Israel through a Gender Lens

Issue #6: The Pre-Election Edition

In two days, on Tuesday, September 17th, is round 2 of national elections in Israel. Should we expect a re-run of the April 9 elections, or is it time for a new political story? In an article published on Fathom Journal I argue that: "Too much of the Israeli public is passive and willing to vote against its own interests and desires. While more than 50 per cent of the public, Jews and Arabs support some form of a mutual peace agreement, 71 per cent believe that rule over the Palestinian people is wrong and 76 per cent care more about social and economic issues, nonetheless, more than 50 per cent apparently still want the Likud to win the election. Another Israel may be possible, but not until Israelis embrace their political agency".  Read more here

And people are waking up and are calling their family, friends and neighbors to do the same. With the decrease in women's political representation, Bokra, an Arabic news and content site, in partnership with the "I am a Woman I Vote" network, launched a social media public education campaign reaching out to Arab women in Israel and encouraging them to make their voices heard on election day. Here are the voices of four inspiring leaders: I am a Woman I Vote

Nivcharot (Elected) the Haredi Women's Movement launched a video protesting the lack of representation for Haredi women in politics, and specifically in Haredi parties. The video featuring prominent Haredi women leaders and activists, reflects the absurd reality that there are seats for men only. While it may take a while before women can run for office and be elected for local or national office in Haredi parties, these women are an inspiration to all of us. 

 

 

Issue #5: Women's Wisdom

Women Wage Peace: On the Political Power of Knowledge, Solidarity and Hope

Dafna Hacker took us on a journey of feminist her-story, from late 19th century to current days. "Women should not shy away from power", she said, "and our collective power grows out of our solidarity with women of diverse communities". Miri Rosmarin urged us to use our political power as women to place our perspectives front and center and to address gender power relations as the infrastructure that enables the continuation of the conflict: "Women have a broader spectrum of political emotions; they bring hope – a powerful political emotion – and the quest for a better future".

Prof. Miri Rosmarin addresses WWP activists. Photo by Anat Saragusti

Storytelling and Critical Pedagogy

How many of you visited Ofakim, Kiryat Shmona or Yafi'a on your trips to Israel? Not many, if I was to take a guess. These communities, in the north and south districts of Israel are often off the grid of missions and study tours. But if you were to visit them one day, you will find the women activists who are transforming their communities, fostering resilience, agency and hope.
I had the privilege of facilitating two storytelling workshops: one for the women volunteers of the Resilience Center in Ofakim, a small Jewish town in the Negev, and one for members of the General Assembly of Mahapach-Taghir (Transformation), women activists from Jewish and Arab underserved communities. It was an immersive learning experience in intersectionality and a resounding reminder of the sheer power of stories in constructing critical thinking.
Ask a woman curious, appreciative questions, and the stories will pour out like a fountain, rich with memories of formative events, traditions and legacies handed over from one generation on to the next. Ask women to share their stories and they will offer rich narratives of loss and love, pain and pride, hardships and hope. As women to tell you about their journey towards agency, and they will teach you a valuable lesson about resistance and resilience.
They will tell you about aggressions their endured and the abilities they discovered in themselves; about the first time they realized they have the capacity to lead and about the appetite for change that comes with small and big achievements. They will tell you about the support they offered and received and will proudly show off their children who started out as school kids in the communal learning center they helped or the local youth movement they initiated, who are now making their first steps as leaders in their own right.
Next time you come to Israel, make sure you take the time to meet these women and let yourself be found in their stories.

"From Memory to Story" workshop in Ofakim. Photo by Yahaloma Zchut

Issue #4
Local She-roes

If you are following the news from Israel, you know we are going for national elections again in September. In upcoming issues, we will report on what feminist organizations and activists are doing to make their voices heard in national politics. However, un this week's update, we want to shed light on local initiatives by women who are working to make their cities better and safer for all women and are setting an example for other localities.

Itach-Ma'aki (Together with You) Women Lawyers for Social Justice: City for All

This unique program strives to advance equality for women in Israeli cities by developing and implementing a holistic model for municipal-level gender equality, institutionalizing women’s participation and leadership in local policymaking and making city services appropriate for women’s distinct needs. The 'City for all' model is inspired and informed by a community of diverse women created in Rishon Letsion, a Jewish city on the coastal plain. The program operates in Acco and Haifa, two Jewish-Arab cities in the north of Israel, and Tayibe, an Arab city at the heart of Israel, and works to increase effective leadership of Advisers for Gender Equality, integrate gender inclusive structures within city hiring, program design and allocation of resources. To watch a short video about City for All click here 

She-roes of Beit Shemesh

The unholy alliance between institutionalized religion and politics has far reaching implications on the lives of women and girls in Israel; from issue of personal status, through exclusion in the public sphere and being banned from singing in publicly funded events, to lack of political representation in Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, to name a few.

