Israeli Government Has Long Ignored Intentional Killing of Women, Femicide Expert Says

As the number of murders reaches record levels in Israel, researcher Dr. Shalva Weil says they can be prevented if the state starts taking the crisis seriously

Demonstrators blocking a road in Tel Aviv in protest at the murder of 25 women this year, December 13, 2018.
Moti Milrod

Israeli researcher Dr. Shalva Weil has spoken about femicide at three UN meetings and in several European parliaments, set up national observatories in two Eastern European countries and helped establish the European Observatory on Femicide. But there is one place she has not been asked to share her expertise on the killing of women and girls because of their gender: the Knesset.

“Excluding one or two MKs – all of whom are women, as if this was ‘their’ problem and not one of society at large – the government has ignored the problem of femicide in Israel,” Weil tells Haaretz. Meanwhile, protests continue across the country as demonstrators call on the state to fund a program to counter domestic violence.

The mass protests began after two young girls were murdered toward the end of November, with the number of suspected femicides in Israel now standing at 25 for 2018 – a 47 percent increase on 2017’s figures.

Israeli women unite to battle violence – and a government that doesn't careHaaretz

Femicide infuriates both Jewish and Arab communities, although it disproportionately affects Arab women. About half of all Israeli women who were murdered over the past decade were Arab, while around half of the female survivors of murder attempts were also Arab women.

Weil, a senior researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University, is clearly an authority on the subject. From 2013 to 2017 she chaired a groundbreaking, Europe-wide project on femicide: Featuring some 80 interdisciplinary scholars from Spain to Sweden, it was the first effort by most of the 30 countries involved to collect and analyze data on femicide.

Israel is a member of European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST), which backed the project. However, the government was not interested in the findings, Weil says – which is not the first time it has expressed apathy, or even antipathy, to her work.

Censored research

In January 2012, Haaretz reported that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry withheld a landmark research project it had commissioned, documenting the murder of women in Israel’s Ethiopian community. Weil was chosen to author the research because she has studied the community since the 1970s.

Dr. Shalva Weil in Jerusalem. "We can stop femicide if we know the motivations of the killer, can intervene in different cultural contexts and build a profile of the next murderer," she says.
Emil Salman

“When I finished, the absorption ministry didn’t like the results,” Weil says. “Too many women were killed.”

Weil’s report was completed in 2009 and found that nearly 30 percent of all Israeli women murdered by their partners between 2005 and 2008 were of Ethiopian origin – despite Ethiopian Jews representing only 1.4 percent of all households in Israel at that time.

Unfortunately, what can be found online of Weil’s research is heavily redacted, with most of the qualitative narratives removed. She has never shown the full report to anyone for fear of making a legal error. Indeed, it is unclear who owns the result of her research, since it was commissioned under contract by the Israeli government.

Frustrated, the U.K.-born doctor decided to present her statistical findings before the gender section of the European Sociological Association. From there, she was encouraged to submit a proposal to COST.

“Femicide Across Europe: Theory, Research and Prevention,” which was published in late October and is now available on Google Books, is the result of her four-year project.

Overshadowed

The European project started by tackling two fundamental issues related to femicide: definitions and data collection. Data was missing in several countries (as it still is in Israel) because femicide has been obscured by homicide statistics – a problem Weil examined in a 2016 academic article titled “Making Femicide Visible.”

Comparing femicide to suicide, Weil argued that the murder of women and girls because of their gender is a separate expression of human behavior – and deserving of sociological study in its own right.

Protesters demonstrating in Tel Aviv, calling for greater government funding to combat violence against women, December 4, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Femicide can also be overshadowed by domestic violence, on which there is already a wealth of research. But it is important to make a couple of distinctions between the two.

First, the UN’s “Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women” states that a “nuanced understanding” of domestic violence can include not only physical violence but also sexual, emotional or psychological, patrimonial, property or economic violence. Domestic violence is a broader issue than femicide. Weil’s research focuses on what happens when a woman is killed – which can often be the ultimate expression of physical domestic violence. And yet not every killing of a woman is femicide.

The recent killings of Silvana Tsegai, 12, and Yara Ayoub, 16 – whose bodies were discovered in south Tel Aviv and the Galilee, respectively, on the same day, November 26 – and Iman Ahmed Awad, 29, in Acre on December 11, appear to have been motivated by gender and therefore could be defined as femicide once the investigations into their deaths are completed.

Therein lies the complication of data collection on femicide in Israel and many countries worldwide (with the notable exceptions of Canada and the United States): It is not a statistic collected and maintained by a central, single source. This is what the femicide observatories Weil has helped establish in Europe now aim to do.

“In Israeli legal terminology we don’t have ‘femicide’; we only have ‘retzach nashim’ – ‘wife murder’ or ‘woman murder,” Weil explains. “This could be that some maniac wants to rob a bank and he murders a woman in the street on the way or she’s the bank clerk, so she’s in the [same] statistics as wife murder.”

A random killing of a woman during a bank robbery or terrorist attack is not femicide; the purposeful killing of a wife by her husband because he suspects she has cheated on him is. Femicide is simultaneously simple and difficult to define.

Israel’s Justice Ministry has also opposed adding the killing of women to its list of forms of aggravated murder – a charge that mandates an automatic life sentence for the perpetrator.

“Many European countries include femicide as aggravated murder in their legislation,” Weil says. “Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry claims that the law must apply equally to all and that aggravated murder should be reserved for murders by terrorists. In other words, the murder of a woman by an intimate partner is less important than the murder of a woman due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she adds.

Demonstrators protesting violence against women in Israel's Bedouin community, March 13, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Lessons from Europe

Weil has been meeting with some Israeli lawmakers, including MK Aida Touma-Sliman (from the predominantly Arab Joint List), and is encouraged that “finally, after all these years, people in power are beginning to take note” of femicide.

What’s needed now, she says, is “real government action” – like greater funding and developing more programs to combat extreme abuse (since this interview took place, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved an increase in the budget for a plan to fight domestic violence, from 30 million to 50 million shekels – from $8 million to $13 million – next year) ; defining femicide in Israeli legal terms; disaggregating homicide and femicide data; funding academic research and publications on femicide; and establishing a network of scholars and activists like the one now existing in Europe.

Israel could also follow the lead of countries like Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Georgia and Macedonia by setting up a national observatory on femicide (Weil established the latter two) to collect quantitative and qualitative data in line with the directives of the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

“We can stop femicide if we know the motivations of the killer, can intervene in different cultural contexts and build a profile of the next murderer,” Weil says. “Femicide can be prevented.”