November 17, 2018

The Israeli Women Paradox

Israel is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to women's rights. Israeli women are integrated in meaningful roles on every field, from politics to science. While being surrounded by countries where women are being executed for cheating and are not allowed to show their faces in public without them being fully covered, Israel is making constant attempts to continue being a role model in women's equality. We have world renowned female scientists, leading female politicians, female television and film stars, and as an Israeli woman, I know all doors are open for me in the future. Well, almost all doors. One aspect of life here in Israel shades that perfect path to women's equality, and creates a “women equality paradox” for us, Israeli women.

Being a citizen of a religion-based country taken its toll. In Israel’s 66 years of existence, it has been religiously controlled by a small yet powerful group of Orthodox rabbinates. This means that there are some orthodox rules in this country, which can be quite discriminating (For example, the biblical rule according to which, if the husband dies before he and his wife brought any children to the world, his brother must marry her, unless she approaches the rabbinate of Israel and requests a “Halitsa” ceremony.)

But more than the power granted in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinate there is the more immediate outcome of life in a Jewish state, which is the day to day encounter with women discrimination, based on the combined influence of religion and years of patriarchal rule. Old-fashioned people and institutions make sure than us, women, will be constantly reminded that we are second to men.  Unfortunately, I have experienced this more than a few times, on various opportunities in my day to day life.

This year, on Yom Kippur, I decided to go to temple and pray in parts of the day. It was the first time I decided to do so. My immediate instinct was to go to the synagogue closest to my home, but then I remembered the last time I was there, during my brother’s Bar-Mitzvah. There, on one of the most important days of my little brother’s life, my mother and I were forced to sit in the back of the room, with the rest of the women. As much as we, as part of the immediate family, wanted to be close to the “king of the day,” we could not enjoy that privilege, reserved only to men. This memory led me to choose to pray at the Reform synagogue of my town, but since our country is being ruled by Orthodox rabbinate and as an outcome, the Reform community is not enjoying a generous budget and is not as developed, the one Reform synagogue in the area is on the other side of town. That led me to walk for 45 minutes, during a fast, just to pray comfortably and equally.

On my job as a municipal journalist and as a University student, I get to meet many people on various occasions. When meeting a person for the first time, there is usually a handshake involved, as a gesture of mutual respect.  Now imagine you are meeting with a group of people, one of them wears a yarmulke, and when you reach your hand to shake his, he pulls his hand, refusing to shake yours because you are a woman, and he “cannot touch a woman.” The humiliation becomes much worse when you are not alone in that meeting, together with you there’s another man, and that person shakes his hand but not yours.

These are only two examples out of many, such as passing an orthodox man on the street as he looks down, or feeling a twitch when you accidentally touch the hand of an orthodox man on a packed bus.

This can sometimes be very frustrating, and take the wind of our sails, but in spite of all of that, I witness the women’s power around me every single day: our leading news anchor is a woman named Yonit Levi; we have the highest number in Israel’s history of female Knesset members; we have a female Nobel Prize winner, Chemist Ada Yonat; we have leading female figures in literature and arts; we have leading female engineers, and the list goes on and on. There are successful Israeli women of all religions and from different socio-economical statuses. Looking at the way Israeli women succeed everywhere gives me confidence in knowing that every door is open for me in the future.

The old fashioned, close minded side of Israel, collides almost on a daily basis with the open minded and liberal side. For every success there will be a struggle to find an equal place among men. For every door wide open there will be a refusal to shake hands because of “religious matters.” The struggle for full equality will not be put to rest anytime soon. Skipping the religious hurdle is a very complicated task in a state where religion is based deep in its core. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is now closer than ever. More and more people and organizations, including ones of the government, are opening up to the possibility of full equality. It is mostly thanks to the hard work of women’s rights organizations and groups fighting our fight, women who pray at the Western Wall, who insist on being respected, who open reform houses of prayer. The more women refuse to be degraded, the more pressure will be put on the government to put the biblical lifestyle behind the advanced, modern state of Israel.

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