However, women are putting up a fight and refuse to be excluded and silenced. Such is the case of a group of amazing women in Beit-Shemesh who, with the help of IRAC – Israel Religious Action Center, have claimed back their city. Dr. Nancy Strichman, an evaluation specialist, lecturer and an avid cheerleader for social change and civil society groups, dedicated a beautiful article on the Times of Israel Blog to these women and their allies:

"A group of local wonder women in Beit Shemesh have an especially large reserve of special powers- courage, unflappable determination and patience- and they have been able to create new alliances to bring change to their city". Read more here

Issue #3
Elections! Again?

"Prime minister failed to mediate between Lieberman and ultra-Orthodox parties, sending Israel to its second election in six months", says the Ha'aretz English edition headline of May 30th, 2019.
As a storyteller for social change, I often seek to make sense of political events by having conversations with people. Anger, confusion and deep mistrust in political leadership and its motivations were the responses I encountered this time. "We have yet to heal from the April 9 elections", people said, referring to the highly toxic and divisive recent campaign.
In seeking to make sense of political events, I am always equipped with my gender lens, my dear and trusted companion that constantly urges me to ask questions such as: "how does this effect women?", and, "what can women do to change this reality?". Hence, I turned to my colleague and mentor, journalist and political commentator Anat Saragusti, and asked her to write a short article that will shed light on the dramatic events of the week.

The Banality of Ego
By Anat Saragusti

The main reason behind the decision to take Israel through another election could be summed up with one word: Ego.
Neither advance espionage equipment nor sharp political savvy would have exposed any other reason for the Knesset to convene at the dead of night on May 29 and decide to embark on another election in three months.
The decision has no practicality to it. It’s all personal. Netanyahu claimed to have won the previous election. But when it came time to put his mandate where his mouth is, he failed. The bottom line is Netanyahu couldn’t form a government. And that is why he didn’t win. Furthermore, the negotiations Likud held with its potential coalition partners proved that even the demands set were, how to put it? Completely personal. All they were interested in was the Immunity Law and the High Court Override Clause. These two were meant to provide Netanyahu with a safety net if and when it was decided to indict him after a hearing. These two prerequisites presented by Likud weren’t meant to better the lives of the public, nor Netanyahu’s voters. Neither was designed to deal with the burning issues on the public agenda: A failing health system, social gaps, the deep divides within society, crumbling infrastructures, lagging public transportation, the withering agriculture, a sinking welfare system, the ever-expanding exclusion of women, the precariously escalating incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens, the delegitimization of the left, and above all – for better or worse – the presentation of Trump’s “deal of the century” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will now be postponed for many months.
Good or bad, the reveal of Trump’s deal could have altered reality, if only for bringing diplomacy back into the agenda, rejuvenate the discourse around peace, and perhaps even lead to some kind of breakthrough.

This decision must be looked at through two different prisms:
A profound crisis of faith in the political system. When everything is personal, when leaders betray the mandate given to them by the public, when cynicism overtakes sincerity, something in the fundamental pact between us, the public, and our elected leaders, is fractured. The contract which states that we vote for them and they promote the issues we care about was not fulfilled.
This crisis painfully expressed itself in the last election with the generally low voter turnout, but particularly low among Arab citizens, who barely crossed the 50 percent threshold.
The second prism is the practical implication of this decision: the continued freeze over all government activity – the way it has been since the last election was announced in December. A transitional government can’t make important calls, further new topics, allocate budgets or anything.

And above it all hovers, of course, the gender perspective.

These ego struggles were played by men. It’s hard not to sink into the poignant notion that what happened was the result of male thinking which considers everything a zero-sum game. It’s either you or me.
The outgoing Knesset, which managed to sit for solely a month, was characterized by an especially low number of women. But that’s only a small part of the picture. If a government had been formed, it is doubtless that not only it would’ve had few women, but that women wouldn’t have had a real seat at the table, and it is highly unlikely we would’ve seen a woman in the security cabinet, where the critical decision regarding state security, war, and the peace process are made.
Neither side of the political map had enough women with experience, or an ambition to sit on these forums. For this to change in the upcoming election seems far-fetched. Issues that matter to women, such as violence against women, equality in the job market, breaking the glass ceiling and more – were not set front and center in the previous election. It seems dubious that parties seeking our votes would make gender the top of their agenda – not simply by the makeup of their slate, but in a more rooted way, which brings to the things that matter to us to the forefront.
So we all lost in these ego games: The politicians who voted against the conscience and interests, the state – which will now descend into heavy spending, the political system itself, and the voting public, of course. What transpired here is a malevolent use of the democratic toolbox.

