Exclusion of Women Only One Sign of a Changing Israel

Israel's social reality in 2011 is a battle between two unequal forces: the feminist-egalitarian worldview and the radical conservative worldview. The Katsav case epitomized the nexus of this battle's escalation.

"If, after so many years of media stories about Katsav, the coin has still not dropped and the fact has not yet been internalized that acts of sexual harassment to the extent of rape take place behind the office door, then I attribute this fault to those who manage the public arena: the women's organizations and female Knesset members." This was the stance taken by attorney Maya Zahor in Haaretz earlier this week ("They prefer headlines," December 11 ).

It seems that Zahor, who is professionally up to her neck in issues of sexual harassment at work, is expressing deep frustration over the gap between what she sees and knows, and the norms to which most of society still clings. Otherwise, it's hard to understand how she allowed herself to fall into the most foreseeable trap of all - that of blaming women themselves for making their case poorly.

The absurdity of this claim is laid bare when one compares the case of former President Moshe Katsav to that of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In France, not only is there no law against sexual harassment, but "everyone knew" about the sexual exploitation Strauss-Kahn engaged in at work and still kept silent - including the women's organizations, which, in contrast to their pesky Israeli counterparts, didn't protest.

And when the Pandora's box was finally opened and it became clear that this was a consistent pattern of behavior, France's leading journalists and politicians rushed to describe Strauss-Kahn as a "naughty lover of women." Most of them are still unmoved by the testimony of women who have fallen victim to sexual exploitation at work all their lives. So who's to blame for that?

It could be that Israeli women's organizations exceeded the boundaries of good taste, and perhaps even those of wisdom, in their activities against the former president, especially by holding demonstrations outside the courthouse while a legitimate and dignified legal proceeding was taking place inside. Judge Judith Shevach made several harsh comments about this in her minority opinion on the Katsav verdict; for example, that the court "doesn't need cheerleaders." But from this to denouncing the organizations and blaming them for society's fixation on them is a long and winding road.

Israel's social reality in 2011 is a battle between two unequal forces: the feminist-egalitarian worldview and the radical conservative worldview. The battlefield is misleading, because many Israeli women have racked up impressive achievements in many different fields, ranging from politics and business to the humanities, law and science.

Yet in other fields, Israel lags significantly behind the developed world. The wage gap between men and women remains enormous. The short school day and lack of day-care facilities make it hard for women to take part and advance in the labor market. And marriage and divorce are the exclusive province of an Orthodoxy that is growing ever more extreme and undermining both women's status in the family and their economic power. Nevertheless, when it comes to legislation, Israel is actually a world leader.

The law against sexual harassment is one of the greatest achievements of those women whom Zahor now accuses of trivializing the conversation. True, some of them sound dogmatic; they repeat the same rigid mantras ad nauseam. And above all, they are decidedly not nice. But what can you do? Revolutions are made only by fanatics who subordinate every detail of reality to the issue to which they have devoted their lives.

Some of them have paid a professional and economic price for this. This writer has suffered withering fire from some of them every time she dared to disagree with them. But to accuse them of being hungry for headlines is to ignore the escalation of the battle.

The Katsav case epitomized the nexus of this escalation: The law was applied as it should be, but society, which is having trouble internalizing the results of the deep-seated change in the rules of behavior between the sexes, predictably tended toward blaming women for being "too liberal." In such an atmosphere, it was easy for Katsav's associates to claim that he was the innocent victim of a feminist blood libel. This stance meshes seamlessly with the demand to redefine women's status according to a dangerous interpretation of Jewish law that is essentially equivalent to the norms characterizing the most fanatic and unenlightened conservative thought.

This is the focal point of the current cultural/political battle. And make no mistake: Women (like Arabs and human rights organizations ) are merely the means. The end is to reshape the face of Israeli society as a whole.

Read this article in Hebrew.