Merkel and All the Men

The photo of Merkel surrounded by a large group of men is no mere coincidence

Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an innovation exhibit.
Avi David / Foreign Ministry

A few years ago on a visit to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I took note of an oil painting by Jean Beraud from 1889. The artist had been invited at the time by the newspaper Le Journal des débats to honor its leading staff members, editors and writers. There are 39 people in the painting, and they are seen in discussion with one another. All of them are men, dressed in almost identical suits, duplicate copies of some kind of advanced intellectual model of the time.

I felt the need to take a picture of this aberration and post it on Instagram as a legacy of the past, but last Thursday, a photo of the scene at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was not much different from the Beraud painting in Paris, as if 129 years had not elapsed. There they were, ramrod straight, standing next to one another in similar suits: 22 men surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the most powerful woman in the world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

>>Picture of Merkel flanked by 25 men and no women sparks outrage in Israeli tech scene

The businessmen were invited to attend an exhibition on innovation and a roundtable discussion as representatives of the ground-breaking high-tech field. The men, like the Parisian intellectuals in the painting, represent progress. They too are totally blind to the fact that in practice, they are outmoded. The photo, which was meant to glorify and promote the crown jewel of Israel’s economy, unwittingly laid bare something else entirely – the banality of erasing women from the most important arena that there is, the centers of power.

The exclusion of women in this case was unintentional, without anyone expressing an opinion on it, but it is no less dangerous, and perhaps even more dangerous, than a graphic artist sitting at an ultra-Orthodox newspaper and actively photo-shopping out the images of women. At least he recognizes their existence before deleting them.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s apology in the face of growing protests on social media over the absence of women in high tech in the picture demonstrates the magnitude of the problem: “The roundtable at which Merkel participated was part of a series of events organized in cooperation with a number of entities, including the Israel Export Institute, the Innovation Authority, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The companies that were invited are leaders in innovation from Israel and Germany. … They selected and sent their representatives. In the course of the preparations, the shortcoming of the absence of women among the representatives was not identified.”

If that’s the case, not only did none of dozens of people involved in organizing the event for the public agencies – the Israel Export Institute, the Innovation Authority and the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office – “identify the shortcoming.” The companies that were invited also didn’t see the light, since they “selected and sent their representatives.” That means that among some of the most creative people, opinion makers with valuable ideas, the leading edge of research and development for today and tomorrow, it didn’t occur to anyone to send a woman instead of a man.

It is the simple and easy dynamic of exclusion at play that continues to thrive even 100 years after the suffragettes took to the streets. It makes it possible for everyone to take comfort – in good faith and without a loss of integrity – since after all, none of the participants would have objected to the presence of women at the event. They simply weren’t there. By mistake, by accident. A slipup. Oops.

#Sorry. This closed club is not much different from all of those that preceded it in prior centuries. It knows how to spout the right slogans for the period, but by its actions it duplicates old traditions and archaic ways of thinking.

Just as the presence of one Angela Merkel doesn’t excuse the absence of other women, so the integration of women – even on a massive scale – in the workplace is not sufficient as long as they don’t get equal pay, equal treatment and an equal place in management, on boards of directors and in decision making. Until that is rectified, one cannot talk about innovation. The room still smells of mothballs.