Many thanks to Daniel Gouri De-Lima for the English translation of the article

Issue #2: Guns, Eurovision and Iftar

It has been yet another busy week in Israel. The public debate concerning the negotiations to form the new government in the shadow of Netanyahu's "Immunity Law" initiative and the talk of an "Economic Summit" in Bahrein, were the two hot-button issues on the agenda. Oh, and the heat wave.

You can read all about these issues on any Israel English news website of your choice. Hence, in this week's update, we want to share with you stories you will most probably not find there. But these stories are important; they are inspiring, sometimes disturbing, uplifting. They are the stories of women who are dedicating their lives to making Israel a better place. In this week's issue, we bring you stories from Women Wage Peace, Gun Free Kitchen Tables Coalition and from Nena Bar, a feminist disability rights activist.

Speaking up about gun violence in our streets and homes

Gun Free Kitchen Tables coalition, comprised of feminist and human rights groups, has petitioned the High Court of Justice to issue an interlocutory injunction to stop the application of criteria promoted by outgoing Public Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, which significantly ease restrictions on carrying civilian firearms. While the court did not grant the injunction, it did order the State to present the work of Ministry staff on the issue. The conversation on this critical issue will continue, thanks to the coalition's relentless work. Rachel Beit Arieh, founding member of Politcally Corret, a leading independent feminist news and content platform writes:

"Members of the Gun Free Kitchen Tables Coalition, working to minimize the proliferation of arms in the public sphere, say Minister Erdan’s assessment that more firearms means more security, isn’t factually based or rooted in evidence, but relies on the minister’s hunch. “It presents a skewed perception of what security means,” Suchio said". Click here for the full article

Bursting the Bubble of Exclusion

Last Saturday, Israel hosted the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. Kan 11, the public broadcast corporation, launched a most impressive production, highlighting the wealth of local talent and creativity. For the first time since the contest has been broadcasted, a separate channel was dedicated to making the show fully accessibly to deaf people. Nena Bar, a feminist disability rights leader and advocate wrote in an op-ed column on Tel Aviv TimeOut Magazine about the healing power of been seen, heard and included on and off the stage:

"While all of this did not gloss over the disgrace of the lack of accessibility in the Independence Day ceremony (only a week prior), it shows that here we have it, a revolutionary model that allows us to tell broadcasters: Burst the bubble and learn this new, egalitarian vision presented by Kan. As someone who’s experienced the invalidation of sign language because of an archaic perception of deafness, I felt elevated and complete at the sight of a screen speaking in sign language. The body gives into the vibrant movements of the language in space, and for a moment I felt like I had room in it. In these moments I wanted to reach out and touch the hand of the girl I was, who never watched TV, and say to her – here, it’s happening". For the full article, click  here

On a bright Friday morning earlier this month, more than 200 Women Wage Peace activists from near and far crowded the lecture hall at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law for the inaugural session of a new program: Women Wage Peace Talk Security, designed to harness the power of knowledge, theory and practice to increase women's participation in decision and policy making processes, most urgently in matters of security and foreign policy.
The inaugural session featured two leading scholars in the field of gender studies: Prof. Dafna Hacker, Head of the Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, and Prof. Miri Rosmarin, lecturer at Bar Ilan University and Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Institute.

 

Four Stories of Hope, Persistence and Leadership

Last week I spent a while inside a hole in time. In the early hours of Saturday morning I flew to Washington DC and on Wednesday I was already back in Israel, enveloped in the warmth of my family, everyday life, work, home and activism.

I traveled to DC in for the JStreet National Conference, as a representative of Women Wage Peace, to speak at a panel sponsored by the JStreet Women's Leadership Forum. The conference this year was organized in the theme of “Defending Our Values, Fighting For Our Future” – a strongly appropriate title given the public and political climate since the election of Trump as president. 3,500 participants from all over the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority came together to think, listen and voice ideas about how to keep moving toward a two-state solution in a time when no politician in Israel or the US persist in this.

