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Even When Lives Are in the Balance, Israel Excludes Women and Arabs

Zehava Galon
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An Israeli woman wearing a protective mask as another woman carries a six-pack of mineral water, April 2020.
An Israeli woman wearing a protective mask as another woman carries a six-pack of mineral water, April 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Zehava Galon

The team assembled by the National Security Council for planning the “exit strategy” out of the coronavirus crisis includes 31 people; physicists, experts in signal processing and in computational thinking. There was no room for women. The only two on the team are research assistants, and even they are in a minority, numbering two out of eight. But that’s nothing to complain about. At least they’re not Arabs – not one of whom was found worthy enough to be included.

Israel has a law stipulating the appropriate representation of women in public commissions, as well as a law prohibiting discrimination against its Arab citizens. It’s hard to know if the council willfully ignored these laws, or if they weren’t aware of them. Both possibilities are shameful, exemplifying the extent to which this legislation has not been internalized in government circles. Legislate and disregard.

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

It’s so tiresome to repeat yet again that women are part of the population, that there are renowned female experts in a wide range of areas, that women are not mere adornments and that it’s important to hear what they have to say. This should have been obvious by now. We’ve been through this before, each time having to go through all the hoops, as if teaching a classroom of difficult pupils.

But the National Security Council is not a problematic classroom, it’s an agency that was established by law, and is expected to abide by the law. We’re in the midst of a national crisis, a health and economic emergency, and we’re being asked to make huge sacrifices, ones which require trust. We’re sitting at home, losing jobs, hoping that at least when it comes to life and death issues decisions are made seriously and for reasons of substance.

Instead, we get a prime minister, president and minister of health who believe that this is a time to sacrifice, but that someone else should do so. We also get a plan for emerging from the crisis which does not include the voices of women or Arabs who are familiar with the needs of these two populations.

This is a mixture of madness and improvisation. The pandemic has impacted all of us, in different ways. The rise in domestic violence is an example of the power of the seismic waves unleashed by the pandemic and the resulting lockdown. Ignoring this is tantamount to gambling with lives.

I’m not quibbling with the identity of the experts the council has chosen to work with; these are serious and worthy individuals, but they cannot fathom the damage done to women, or know what steps need to be taken in the Arab community. There is no replacement for accumulated knowledge, for experience and a close familiarity with a society, but the National Security Council has chosen to willingly blind itself to this.

Just as it didn’t occur to them that the team needs female experts in education or caregiving, in medicine and welfare services, the systems most at risk in this crisis, after years of starvation have left them lean and fragile.

We cannot go through this without trust in our leaders, and I have no trust in Benjamin Netanyahu or Yaakov Litzman. I had hoped that at least the National Security Council would understand the scope of this crisis and its ramifications. This hope has also been quashed.

The only positive sign is that this disgraceful decision has not passed without notice. This time, it wasn’t just women’s organizations, activists, feminists, civil society groups and 14 female mayors who stood up and complained. They were joined by Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz, who appealed to the council in this matter.

It’s amazing to see how invisible women and Arabs still are to decision makers. After decades of struggling for gender equality and for civil rights, we’re still having the same conversation we had 20 years ago, even when our lives are in the balance.

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