When Women Are Successful in Israel, the Hype Isn’t Always True

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A computer class. Let's hope the salaries stay high. Credit: Michal Fattal

As a man who believes that women possess qualities that my gender does not, I wasn’t excited to hear that seven of 12 appointments to Foreign Ministry missions abroad had been set aside for women. I didn’t think this was an important event in the history of Israeli feminism.

Vered Pear Swid, the head of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, said we had “succeeded in the gender revolution and achieved equality.” But let’s note the other side of the coin. While it’s true women have been attaining high positions at the Foreign Ministry, the ministry’s reputation has been declining in recent years.

We have seen reduced compensation, more political appointments, undiplomatic behavior by the foreign minister and his deputies, and an erosion in the status of national symbols and institutions in favor of private organizations. As a result, the diplomatic service’s prestige isn’t what it used to be. The constant strikes at the ministry and the frequent reports on the difficulties in filling ambassadorial posts in remote countries have accompanied this decline.

When we look at the way women are integrated into the job market in general, the picture is a lot sadder, even though we’re happy for the women who have achieved fulfillment. One phenomenon is the integration of women into institutions whose status has declined. Why are women the ones willing to bear the burden when a position becomes less remunerative?

This has happened in the military as well. The military is definitely more heterogeneous than ever, and many positions are open to women (and to Mizrahim and religious people, of course).

The change began in the early 1990s, the days of the Oslo Accords, when Israel opened to the world economically and Channel 2 broke state television’s monopoly. It looked like peace might be on the horizon and the era of the old ideologies that had shaped politics was over.

With the changes in society, there was also a decline in the military’s standing; one result was that the military became open to other social groups. Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai, the first woman general, grew up in a large family in Ramle; she’s is a good example of this phenomenon. So while it may seem we can talk about the integration of groups that had been excluded from the military, this integration only happened after the military’s prestige had declined.

Some groups in Israel — Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Mizrahim — have had a hard time integrating because of the contradiction between their values and the original orientation of Zionist ideology. But when it comes to women, Zionism worked for equality from the start, at least in theory.

While many enlightened places in the world gave women the right to vote only in the second decade of the 20th century, early Zionist philosophy nurtured the feminine revolution. This happened because the fight for women’s rights was part of the fight against the image of the “ghetto Jew” and the traditional way of life.

So the discrimination against women in Israel is more tainted by the machismo that comes from military culture and Jewish traditions. It’s less tainted by the ideology that promotes the establishment of a nation-state.

That’s one reason gender equality is still a long way off, even if there are no clear obstacles along the way. So we mustn’t let the accomplishments at the embassies make us forget that the revolution is still far off.

Orna Barbivai.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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