What did Benjamin Netanyahu mean when he called himself “feminist enough”? Unwittingly, perhaps, it was a very apt statement to make. Netanyahu is feminist enough for us, for Israelis. There are too many examples to list, but a typical one is the ongoing injustice toward single mothers. Netanyahu bears responsibility for the decrees he inflicted upon them in 2003 when he was finance minister. His entire socioeconomic outlook is wrapped up in his war on such parents, including the latent puritanical accusation of “you brought this on yourself, it’s your problem.”
The situation of single mothers illustrates how the disappearance of the welfare state is particularly threatening to women. Netanyahu actually tightened the screws: First you abandon the weak, then as they get even weaker, you harangue them to go to work in appalling conditions and simultaneously narrow the criteria for receiving subsidies. But Netanyahu has never encouraged any other type of expectations.
The real disappointment in this story is the total lack of feminist solidarity. Ever since Vicki Knafo’s 2003 protest march, privatization appears to have triumphed not just in the field, but in shaping the debate.
2016 is the year when the feminist discourse ignored the preschool assistant teachers’ demands for reasonable pay, and the lack of oversight of baby formula. The whole burkini business got plenty of attention though. The burka polemic can be seen as a characteristic of the local feminist parlance: The debate was orchestrated by a united front of relativists and up-to-the-minute feminists who declared “body policing” enemy number one – i.e., they protested the hypocrisy of the West, which objects to the burka while ignoring its own prevalent and sexist form of body policing toward women.
This is a superficial and oblivious argument that does nothing to challenge conservatism and exempts the state from responsibility. The challenge is to divert the discussion to the rational rather than populist ways that the state could intervene on women’s behalf. And the parallel of the burka in the West isn’t “body policing” but institutionalized oppression and discrimination.
While the burka raises questions about oppression within the family, the Western formula pushes most women into a situation in which they are the weaker earners and returns them to the kitchen and to childcare nearly full-time. And given the modern version of slavery that is common in Israel, the situation is even worse. Enslavement to distorted body images is disturbing, but is not economically or intellectually limiting, and it’s obviously harder to rebel against religion than against secular dictates.
At the same time, and despite differences that are to the West’s credit, Western oppression still amounts to massive remnants from the ancient world. This is at the core of one of the main hardships that today’s Western women face – we’ve developed a radical global consciousness of freedom and unprecedented awareness, for example of the fact that motherhood entails arduous work and that it can be a choice. But still most of us women have children and our life’s mission is to resolve the conflict between feminist consciousness and reality.
In Netanyahu’s Spartan Israel, even married middle-class women need superpowers to be able to combine work and children. But even if we’ve chosen to forgo motherhood, our economic prospects are worse than those of men. Netanyahu is feminist enough, because we hardly demand anything at all from the state. Simply replacing the word “husband” with “spouse” won’t do anything to increase income equality or solidarity with women in a weaker socioeconomic condition. Boosting education and employment for women, funding more shelters for battered women, improving work conditions and subsidizing after-school programs have all been neglected for too long. The time has come to put these things on top of the agenda.
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