Meet Israel’s 1st Gender-equality Minister: Gila Gamliel

She's a political hardliner and not a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, but Gamliel is progressive when it comes to women's and gay rights, gender segregation and related issues.

Moti Milrod

Israel’s first-ever minister for gender equality is an anomaly of sorts.

On the one hand, Gila Gamliel is a political hardliner known to challenge leaders of her Likud party who have dared to express support for territorial compromise with the Palestinians. On the other hand, she stands out among her fellow cohorts in the party for her unabashedly progressive views not only on women’s rights, but also on gay rights.

A recent law passed in the Knesset that prohibits marriage under age 18, for example, owes much to her.

“Many Knesset members and organizations had been trying for years to get the minimum age raised [from 17],” observes Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, chair of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, “but she was the only one who somehow got it through. She was behind this initiative from beginning to end.”

Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, notes that Gamliel was one of the first politicians in the country to speak out against gender segregation in public spaces.

“She was very vocal and clear on this issue,” he says. “She has also been quite outspoken about advancing women in the job market.”

A 41-year-old mother of two and resident of Tel Aviv, Gamliel initially entered national politics in 2003 after serving as the first female head of the national student union. The daughter of a Libyan-born mother and a Yemenite father, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Middle East history and a master’s in philosophy from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She used a three-year break from the Knesset between 2006 and 2009 (when she was voted out) to study for a law degree.

Both of Gamliel’s daughters were born while she was serving in the Knesset, and she makes no bones about the fact that she leaves work early twice a week to pick them up from their preschool programs.

This will be her first full-fledged ministerial position, though, and in addition to gender equality, she will be responsible for minorities, young people and senior citizens.

"Minister for gender and minority equality, and the advancement of youth and pensioners" is a long job title. And as lofty as it sounds, most Israelis understand the back story to Gamliel’s latest appointment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It wasn’t so much a quest to improve the lot of society’s weaker groups that prompted him to create this new ministry for her, but rather a desire to remove any last obstacles to forming a government by buying favor with certain key members in his party.

“Whatever you say about this new position,” says Kariv, “it’s important to point out that Gila Gamliel is the one who initiated the idea. So even if it is not marked by many achievements, the existence of this portfolio is an achievement in its own right, and I’m pretty certain we’ll see it again in other governments.”

Halperin-Kaddari, a former vice president of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, notes that many developed countries and emerging democracies have government bodies charged with promoting equality, and not only gender equality exclusively.

“The issue isn’t whether such a mechanism exists,” she notes, “but rather, whether it is in fact operational, and what resources and powers it has. In many places, such offices serve as mere fig leafs.”

In her view, the main challenge facing Israel’s inaugural minister of gender equality is not initiating new legislation, but rather guaranteeing that existing legislation is put into effect.

“When it comes to women’s rights, our legislative framework in Israel is pretty good,” says Halperin-Kaddari. “The problem is a lack of resources, which makes implementation and enforcement difficult.”

Although Gamliel may not be an “outspoken feminist” like other members of the Knesset, Halperin-Kaddari adds, “she has always expressed a true commitment to advancing women’s rights.”

Feminist reservations

Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a multidenominational prayer group widely identified in recent years with the struggle for women’s rights in Israel, is not as convinced about Gamliel’s qualifications.

“She is very willing to show solidarity with women who are victims – war widows, battered wives and others who suffer,” says Hoffman. “But in 2015, I expect a feminist to go beyond that, and also support women who are warriors and challenge the status quo. I’m not so sure that Gila Gamliel is willing to move out of her comfort zone and do that.”

Among the ruling Likud party, Gamliel was one of only four Knesset members who agreed to answer questions posed in a survey conducted before the last election by Jewish Pluralism Watch, a new watchdog organization set up by the Conservative-Masorti Movement to determine where Israelis lawmakers stand on matters of religion and state. In response to the questions, Gamliel said that she supported affirmative action for women, legislation that bans exclusion of women in public spaces, full recognition for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and legislation that guarantees full rights to the LGBT community, including the right to marry and establish families.

One major cause for concern among Israeli feminist groups has been Gamliel’s position on custody rights in divorce battles. Under the existing Tender Years Presumption Law, when an Israeli couple cannot reach agreement on the matter, the mother is automatically entitled to custody until the child reaches the age of six. Gamliel has consistently sided with men’s rights groups, which oppose the preferential treatment given to mothers. Feminist groups have argued, in their defense, that although providing the mother with automatic custody may seem unfair, marriage and divorce in Israel, which is controlled by the Orthodox-run rabbinate, is inherently biased against women. The “tender age presumption,” they argue, should be seen as a mechanism for compensating for this systemic bias.

“I am confident that Gila Gamliel will be willing to listen to us on this matter, and hopefully, we can convince her that it is far more complex than it seems,” said one feminist leader who asked that she not be identified.