The Jerusalem Post

Can Israel shake its sexism?

How calling powerful Israeli women ‘little girls’ helps keep them down


record number of women in the government and female armored combatants being positioned on the Egyptian border for the first time do not appear to have obliterate­d the misogynist­ic and sexist undertones of Israeli society – a country where powerful women, including in our nation’s parliament, can still be asked to “sit quietly,” “remember your place,” “be nice and don’t make too much noise.”

After all, in the end, they are “only girls.” The shocking situation came to the forefront recently with the case of Arrangemen­ts Committee chairwoman MK Idit Silman (Yamina), a 40-year-old woman who has been in the Knesset since 2019. She was the target of six sexist attacks by four different colleagues in just seven days.

June 21, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism): “You are a little girl.”

June 23, MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionist): “I want you to grow up for 20 more years before you open your mouth.”

June 27, Porush: “Idit Silman does not have the skills to manage the Arrangemen­ts Committee. She cannot handle it.”

June 27, MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List): “You cannot manage MKs who are more experience­d and older than you.”

June 27, MK Miki Zohar (Likud): “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. You always make a joke of yourself.”

June 28, Zohar: “Who are you anyway? Answer me like a good girl.”

While Tibi and Porush really are decades older than Silman, both born in the 1950s, and hence their comments could be tied to ageism as much as sexism, Rothman and Zohar are only 41. While more commonly used as discrimina­tion against older people, ageism includes prejudice against any age group, and in this context perhaps it is against a younger person.

And Silman has not been the only target. On Wednesday, MK Uri Maklev (UTJ) used a tweet by Minister of Transporta­tion Minister Merav Michaeli, in which she wrote that women get colder more easily than men, to argue against females serving in combat roles in the IDF.

“A man’s way is to fight, a woman’s way is not to fight,” he said in the Knesset. “In nature – in healthy, human nature – the women do not fight… Even the transporta­tion minister, who has promoted gender equality for years, understand­s that there are large difference­s between men and women.”

THE FINAL incident between Zohar and Silman, which was caught on camera and caused a small stir in the media, led Immigratio­n and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata to request a probe of these incidents by the Knesset ethics committee. Aside from displaying the men’s “cowardly chauvinism,” she said, these incidents “showed disregard for the status of women in general.”

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, academic director of the Rackman Center at Bar-Ilan University, said that it is very important to call out the individual­s who make these sexist comments if the country wants the situation to change.

“The attitude sometimes in the past was to shrug our shoulders and move on like nothing happened,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “It is really important that we take note [of this behavior] and call out these expression­s and attitudes.”

She said that “we must refrain from trivializi­ng and normalizin­g this attitude. We must shame those who engage in such an attitude.”

Many people did defend Silman and therefore one might infer that she won in the court of public opinion, wrote former MK Stav Shafir in an opinion piece published in Haaretz this week. Rather, she and every woman in politics were harmed by the discussion, Shafir said.

“When she is forced to defend herself from attempts to depict her as a little girl, she is trapped in the place her attackers have placed her,” Shafir wrote. “Sticking a diminutive label on her forehead prevents the public from hearing

her opinions without prejudice. For the attackers, this method always wins: Their supporters will treat Silman as a little girl from now on, and her supporters will see her as a victim.”

She wrote that “what people will remember is the circus in the Knesset committee, even if it wasn’t her fault. In other words, the ability to choose how she is defined and what to engage with has been taken from her.”

The situation is not surprising, Halperin-Kaddari said. It is a reflection of the society Israelis live in – whether they like to admit it or not.

“It is almost to be expected,” she said. “Maybe the degree of the expression­s used is a bit surprising, but the bullying, the targeting of Idit Silman for being a woman, is a reflection of the existing chauvinist­ic and misogynist­ic attitudes that are so prevalent in Israeli society – the ultra-Orthodox and other conservati­ve segments of Israeli society.”

Practicall­y speaking, compared to other OECD countries, Israel is a little below average in terms of pay gaps, women in public positions, etc. But Halperin-Kaddari noted that Israel maintains a whole area where women are formally and efficientl­y discrimina­ted against: family law. Marriage and divorce, for example, are managed under religious law and in religious courts that are patriarcha­l and discrimina­tory against women, she said.

“This is a major difference between us and liberal democracie­s,” Halperin-Kaddari said. “In that sense, we are much more similar to Asia, Africa and Muslim countries and not the Western World.”

Connectedl­y, there are still parties in the Israeli parliament, including Shas and UTJ, that exclude women.

“So, it is no surprise that when confronted with female leadership from other parties or directions, that this is the reaction,” Halperin-Kaddari said.

While in most segments of society people seem to know better than to use derogatory expression­s toward women even if they are threatened by these women or feel they are losing their higher status, “the parliament does reflect the undercurre­nts of much of Israeli society,” she said.

“Parliament is an extreme reflection of societal norms and convention­s,” according to Halperin-Kaddari.

She added that when people who make comments like those said by Zohar are elected over and over again, it sends a message that not only can one get away with being sexist, but one can be sexist and also be successful.

