If there has been a concrete accomplishment in Israel from the #MeToo movement, it has been the demonstration of solidarity and caring that Israeli women have shown in their demand that the government mount a real battle against gender violence. Women shed their usual passivity and took to the streets Tuesday as a group, overcoming embarrassment and advocating for change.
It was like the period in the United States when women fought for their rights, like places and times in which masses of women demanded and obtained the right to vote and equal civil rights, in a way that had never happened before in Israel.
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One of the main reasons for the sorry and worsening situation of Israeli women in many spheres has been their lack of solidarity. In general, Israeli women define themselves based on their national, religious or communal affiliations but not based on gender. Research shows that Israeli women consistently define themselves first and foremost as Mizrahi or ultra-Orthodox or as from the periphery, while their identity as women is characterized as secondary to other self-definitions.
Israeli women see communal issues, the need for reconciliation or national unity among various population sectors, or national security issues, or economic change, or a host of other issues as taking precedence over women’s needs and interests. As a result, it is only a handful of committed, “professional” feminists who are usually the ones to speak out against harm to women and in support of their rights. And “ordinary” women, even if they are social activists, act to further social causes that do not involve gender. For example, the Four Mothers movement of the late 1990s advocated on behalf of an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, and the organization Women in Black campaigns against the occupation of the West Bank.
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The mass, popular mobilization of Israeli women from all of the country’s population groups and regions to protest growing gender violence constitutes a dramatic break from the usual pattern. This week, ordinary Israeli women chose to define themselves as women and as such demanded that the state and government authorities protect women from gender violence. It’s too early to know if this broadly based protest marks the beginning of a new trend or if it will fade and be forgotten as a result of the disclosure this week that Hezbollah in Lebanon has dug tunnels under the Israeli border.
But even at this point, one thing can be said: Ordinary Israeli women are no longer shy about defining themselves as women and of demanding their rights as such. Women have taken to the streets and have expressed solidarity with “their sisters” – women from every population sector, age and status, who have fallen victim to male violence.
So let’s take advantage of this moment of grace to dream big – about what is to come, over growing and ongoing solidarity among women, solidarity that burst forth over the most severe and frightening type of violence of all, the cutting short of women’s lives. But it would also pave the way for an effective, mass effort on the other kinds of gender violence, which are more difficult to identify, more “embarrassing” to focus on or more complicated to unite around.
The first of these efforts must be a war on violence against female sex workers – the most vulnerable women in society, who suffer horrendous violence. They are sisters and they are most in need of our women’s solidarity.
For some years now, a broad coalition of organizations has endeavored to enact a law that would make the purchase of sexual services from a sex worker a crime. Thanks to the governing coalition’s commitment to this bill, a professional committee in the Justice Ministry adopted the coalition’s position and recommended the criminalization of the consumption of prostitution services.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, however, in her typical bullying fashion, neutered the draft law, replacing it with one making the consumption of a sex worker’s services an administrative offense only, not a crime, carrying a fine of 1,500 shekels ($400). On November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I called Shaked’s action a legislative crime against women. We should channel our female solidarity into fighting it and demand a criminal law whose provisions will protect female sex workers and the dignity of all women.
At the same time, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, who heads the Council for Higher Education in Israel, are advancing violence against women in the public sphere, by excluding women from many areas of campus life. This too must be fought, together, with female solidarity. We must also wage war against the institutionalized, forced application of discriminatory and humiliating patriarchal laws by the country’s religious courts, both Jewish and Muslim. All women must focus their solidarity against this systematic oppression, which has been with us throughout the history of the state.
And as long as we’re dreaming, why not dream about a women’s political party? A party we can be proud to vote for, that will fight for our rights – but also for the rights of all. A women’s party for social justice. It could be headed by a female Knesset member who has consistently demonstrated the greatest diligence and devotion to the struggles for women’s rights and human rights in general: Merav Michaeli. Her deputy could be another impressive women, who fights not only against the exclusion of women from the public sphere but also for the rule of law and for civil courage: Dina Zilber, the deputy attorney general for legislative affairs. Why shouldn’t our votes make her the justice minister?
It’s sweet to dream about solidarity. And if many women join the dream, it will become reality. As we know, every great act begins with a dream.