Last week, Israel’s National Security Council rejected the demands by a coalition of women’s organizations to include a diverse group of women in its panel of experts advising the council and prime minister on its exit strategy from the coronavirus crisis.
The panel of experts, headed by Prof. Eli Waxman of the department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, was made up of 23 men – without a single woman – and included eight research assistants, only two of whom were women.
The women’s organizations, which sent their demands in a letter to the council in early April, warned that if women – especially Arab and Haredi women – were not appointed to the committee, they would petition the High Court of Justice.
There was no response from the NSC and in mid-April a petition in the name of 13 women’s organizations was filed with the High Court by Netta Loevy, director of advocacy for Itach Ma’aki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, and Keren Horowitz, CEO of the Rackman Center at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, which promotes the status of women.
The petition asks the court to compel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat to appoint women to the committee of experts and, in particular, to appoint Arab and Haredi women.
When the NSC finally answered the women’s groups last week, it responded by thanking them for their “important letter.” The response, written entirely in the feminine form of Hebrew, was signed by Michal Yaniv, who heads the NSC’s public relations department.
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Yaniv further noted that the panel “acts in accordance with the concept of decision-making based on a broad picture, including reference to a comprehensive variety of communities, disciplines and points of view.”
She offered the organizations the opportunity “to submit proposals that will be examined by professionals,” who will then decide whether to bring them before the government.
The NSC provided a similar response earlier this week to a letter signed by more than 100 social action organizations, which addressed both the lack of diversity and the lack of social welfare or education experts.
“The NSC really doesn’t get it,” Loevy tell Haaretz. “Including representatives of different opinions and experiences leads to better solutions for the entire population.”
Haaretz has learned that even before the letter to the organizations was issued, the NSC had in fact appointed two women to the committee, although neither of them are experts in social fields and neither is Haredi or Arab.
The NSC also added more women to serve on the panel of expert advisers. However, no announcement was made to the public or the organizations.
In a written statement to Haaretz, the NSC emphasized that appointments to the committee were made by Waxman, and most of its members have been working together “for years” on “various complex issues.”
The statement adds that, initially, Waxman appointed two women, subsequently increased the number to five and then to nine.
Despite requests, the NSC did not address why the additions were not made public.
“We are pleased when any woman is included in the panel of experts,” Loevy says. “But as long as there is no equal and diverse representation, this still does not meet the requirements of the law, as stipulated in the Women’s Equal Rights Law (1951).”
She adds that the organizations are not withdrawing their petition to the High Court.
First to be fired, last to return
Feminist activists stress that the demand for women’s inclusion and representation is based on much more than legal considerations.
A recent report by the Israeli Women’s Network states that in situations of inequality, health and economic crises are likely to make that inequality even worse and to affect the more vulnerable populations disproportionately.
This happened, they show, both during the 2008 world economic crisis and the Ebola and Zika health crises, when gender perspectives were missing from management of the emergency situation and its aftermath.
Similar trends are beginning to emerge with regard to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the report states. “It is clear that the crisis has two sides: A potential to erode hard-won achievements to women’s rights, but also an opportunity to use gender equality as an engine for strengthening the entire society,” it concludes.
Meanwhile, violence against women in Israel has increased. Five women have been murdered since the lockdown began in March. Two of those murders occurred only days apart. According to the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, the number of calls to its domestic violence hotlines has increased fourfold, and other hotlines are reporting similar upticks. Experts expect that as the lockdown is eased, and women will no longer be under the constantly watchful eyes of their abusive partners, the number of calls to these hotlines will increase even more.
Because the courts were shut at the beginning of the health crisis, women are unable to obtain restraining orders or other emergency measures against abusive men. Shelters for women are operating at full capacity, and there are almost no therapeutic services available for violent men.
The economic effects of the crisis are different for men and women. Haaretz recently reported that nearly 30 percent more women than men have been laid off or furloughed since the start of the crisis in Israel. Furthermore, it will be more difficult for them to return to work.
“Women are the first to be fired and could be the last to return to the labor market. This is due to their role as the main caregiver in most Israeli households, gender stereotypes, and the pervasive attitude a woman’s job is not as important as a man’s job,” explains Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network.
To make matters even worse for women, in early April the government issued emergency regulations that suspended provisions of the Employment of Women Law (1954) and allowed employers to ignore the legal protection from arbitrary dismissal for pregnant women, women undergoing fertility treatments or those on maternity leave.
By the time the High Court reinstituted these protections in response to a petition by the Arab rights group Adalah, nearly 10,000 pregnant women had already been dismissed from their jobs.
Some economic implications may be less obvious – but no less crushing.
Daphna Hacker, a law professor and head of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, noted in a recent webinar that, due to their own financial circumstances, some fathers may seek to cut back on alimony and child-support payments.
“This could leave many mothers, who are the primary caretakers, in a precarious financial position,” she warned.
Medical issues, too, have gendered aspects. For instance, notes Prof. Nadav Davidovitch of the services department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, when hospitals shut down their nonessential services in preparation for coronavirus patients, they did not take into account issues related solely to women – such as pregnancy complications, fertility treatments and pregnancy termination. These were reinstituted only after women’s groups brought the problem to the attention of the Health Ministry.
“The issues of this crisis can’t be thought of only in terms of epidemiology,” Davidovitch says. “The crisis didn’t come to an empty vacuum: it falls on existing social, geographical and economic inequalities, and differential needs of different groups.”
While the NSC has yet to respond publicly to any of these gender-related issues, several civil society organizations are already taking initiative. Last Wednesday, hundreds of protesters rallied against femicide and domestic violence, and again demanded that women be appointed to the advisory committee.
The Women’s Zionist Organization has prepared a detailed plan for the period of the crisis and the exit. Written by some 30 experts from different fields, the report provides specific recommendations on subjects relating to the elderly, opening of emergency shelters for youth-at-risk, and preparedness for an anticipated wave of women turning to shelters after enduring abuse during the lockdown.
A WIZO spokeswoman tells Haaretz that the plan was presented to the prime minister, the NSC and all of the ministers nearly two weeks ago. None have responded.
A group of academics, led by Prof. Arie Arnon of Ben-Gurion University and Prof. Mona Khoury-Kassabri, dean of the School of Social Work at Hebrew University, have established a team of experts to issue position papers and recommendations regarding exit strategies.
“We have arranged ourselves into teams, each headed by a man and a woman, a Jew and an Arab, all of whom are experts in their fields,” Khoury-Kassabri says. “As experts, we know that our knowledge is better when we include different perspectives and experiences. This, we believe, is the way to reach positive solutions to social problems.”
If you are a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you can call one of these hotlines for help and advice: 118 (national hotline for reporting domestic abuse); 1202 (women’s nationwide hotline); 1-800-353-300 (fighting violence against women); 1-800-292-333 (Bat Melech hotline for the ultra-Orthodox); or 04-656-6813 (Arabic language hotline).