“In the case of Silman and many other female legislator­s, the opposition has taken the easiest route: to undermine her authority by portraying her as a little girl who is in over her head,” Shafir wrote. “If we disturb our political rivals, they simply respond with belittling labels – ‘noisy,’ ‘little girls,’ ‘inexperien­ced.’”

THE NUMBER OF women in leadership positions in government has climbed in the past decades, according to Prof. Ofer Kenig, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Between 1949 and 1996, the number of women in the Knesset was a steady seven to 12. But in the next two decades, beginning with the election in 1999 until 2019, the country saw a significan­t, constant and almost linear increase.

“In the last four elections between April 2019 and March 2021, the number of women elected to the Knesset was between 28 and 30,” Kenig told the Post. During the 20th Knesset, the number of women in Knesset reached an all-time high at 35, but this was only because of “replacemen­ts” – MKs resigning, for example, and the next in line entering the parliament.

Today, there are 34 female MKs. The number increased from the 30 elected because of the Norwegian Law, which allows an MK who is appointed as a minister to resign from the Knesset and enable a different member of their party slate to assume the position in their stead.

At the same time, women seem to be taking on more senior positions within the government – though not as high as it may at first appear. According to Kenig, the four most “prestigiou­s” or “important” jobs in the country have always been considered the roles of the prime, defense, finance and foreign ministers.

The only female prime minister of Israel was Golda Meir and that was nearly 50 years ago. Finance and defense minister are roles that have never been held by women.

And foreign minister has only been held by two women – Golda Meir and Tzipi Livni, who filled the role more than a decade ago.

“So, from 2009 until now, no woman has filled one of the four most prominent positions in Israeli politics,” Kenig said.

The next level of important ministries includes the Justice and Interior ministries. Livni was justice minister between 2006-2007 and again between 2013-2014. The position was also held by Ayelet Shaked from 2015-2019. Today, Shaked is the interior minister.

But Israel still lags behind many other countries. Among 37 OECD countries, Israel is ranked 22 for women’s representa­tion in parliament. The No. 1 country is New Zealand.

“I think it will be challengin­g to improve farther from this point unless the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ, are somehow persuaded to put women on their lists as well, which does not seem on the horizon,” Kenig said, explaining that the ultra-Orthodox parties generally get a minimum of 16 or 17 mandates. To reach even 40 female MKs, all other parties would have to have equal representa­tion of males and females and “Israel is not there yet, I think.”

HOWEVER, THE growth of women’s representa­tion in government could be playing a role in some of the alarmingly sexist rhetoric the country is seeing in its halls, the experts said.

“The record-high number of women in parliament and in key positions in the government is a real threat to the male, hegemonic, chauvinist­ic and misogynist reign,” Halperin-Kaddari told the Post – and therefore, the men might be getting louder in defense.

“We have the Me Too movement and the reaction to the Me Too movement. What we are experienci­ng here could be part of the reaction [to the rise in women in leadership positions]. The stronger the women, the more powerful the reaction to be on guard and keep blocking their empowermen­t,” she continued.

Esther Hertzog – a researcher and lecturer at Zefat Academic College – also said that she believes some of the men are “pushing back” in the way that they know how. But she is optimistic that slowly, as more women take on positions of power, the situation will start to change.

“We cannot expect that real change will happen quickly or immediatel­y,” Hertzog told the Post. “Culture change takes a long time.”

She said it is not just about the number of women in the government but also who the women are and how they act: respectful­ly, patiently and intelligen­tly.

“They are portraying a different culture,” Hertzog said. “I am optimistic that this behavior of the women ministers will influence the people around them.”

She said that the media until now has rewarded those who scream the loudest or create scandals with airtime and therefore legislator­s receive the message that this is the way to move an agenda forward. If the media captures more of the “women’s way,” she said, then politician­s might realize that they could lose support if they don’t shift, too.

It will also influence society, offer more positive role models for teens and children and potentiall­y reduce verbal and physical violence, according to Hertzog.

Moreover, this could trickle down to other areas of life, such as conference­s, where women are regularly poorly represente­d.

“I have been working in this field for years and there have been very difficult times,” Hertzog added. “When I see these women, it gives me a good feeling that we succeeded at something.

“These women are developing themselves for the rest of women.”

 ??  ?? YAMINA MK Idit Silman leads an Arrangemen­ts Committee meeting at the Knesset last week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
YAMINA MK Idit Silman leads an Arrangemen­ts Committee meeting at the Knesset last week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
 ?? (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90) ?? TRANSPORTA­TION MINISTER Merav Michaeli – targeted by UTJ MK Uri Maklev.
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90) TRANSPORTA­TION MINISTER Merav Michaeli – targeted by UTJ MK Uri Maklev.
 ??  ?? PROF. ESTHER HERTZOG, Zefat Academic College, Department of Social Behavior. (Yoni Lubliner)
PROF. ESTHER HERTZOG, Zefat Academic College, Department of Social Behavior. (Yoni Lubliner)
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