The Year That Killing Women Finally Caught Israelis’ Attention

This year, as the COVID lockdowns that had intensified domestic violence eased, Israel finally broke its apathy about femicide. That may already have saved women’s lives

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Flyers imitating death notices outside the Beersheva district court for some of the 183 Israeli women killed by gender-based violence between 2011 and 2020
Flyers imitating death notices outside the Beersheva district court for some of the 183 Israeli women killed by gender-based violence between 2011 and 2020Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Shalva Weil
Shalva Weil

As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women this Thursday, we are reminded that extreme violence against women inevitably ends up as femicide, the intentional killing of a woman because she is a woman.

Here in Israel, and counter to the impression given by the national media, we actually have a lot to be thankful for: Femicide rates, relative to the general population, are low compared to other countries. However, in a small country like Israel, where everyone knows everyone else, each murder is felt as a personal loss and a personal tragedy.

The "good" news is that in 2021, there have been so far 15 femicides in Israel, a drop since last year; of these, ten were intimate partner femicides or femicides perpetrated by other family members, as in the case of so-called 'honor killings.'

All the victims knew their perpetrators; and all the perpetrators were of the same ethnic origin as the victims. Half were Jewish, nearly half were Israeli Arabs, and one femicide occurred within the Hebrew Israelite community from Dimona. One third of the women were shot; over a quarter were strangled; and over a quarter were stabbed. 

Graphic demonstration against violence against women in Tel Aviv's Kikar Atarim last yearCredit: Tomer Apelbaum

Some argue that femicide statistics are unreliable, and definitions are flexible. Femicide usually relates to women being killed because of their gender. This year, Israel has seen an alarming rise in violence and crime within the Israeli Arab community. Well over 100 Israeli Arabs have been killed in gang warfare. The vast majority of the homicides are male, but a few women have also become targets, or got in the way.

The murder of women for non-gender reasons are not included in the femicide statistics collated by the Israel Observatory on Femicide established in November 2020. The Observatory, which is funded by private donations, aims at monitoring femicide from a totally neutral perspective.

But the definitions used sometimes lead to femicide numbers rising as well as falling, when what initially seeming to be an accident or suicide later emerges as a femicide.

Two such cases were reported in Israel quite recently. A 94 year-old playwright who had reported his wife’s death a year ago was arrested, on suspicion that he had strangled her to death before he rang authorities to report on her 'suicide.' In an even more recent case, a 50 year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of causing the death of her 90 year-old mother. The case has not yet gone to court.

This situation in Israel compares very favorably with countries abroad. According to the United Nations News, in Argentina, a woman is killed every 32 hours.

In the United Kingdom, a report issued in September 2021 revealed that a woman is murdered once every three days. Intimate partner violence is the leading type of femicide, and there are no signs that the murders of women because of their gender are abating. In Mexico, 762 women were murdered between January and September this year, making an average of 3.1 women murdered per month.

A masked protester sprays fire at the entrance to Mexico's presidential residence, covered in fake blood and the message: 'Femicide State.' 10 women on average are killed every day in MexicoCredit: AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme

The good news in Israel continues. The number of femicide cases in Israel in 2021 is significantly lower than the femicide rate in 2020.

Last year, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, there had been 19 femicide cases in Israel that year, or 1.8 cases of femicide on average per month, compared to 1.2 cases this year. In March 2020, the month in which the coronavirus pandemic erupted in Israel in full force and Israel imposed its first nationwide lockdown, five victims were claimed. A year later in March 2021, when COVID-19 restrictions began to relax in Israel, there were no femicide victims.

There may be several explanations for the decrease in the femicide rate in Israel.

An anti-femicide protest in Tel Aviv, last year.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Last year, during the lockdown, women were cut off from their social networks, family and support groups; sometimes their partners barred them from using a smartphone or making contact with friends. Helplessness increased, as did violence.

Women protesting against femicide in Taibeh, central Israel, July 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As women’s shelters were closed, women and children were sent home, only to be confronted by their assailants. In two cases, abusive partners were released from prison for fear of overcrowding during COVID, where they were serving sentences for assault, and came home to murder their partners.

This year, the termination of the harsh COVID restrictions and the cessation of a strict lockdown may be one reason for the decrease in femicide. Another may be the unprecedented, and long-delayed, Israeli media coverage of femicides.

In 2021, the wrenching story of Shira Isakov, a femicide survivor stabbed 20 times by her husband in front of their infant son, was widely featured on TV, the papers and social media, facilitated by Isakov’s own decision to speak out publicly about her experience in the hope of preventing further attempted femicides.

Shira Isakov arrives at a courthouse to hear the verdict in the case against her ex-husband, Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Along with her neighbor, who helped save her, Isakov lit one of the torches on Israel’s Independence Day, thereby giving national prominence to the devastating phenomenon of extreme domestic violence. Last week, the popular Israeli singer Moshe Peretz dedicated a song called "Fireworks" to Isakov.

But now the bad news. Thirty six percent of all femicides this year in Israel were matricides: the killing of mothers. Five cases may not be a large number absolutely, but what sort of a society has Israel become that children are killing their own mothers?

Matricide, the killing of one’s mother, is the stuff of novels, movies and Greek tragedies.

Police cordon off the site where a 53 year-old woman was murdered by her son in the southern Israeli town of Sderot this summerCredit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

One of the most famous matricides in history, immortalized in Sophocles’ play and in generations of western art, was committed by the mythological character Electra, who, together with her brother Orestes, plotted the murder of their mother Clytemnestra. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra III (160-101 BCE) was murdered by her son who promptly took the crown together with his wife.

In contemporary times, matricides usually make headlines, but in our own society, they almost seem to have passed us by. Last year, out of 21 femicide cases, there was one matricide. But this year, out of 14 cases so far, there are five.

No single sector in Israeli society "owns" the trend. One victim was a Jewish woman of Yemenite origin, another was from the FSU. One of the perpetrators was ultra-Orthodox, and two Israeli Arab cases, in which a son pinned blame on his mother for 'dishonoring' the family name.

In future, when we think of the elimination of violence against women, we also have to reflect upon the mothers who gave birth to children who would end up being their murderers.

Prof. Shalva Weil is Senior Researcher at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israel Observatory on Femicide

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