Merav Michaeli: Feminist first
“Feminist firebrand” Merav Michaeli, 49, first came to the attention of the Israeli public as a journalist, radio broadcaster and TV anchor. Armed with serious credentials as an activist and advocate, particularly for workers’ rights and victims of sexual assault, she deepened her fame by penning a political column for Haaretz, opining on topics from President Barack Obama’s attitude toward the Middle East to how Israel should handle ISIS. But it wasn’t until her 2012 TEDxJaffa Talk “Cancel Marriage” that she really made waves, declaring, “We must cancel marriage to make our governments rethink our economy to include child care and housework,” thus beaming out her unorthodox plan to increase female power through better policy. In 2013, she was elected a Knesset Member in the Labor Party (though she later affiliated with Zionist Union); in the Knesset, she remains a fierce advocate for women’s equality, social justice and, above all, a solution to the conflict.
Jewish Journal: In your maiden speech to the Knesset, you talked about creating a more equal society in which women and minority groups, from Mizrahis to Arabs, have more equality of opportunity.
Merav Michaeli: I also talked about peace. It’s an essential component to that. Because when there is no peace, when there’s war, it takes over everything, and it justifies so many horrible things.
JJ: Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of your major platforms. How much power do you have as one individual in the Knesset to make this change?
MM: I’m in the opposition, so unfortunately, we are not in power. And those in power are very busy convincing the Israeli public there is no partner [in the peace process].
JJ: If you were vested with all power you needed to sit down tomorrow with Palestinian leadership to try to solve the conflict, what would be your plan?
MM: Israelis are addicted to plans. But it’s an inner discussion, and it’s totally futile, because it’s among ourselves. My plan is to not have a plan. Because it’s not about what my plan is. It’s about: What is the solution that is viable and that is good for everyone? And that depends on the partners [in] this discussion. I am not a believer in knowing the right way; I think this is a very masculine sort of thing. There are multiple ways, some of which have been on the table over the years.
JJ: Can you give us some sense of what you’d propose?
MM: I’m a big believer in what used to be and formally still is the Arab League Peace Initiative. I strongly believe in a regional solution. I think the Palestinians need this kind of support. I think Israel has a lot to gain from ending the conflict with other countries the way we have done with Egypt and Jordan. Everybody knows that the region is changing so profoundly, and one of the big enemies today is this crazy, crazy Islamic terror that is the Arabs’ enemy more than it is ours.
JJ: You have a reputation as a “feminist firebrand” because of your advocacy for women’s rights and minority rights. Where does that deep desire for social justice come from?
MM : If you look at my family’s heritage on both sides, the political tendency skipped a generation, but my two grandfathers [were both politically active]. Every Friday over dinner, they’d have political conversations, and this is really what I was breastfeeding on, if you will, this talk about equality and rights for human beings — be they workers or Arabs. My paternal grandfather always saw himself as obligated to do something.
JJ: Your maternal grandfather, Rudolph Kastner, was a controversial figure who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by negotiating directly with Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, which later led the Israeli government to accuse him of collaboration. He was eventually murdered, but ultimately pardoned. Did you grow up with any sense of shame about that?
MM: Growing up in the ’70s in Israel, nobody was talking about Kastner. But my mother used to tell me, “If someone tells you bad things about your grandfather, you should know that it’s not true” — from a very early age. So I knew there was a danger; she was warning me.
JJ: In your Knesset speech, you portray Kastner as courageous, someone “unconventional” who dared to operate outside the mainstream.
MM: I think he realized he had nothing to lose [by negotiating]. For me, the big lesson is to choose not to be a victim. I definitely inherited his nonconventional side.
JJ: What do you think is most unconventional about you?
MM: First of all, a lot. So it’s hard to choose — like the fact [that] in Israel you don’t get married and you don’t have children. I think the No. 1 thing is the language that I use in Hebrew, the feminine plural form. I’ve been doing this for 15 years already and still it’s like an issue.
JJ: Where did you get the confidence to make such bold choices?
MM: I never considered it something brave or courageous; I just did what I wanted to do. Growing up, wherever [my mother and I would] walk, there [wasn’t] a single person that she didn’t see as a human being. And when you see this from a very early age, you understand that people are people are people, period. And you don’t make a differentiation. And when you grow up, you see people do make this differentiation — and I don’t mean people who are being racist; I mean the structure of the state or city or economy makes this discrimination — then you realize that it’s wrong. [Men and women] were the same; and then the system started dividing us on a gender basis. Did you expect me to just accept that? Just because I was born with certain genitals?
JJ: In your TED Talk, “Cancel Marriage,” you denounce the institution as a form of female oppression, economically and politically, but you also express disdain for the wedding day itself and, in particular, high heels.
MM: Long [before] I was with my beloved, feminist, amazing non-husband, after I was already a long-time professional feminist, I was still insisting that high heels [are] not a means of oppression. But at some point, there’s no choice but to accept the fact that it’s one of the most effective ones ever made: It physically screws your back, your legs, it makes you unstable, it makes you unable to move forward fast in the world. And it twists your posture in a way that makes you look like you’re always ready for penetration.
JJ: Do women have to choose between being desirable or being invisible?
MM: Today, part of backlash that we’re going through now is that [women] can be smart, successful and rich on their own, but first and foremost, you have to be a sex object. How can you possibly, consciously choose to be invisible? And each one of us struggles with this on a daily basis, that you have to produce yourself. I know that I do. So, for me, I only wear black; I do not show skin; and I [never] wear my hair down.
JJ: Isn’t that sort of repressive to female expression? Where is there room to express the sensual side?
MM: Where I choose. Only where I choose. Not in order to get legitimacy for my existence.
JJ: You’ve been in a long-term relationship with Israeli comedian Lior Schlein. What would have to change within the institution of marriage for you to get married?
MM: I don’t want to get married. I’m in a beautiful, beautiful relationship with a wonderful, feminist, brilliant, funny, loving man and we’ve been living together for 10 years. If it ain’t broken, why fix it?
JJ: What does being Jewish mean to you?
MM: When you ask me what it means to be a Jew, it’s the same if you ask me what it means for me to be a woman. I just am a woman. I was born a Jew; my national and personal history has to do with the fact that I am Jewish.
JJ: Does the current state of relations between the U.S. and Israel worry you at all?
MM: A little bit. Before I came here [to L.A.], I was in Washington, and I met with several Congresspeople and Senate members, and I heard from them how difficult it is becoming to stand by Israel and represent Israel, because Israel is not doing what it should be doing in order to try and make things better.
JJ: Why did you choose to spend your time off from the Knesset touring around the U.S.?
MM: America is a very important place for an Israeli politician. American politics is very important. So you should know the arena very well, and you should be known. The other part is building the relationship with the Jewish community in America. I want people to see that not all Israelis are [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.