I came to the conference to express a gendered, critical view, a perspective which is not sounded enough even in the progressive Jewish left. I came because I believe that In times like these, it is critical that we work closely together to promote our shared values of peace and democracy and hold courageous and vital conversations about resistance and hope

As a story teller, I was constantly looking for stories I would want to cherish and take with me. Here are 4 short stories and an epilogue.

Lens

The panel I participated in, sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Forum, was titled "Change makers on the Ground in Israel". I talked about Women Wage Peace, and why I am so committed to this movement. I told the listeners that we view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a powerful inter-sectional gender lens.

The audience, mostly women, were nodding in agreement and understanding. The attentive faces told me my words were welcome and relevant. I hoped my message would trickle and resonate outside that room and was overjoyed when my friend and collaborator Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, echoed my words in a panel that took place the following day in the plenum.

I did come out feeling that we still have a long way to go until women from diverse communities are equally represented in formal negotiations and in civil society efforts to end this conflict. However, in order to demand that of our elected officials, we must implement principles of inclusion and diversity in our own spaces. The gender lens is not a “prop”, it is a way to examine our political reality fully and comprehensively, without overlooking the perspectives, needs and assets brought to the table by 51% of the participants.

Hope

I also talked about the significance of hope and the notion that we cannot live without hope. During the conference, speakers kept stating that “despair is not an option”, which is very true. Despair, in the sense of apathy, indifference and resignation is, indeed, not an option.

But sometimes we’re moved to action by a sense of desperation and urgency, driven by the feeling that we have nothing to lose. Alongside that, there must be hope. Hope in the sense of believing in future good even when it seems despairingly remote and impossible.

Hope means insistence on believing in that good even when it seems we got dealt a lousy hand this round. Hope is the stuff from which the greatest stories about the human ability rise above hardships and challenges, above the doubts and disregard are made of. Do not mistake hope. It is not a “nice feminine quality”. Hope is a radical idea that sees far and beyond. Hope, if you will, is a very serious business.

Seriousness

In my last day in DC I got to meet Congresswoman Barbara Lee for the 13th District of California in the Democratic Party. Lee was elected to congress for the first time in 1998 after a long and impressive career as a civil rights activist, a member of the Black Panthers and a Senator in California State Senate.

I admit I was nervous before the meeting. This was my first time meeting a Congresswoman, not to mention a woman who is a model of brave leadership, determined and committed to justice and equality through and through.

We had 15 minutes together. I told her about my work in the Dafna Fund and about Women Wage Peace. I spoke of the magic that was created in the Palestinian and Israeli women’s march Qasr Al Yahud, on October 19th, 2016. I told her about the tears and joy of women who had only met for the first time, falling into each other’s arms in an embrace that spoke closeness and faith in partnering for peace. As I spoke with a trembling voice, I knew she understood.

congresswoman-barbara-lee

Determination

All the while, I kept getting updates on current affairs in Israel: the State Comptroller’s report on the 2014 Operation Protective Edge and the winds of war stirred in order to distract public attention from the high ranking political officials’ oversights that cost us in dear life.

From time to time I stole a glance at my email and IM messages from Israel. I read the Letter of the Mothers, which my friends at Women Wage Peace had written and watched as they stood firm outside the Ministry of Defense, demanding the defense cabinet to take responsibility for the Comptroller’s report and act immediately to end the conflict by resuming negotiations to reach a mutually binding peace agreement.

I saw, in the pictures of my friends’ faces, the hope, determination, persistence and willingness to lay everything aside and rise again and again to act in favor of the only logical solution that will end the bloodshed, suffering and loss that is binding us in a forcible grip for too many years.

Written in Jerusalem, in deep appreciation to our dear partners of the JStreet Women's Leadership Forum.

This world needs mothers

"Motherhood is not limited to the act of bearing and rearing our own children. Motherhood is a spiritual and ethical position of responsibility for the world and for future generations".

I spoke these words at an event that Women Wage Peace held in the Baptism site north of Jericho on October 19th, 2016, as part of the movement's  March of Hope.

It was an historical event; for the first in a very long time, Jewish and Palestinian women from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met and marched together for a peace agreement in our region.

It as a political event; a clear and resounding statement by women who are tired of war and bloodshed; who have had enough of being excluded from discourse and action for peace and security.

It was a formative event for me, personally; an opportunity to reflect on my own actions and leadership.

As we were getting ready to march to the sounds of drums and joint singing, I shed sweet tears of excitement and joy. Months and weeks of preparations and hard work culminated in this watershed moment. Holding and being held by other women; supporting and supported, I marched knowing that we are going to get far, together.

