remedy injustices of discrimination. For example, Leah Shakdiel, backed by ACRI, was a pioneer in the 1980s in securing women the right to equal membership in municipal rabbinical administrations;1 Neomi Nevo headed a feminist effort to amend retirement policies in Israel and eventually guaranteed women the right to retire at the same age as men;2 Alice Miller's efforts to become a military pilot a decade later initiated major legal reforms in military policies toward women that enabled them to serve in various combat roles.3
Similarly, various feminist organizations successfully promoted affirmative action plans in the 1990s for women in the public sector, hoping to increase the number of women in positions of power and influence in the labor force.4 Finally, in the 1980s and '90s feminist activists sponsored legislative reforms in parental rights and responsibilities that replaced maternal rights such as maternity leave with gender neutral parental rights that can be exercised equally by working men and women.5 Hence, as a matter of "law on the books", equality between men and women in the public sphere and in the private sphere has been secured as a legal principle in the last several decades and the underlying rationale was that legal reforms that implement this principle in various contexts can be significantly helpful for women in overcoming current barriers to gender equality. [End Page 5]
This article questions the assumption that law is an effective agent of gender equality. It argues that legal reforms of the last three decades that aspired to promote greater gender equality in Israel have proved to be anecdotal in nature and have not been effective in making real changes in the status of women as expected. Moreover, it appears that in many respects these legal reforms are counterproductive, since they disguise the actual reality of gender inequality that still persists, generating an image of a legal system that is fully committed to the idea of gender equality.
Part I briefly outlines the current state of gender inequality in Israel and provides relevant data in this context. Part II focuses on the example of affirmative action and explains why, despite its image as one of the leading tools in the struggle for gender equality, legal reforms in this area have not been successful so far in undermining current structures of inequality. Part III argues that it is time to divert feminist attention from law to politics and to dedicate more efforts to mobilize women as a political group with shared interests and a concrete agenda. The final conclusion is that a real breakthrough in the struggle for gender equality can be achieved only by political means and by significantly increasing the political power of women.
Gender Inequality in Israel
The most recent Global Gender Gap Index introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2012 evaluates Israel's performance in the area of gender equality as relatively poor.6 The index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education, and health-based criteria, and provides country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and over time. Capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities and providing a detailed country profile, the Index ranks Israel as number 56 out of 135 countries on the size of its gender gap, far behind most Western countries.
This ranking is just another recent reminder of the fact the gender equality still remains out of reach in Israel. In fact, Israeli women have made strikingly little progress in advancing to positions of power and influence in politics or in the workforce. In the former...