Israel's National Security Council Rejects Call to Add Women and Minorities to Coronavirus Expert Panel

Only two out of 31 members consulting the government on the crisis are women, none are Arabs, and there is no representation from the fields of education or welfare

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Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Benjamin Netanyahu  during a coronavirus briefing, March 8, 2020.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Benjamin Netanyahu during a coronavirus briefing, March 8, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

Israel's National Security Council has rejected calls from social action groups to immediately correct the under-representation of women and minorities on the panel of experts advising the council on fighting the coronavirus.

Instead, the council suggested that groups send proposals “that will be examined by professionals,” who will then decide whether to bring them before the government.

The same answer was sent last week to women’s groups and other associations which protested the makeup of the team of experts. According to attorneys Neta Levi and Keren Horowitz, who petitioned the High Court of Justice on the matter, the council’s rejection and the state’s request to postpone the date of response to the petition “express contempt for women and for the law. Every day of emergency discussions without equal and diverse representation causes damage to women and to society in general.”

About three weeks ago, it emerged that the panel of experts advising the National Security Council on an exit strategy from the coronavirus pandemic consists of 31 members, including eight research assistances. All 23 experts – in economics, physics, psychology, and other fields – are men, and only two of the research assistants are women. Furthermore, there are no Arab representatives.

Public criticism, which included a letter of protest signed by more than 100 social action organizations, addressed both the lack of diversity and the absence of social welfare or education experts on the panel. The panel’s chairman, Prof. Eli Waxman of the Weizmann Institute of Science answered to a query that "the panel came together under short notice and spontaneously."

Later recommendations revealed that two female experts had been added to the committee, however, the council refused to give details on the new makeup of the panel.

A petition to the High Court of Justice called to compel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat to appoint women to the committee of experts, in particular Arab and ultra-Orthodox women.

It noted that the committee in its current makeup went against the principle of equality and the law on equal rights for women, which states that “expression must be given to proper representation of women of a variety of groups,” on public and policy-setting committees.

The petition was filed by Levi, of Itach-Maaci Women Lawyers for Social Justice, and Horowitz, of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status at Bar Ilan University, and was submitted on April 13 on behalf of 13 civil society groups.

After the petition was filed with the High Court, the National Security Council sent an identical response to all the complaints, opening with thanks “for you important letter,” and noting that it acts in accordance with the concept of “decision-making based on a broad picture, including reference to a comprehensive variety of sectors, disciplines and points of view, that improves the platform set before the government when it sets policy.” The response was written by Michal Yaniv, who heads the National Security Council’s public relations department.

Yaniv also noted that the council “would be happy to receive from you proposals of action in a variety of areas.” These areas would be, Yaniv wrote “those in which you believe that the challenge is not sufficiently met by the current policy,” and on subjects “which in your opinion should be examined from a different or additional point of view.”

It emerges from the council’s proposal to the organizations that they also respond “to issues in which government policy has already been set,” that the possibility of taking part in decision-making is limited. The National Security Council added that “to the extent that it will be found correct and if it is possible,” it would consider holding an online “roundtable” with men and women experts who will submit proposals.

According to attorneys Levi and Horowitz, the National Security Council’s suggestion that they send in proposals is “especially embarrassing in light of the High Court petition and cannot redress the defect of the lack of representation. Proposals presented to the team do not have the same weight as the presence of women experts, sitting at the table, exchanging opinions on a regular basis with other team members, and suggesting a variety of points of view on decisions.” They added that “proper representation is not ‘decoration,’ but a legal requirement intended to lead to the best solutions for the entire population.”

“The response we received does not speak of cooperation with local authorities, the addition of experts to the team or any other idea, but rather proposes that we send our ideas and ‘they’ will examine them and decide whether they are suitable to accept,” wrote Dr. Galit Shaul a few days ago. Shaul is head of the Emek Hefer Regional Council and a member of a forum of 14 women heads of local councils, one of the organizations that criticized the under-representation of women on the team of experts.

The High Court has in the past harshly criticized the lack of representation on boards of directors of government corporations, the Israel Land Council and other bodies. In hearing a petition on the lack of female representation in the committee that investigated the actions against the Marmara flotilla to Gaza 10 years ago, Justice Uzi Fogelman said: “Can it be that nowhere in Israel, among the abundant areas of activity and research here, not even one additional candidate with the skills and characteristics could be found?”

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