My face was beaming with tears and laughter; it reflected deep feelings of gratitude and determination. I knew there and then the mental and physical sensation of being in the presence of collective greatness.

As we took the stage, Huda Abu alarquob and I, to MC the ceremony, the collective greatness embraced and inspired us. "Women of the world, today is our day!" I heard Huda's voice resonating in the desert. Her voice empowered mine. The blazing sun and the beaming faces of the women sitting in front of us shed their lights on us both.

qasr-march
The March of Hope at the Baptism site near Jericho. Photo by Anat Saragusti

I continue to cherish these moments as I return to my daily routine. Thoughts of womanhood and leadership linger in my mind; thoughts of all that I am learning from my many partners to the March of Hope and the journey towards social change.

I am a feminist activist and professional; I am well aware that the discourse on the qualities of motherhood is a slippery slope towards essentialism; towards the quicksand of social constructs of "femininity" and "masculinity" that do injustice to all genders. Yet, I am compelled to make motherhood –  as position of moral leadership –  present in the political discourse on peace and security.

Society tends to perceive motherhood as a personal and intimate position that belongs in the private realm of the family. The tender care and containment that are essential to raising children are appropriate for "feminine" caring professions but less so executive positions of management and leadership that require firmness, decisiveness and determination. These "soft" qualities and skills that are vital for raising families and managing relationships are often shunned as unwelcome or irrelevant guests in the boardroom. The qualities that are the life line of human existence and perceived as signs of weakness at the negotiations table.

We tend to think it is so; especially in our region where the conflicts dictates a language of zero sum game.

Really?

In every human encounter; personal, professional or political a rainbow of emotions comes into play. Each situation triggers us and pushes unconscious buttons. Minor and major crisis erupt when we act out of blindness, vanity or aggression. In times of crisis, our own responses can calm things down or cause an escalation. History shows that in cases where political leaders on both sides of a conflict chose the path of increased aggression it only led to more violence and bloodshed; loss and grief. However, when leaders chose a different path; when they reached out and shook the hand of the enemy, they changed history. The willingness to make painful concessions and let go of past grievances led to breakthroughs in the relationship between people and countries in the Middle East and around the world. Some of those leaders paid with their life for their courage; their political adversaries made their peace seeking stance look like acts of weakness. However, the images of Menachem Begin and Anwar a-Sadat, of Yitzchak Rabin and King Hussein shaking hands are engraved in our collective memory. Those images remind us that peace agreements are possible.

I was only four years old when I ran with my mother and sisters to the bomb shelter in Jerusalem during the 67 war. I was ten when we ran for shelter in 73. I was a young mother when I caressed my 18-month-old son through a plastic sleeve during the first Gulf War in 1991. I can still recall myself considering how to get home when buses exploded in Jerusalem after the collapse of the Oslo Agreement. I recall my eight-year-old daughter and me venturing to walk to the community garden after a Red Alert during the Protective Edge war in 2014. I recall looking at images of the destruction on Gaza; images of parents on both sides of the border – their hearts broken – weeping over the bodies of their dead children. I sat and wept for those children.

Motherhood is not only about giving birth or raising our own children. Motherhood – or indeed parenthood –  is an ethical and moral position of responsibility towards the world we live in and towards our fellow human beings. It is a position of self-restraint, attentiveness and inclusion. It a position of passion and love and of setting high standards of human behavior.  It is a position of compassion and dedication; of determination and resilience.

The world we live in is harsh and complicated; it contains too much injustice and violence; too much cruelty and misery. Our world needs compassion and healing; forgiveness and reconciliation. The world we live in needs that we see the person in front of us in their full humanity; it needs that we raise our voices against acts on acts against humanity.

"I see your humanity; do you see mine?" said Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Prize Laureate in 2011 from Liberia who came to Israel for the March of Hope as a special guest of Women Wage Peace. She told us that raising hope in the hearts who have lost so much to conflict and war is a huge responsibility. "Do not get into it if you are not serious", she said.

We are serious. As serious as the giants who paved the way for women as equal and engaged agents of change. As serious as the giants who fought for women's voting rights; as serious as the giants who fought and are fighting for gender, social and racial justice and for human rights. As serious as the women who fought for peace in their countries.

We are serious and we will not stop until there is a peace agreement. We are serious about creating a new political discourse based on mutual recognition and care. We are serious about putting peacebuilding back at the heart of the work of our communities.

Motherhood is not only the act of baring and rearing our own children. Motherhood is a spiritual and ethical position of responsibility for the world and for future generations.