How Anti-femicide Protest Is Uniting Women in Israel's Arab and Jewish Communities

The gruesome murder of two young girls has galvanized a protest movement demanding urgent action to stem the sharp increase in women being murdered by family members or men they knew

Ahead of the anti-femicide protests, feminist activists on poured red water – to symbolize blood – into public water fountains in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. December 3, 2018
Emil Salman

Under the slogans “I am a woman and I am on strike” and “This is an emergency,” thousands of women are expected to attend demonstrations across Israel on Tuesday to protest femicide and violence against women. 

Several recent events have triggered the protests, which have united Jewish and Arab women across the country. 

On November 26, Silvana Tsegai, 12, was raped and murdered in her Tel Aviv home, allegedly by her mother’s former partner. The same day, the body of Yara Ayoub, 16, was found in her home village of Jish, northern Israel – three days after her disappearance was reported. 

According to media reports, Tsegai had called the police several days before she was murdered to complain about violence in her home. Authorities have identified the primary suspect in Ayoub’s murder as a 28-year-old man from the village and arrested several others suspected of involvement.

A protest in Israel calling for an end to violence against women, 2016.
\ Ilan Assayag

According to the Women’s International Zionist Organization, 24 females – including two young teenagers – have been murdered in 2018 by family members or men known to them. This marks a sharp increase from previous years: 16 women were murdered in both 2016 and 2017; and 13 were murdered in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

More than half of the women murdered over the past two years had previously filed complaints with the police about being subjected to violence from spouses or family members.

“If young girls were murdered in a terrorist attack, the government would be condemning their deaths throughout the world. But even though 24 women have been murdered so far this year, violence against women is not considered terror,” says Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. “The lives of women, our safety and our welfare are not important to the state or its leaders,” she adds.

The demonstrations will take place throughout the country, culminating in what is expected to be a mass rally in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening.

The events are sponsored and coordinated by the Red Flag Coalition, which includes more than 50 feminist and women’s organizations. Ahead of the strike, feminist activists on Monday poured red water – to symbolize blood – into public water fountains in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.

Ahead of the anti-femicide protests, feminist activists on poured red water – to symbolize blood – into public water fountains in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. December 3, 2018
Emil Salman

The strike crosses ethnic and national divides, with ads published in Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, English and Amharic. Institutional support is growing as well. Over 40 municipalities and some of the country's largest organizations have said they won’t dock the pay of striking women. These include the Knesset, the Histadrut labor federation, the Social Workers Union and WIZO, as well as numerous business enterprises.

At least nine regional authorities in the Arab community have also announced their support for the strike. This reflects growing awareness within the community and recognition by local politicians that women are a constituency, says Samah Salaime, a feminist activist and founding director of an Arab women’s center in Ramle-Lod.

Salaime notes that although Arabs make up only some 20 percent of the population in Israel, nearly half of the women murdered are Arab. “The lives of Arab women are even cheaper than the lives of Jewish women,” she says. “As meagre as the funding is for all women, funding for gender-based violence against Arab women is even lower. We are multiply discriminated against as both Arabs and women,” she adds.

She acknowledges that Arab society is more patriarchal and conservative than Israeli society, but rejects the label of “murder to preserve family honor.”

“There is nothing honorable about murder,” Salaime says. “Murder is murder, and we must not explain it away as if it were some primitive cultural ritual. That is the way the establishment denies us, Arab women, the protection to which we are entitled as citizens.

“We are all – Jewish and Arab women – citizens of this country,” she adds. “And we are working together to demand that our societies and leaders recognize that women’s lives are no less important than men’s lives.”

Also adding to the outrage is the voting down two weeks ago of a bill for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry committee regarding gender-based violence. Infuriated, activists posted the names of the female lawmakers who voted against the proposal after citing government unity.

Last Sunday, in observance of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara visited a battered women’s shelter. When confronted with his government’s decision to reject the bill, Netanyahu said he would establish and personally head an interministerial committee.

“This might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Sulitzeanu. “What do we need another committee for when the government hasn’t even implemented the previous committee’s recommendations? Do they really think women are stupid?”

The strike’s organizers are demanding that the government finally fund a program to prevent violence against women. Last year, the cabinet approved both a program and its budget of 250 million shekels ($67 million), but the money has never been disbursed.

The impetus for the strike began when a group of young feminist activists took to Facebook last week, noting, “Twenty-four women have been murdered, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of violence against women.”

“There is a groundswell,” says one of the organizers, Stav Arnon. “This is coming from women, many of us young. We are subjected to gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, everywhere. And thanks to the #MeToo movement, we are empowered and not willing to tolerate this any longer.”

Statistics also point to an increase in other forms of gender-based violence. Data provided by Na'amat, the Movement of Working Women and Volunteers, shows there are over 200,000 battered women in Israel and that 500,000 children are exposed to domestic violence each year.

A 2016 study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be'er Sheva, shows that around 40 percent of Israeli women aged 16-48 have suffered physical, psychological or verbal violence from their partners. And according to data provided by the ARCCI, one in three women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime, while one in seven is raped during her lifetime. In over 85 percent of incidents of sexual assault, the attacker is someone the victim knows. 

Reasons for the uptick in such violence are complex, experts say. “To fully understand these reasons, we must allocate funds and conduct the research. But the data is already showing us that the institutional responses are inadequate,” says Sulitzeanu.

In a related event, Gun Free Kitchen Tables – a coalition of women's and civil society organizations – have petitioned the High Court of Justice against the expansion of eligibility for gun licenses, as proposed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

“The lives of one-third of the women murdered in the past seven years were taken by firearms,” says Anat Thon Askenazy, director of Itach-Maaki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice and one of the authors of the petition.