Exclusion of Women: Last Winter's Burning Subject, Now a Non-issue in Israel

Or Kashti
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Or Kashti

Exclusion of women, remember? For a few weeks last winter it seemed the widespread anger and shock from the increasing instances of exclusion of women in public were going to turn into a new version of the previous summer of social protests. Incident followed incident in short order: Nine Orthodox Israel Defense Forces cadets walked out on a military history event where female soldiers were singing; Tanya Rosenblit of Ashdod refused to move to the back of the bus at the demand of ultra-Orthodox passengers; nine-year-old Na'ama Margolese of Beit Shemesh was afraid to go to school because of the spitting and cursing by ultra-Orthodox men; advertisements in Jerusalem showing women were virtually banned.

The government, and particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dealt with what threatened to become a new crisis by using the tactic tried out a few months earlier with the social protest: lots of empathetic words, very little action. Netanyahu took pains to condemn every outrageous incident. He forcefully declared that "the public space must be preserved as an open and safe space for all citizens." However, the alliance with his "natural partners," the ultra-Orthodox parties, never cracked. The magic solution - an interministerial committee - was implemented, headed by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat. The committee's recommendations, published in March, focused mainly on raising awareness of the phenomenon instead of acting against it. Another important issue had risen to the top of the public agenda, and was once again shunted aside, until the next seasonal outbreak.

At the beginning of January, MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) proposed a bill calling for five years' imprisonment or a fine of NIS 300,000 upon conviction for excluding women from public space, including "roads, public transportation, and preventing women from participating in public events." The Ministerial Committee on Legislation voted against it in May, and it failed to pass its preliminary reading in the Knesset, by a vote of 26 to 15.

At the end of January, MK Nachman Shai (then representing Kadima, now in Labor) proposed a bill similar to Herzog's except for the penalty - three years' imprisonment, not five. Seven other lawmakers signed on as sponsors, most of them from Kadima but also Avishay Braverman from Labor and Einat Wilf of Atzmaut. "A few weeks ago the country was boiling, but in the Israeli reality, what was important yesterday disappears today due to the flood of events, and now the exclusion of women seems the most unimportant thing in the world. ... The Knesset cannot close its eyes and ignore this key issue in Israel of 2012," Shai said in March, before the preliminary reading of his bill in the Knesset.

Rhetoric and committees

In explaining the government's opposition to the bill, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman said the exclusion of women was "problematic and should be dealt with," but that "the various phenomena that have come up in public discourse under this term are essentially different from each other, as are the ways they should be treated. Thus, the right way to deal with the phenomenon is not specifically through the narrow prism of the penal code."

According to Neeman, a "broader view is needed that will sift through the various phenomena and find the proper means of dealing with each matter." These were exactly the words he used when explaining the government's opposition to Herzog's bill.

In his response to Shai's proposal, Neeman referred to Livnat's interministerial committee as well as a committee that had been established in the Justice Ministry. Using committees to justify postponing the passing of the bill into law angered Shai. "The Israeli public should know that this government says: 'I am ignoring this; I am shunting it aside; I am leaving this to a committee, then another committee and another panel.' But in the end, the government, as of March 2012, is not prepared to come to terms with the serious phenomenon of exclusion of women in the public sphere in the State of Israel," Shai said.

Nineteen lawmakers voted for Shai's bill: 15 from Kadima (including Tzipi Livni), two from Labor (Shelly Yacimovich and Herzog) and two from Meretz (Ilan Gilon and Nitzan Horowitz). It was defeated by the votes of 27 MKs: 12 from Likud (among them ministers Moshe Ya'alon, Silvan Shalom, Gideon Sa'ar, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, and deputy minister Lea Nass; seven from Yisrael Beiteinu (among them Sofa Landver, Anastassia Michaeli and Faina Kirshenbaum); four from Shas; three from Habayit Hayehudi and MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism).

Despite the bills Shai and Herzog proposed, they are not considered especially active on gender issues in this Knesset. According to the Israel Women's Forum July index of gender activism in the Knesset, the MKs most involved in this issue were Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) and Dov Khenin (Hadash).

A protest against the exclusion of women from the public sphere in Jerusalem, November 11, 2011. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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