The War on Women in Israel

The War on Women in Israel

Sexist laws and institutions threaten all women in Israel, but Arab women are beset from all sides.


In 2009, a couple from the village of Tayibe in central Israel were in the midst of a bitter separation. Their marriage had already dissolved in acrimony, with various legal battles under way, when the husband turned to the Islamic court and sued for arbitration.

The husband’s appeal to Islamic law was not a sign of his or his wife’s piety. For Israeli citizens of all faiths, divorce, like marriage itself, remains almost exclusively the province of religious law and institutions. Each recognized religious community—Muslims like this couple, but also Jews, Druze, and the various Christian denominations—has its own autonomous court system that rules on these personal status issues according to its own religious law. This is the reason why a couple of the same sex, or of different religions, cannot marry in Israel.

Gender inequality is built into the religious legal systems; this inequality is expressed in different traditions in different ways, but it is a trait that all share. In practice, the religious courts of all denominations are also consistently more lenient on men, in part because women cannot be appointed judges or hold other positions in the courtroom. For many women, the mere experience of sitting through a trial in such a hostile, male environment can often be degrading and shameful.

The particular remedy that the husband from Tayibe sought has a long history in Islamic jurisprudence. In arbitration, the judge orders each side to appoint a family member or other figure who will negotiate on his or her behalf to resolve the couple’s outstanding differences. If reconciliation proves impossible, the arbitrators can recommend that the court decree the marriage dissolved.

Little information has been publicly released about the couple; even their names have been withheld by a court order. However, this much is clear: The wife is a fighter. Knowing full well the consequences of her actions, she informed the judge that she had selected a woman to represent her as arbitrator.

The court balked. Islamic courts in Israel had never permitted women to be arbitrators, though Muslim legal authorities are divided on the issue and women can serve as religious judges elsewhere in the Islamic world (including the Palestinian Authority).

Predictably, the Tayibe court rejected the wife’s request, but, determined, she did not back down. After losing again on appeal, she took her case to Israel’s Supreme Court, and in a 2013 decision Justice Edna Arbel overturned the ban. Far from a narrow ruling on the issue at hand, the decision was used by Arbel to reinforce the centrality of gender equality in Israeli law and its application even to the religious court system. “The religious courts, like all courts and authorities of the state,” she wrote, “are subject to the basic principles of the system, including the principle of equality.”

Justice Arbel’s lofty words aside, the woman’s victory in this case is the exception rather than the rule. This is not only true in the sense that there are few instances in which women’s rights are vindicated in the religious court system. Arab women citizens—many of whom told me they prefer the terms “Palestinian” or “Palestinian citizen of Israel” to the more common “Israeli Arab”—face particular challenges that are distinct even from those of Palestinian women in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. These challenges rarely receive the attention that they deserve from mainstream Israeli society and institutions. Or, in fact, any attention at all.

Elana Sztokman’s The War on Women in Israel (Sourcebooks; Paper $14.99) is a recent example of just this kind of erasure. Sztokman, an American-born former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and a prominent writer on Jewish women’s topics, has written a scathing condemnation of rising gender discrimination and attacks on women in the Jewish state. The book focuses on the growing influence of radically anti-woman ideologies within Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish community, and on the wider public.

Sztokman argues that the state is complicit in these ideologies’ spread. While the decision to preserve the Ottoman practice of separate religious courts at the state’s founding in 1948 was largely a boon to the country’s then small Haredi community, Sztokman contends that today Israel’s mostly secular leaders, whether because of profit, indifference, or political calculation, have colluded with the most radical elements within Haredi society at the expense of women’s rights. “The idea that an extreme version of Judaism practiced by a small minority,” she writes in a typical passage, “can come to be considered important enough to support with the entire law force of a seemingly democratic state—even to the detriment of the majority of citizens—is nothing less than frightening.”

That insight makes the fact that Arab women do not appear in The War on Women in Israel all the more frustrating. Despite its inclusive title and democratic message, the Israeli women whose difficulties Sztokman chronicles and the Israeli women heroes and activists she lauds are all Jewish Israelis. “My primary interest in this book is the plight of women,” she explains in a footnote, one of the book’s two references to Palestinians. “It’s not that I’m not concerned about discrimination against Arabs or Palestinians; it’s just that the Palestinian conflict is so widely researched…and gender is not.” With one stroke, Sztokman dismisses Arab women from Israeli society, relegating them to the separate domain of the Palestinian conflict.

Aida Touma-Sliman—51, dynamic and bespectacled, her shoulder-length curly hair shot with gray—is a committed feminist, the founder of the influential Women Against Violence organization and former editor of the communist daily Al-Ittihad. At a conference at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University before Israel’s elections last March, she seemed to be everywhere at once: on stage, greeting well-wishers, answering the phone, and talking with younger supporters, pausing only long enough to give a flawless, sound-bite-ready television interview with a natural politician’s flair.

Touma-Sliman is a longtime member and perennial candidate of the Arab-Jewish socialist party known in Hebrew as Hadash, and, with the party’s unprecedented win in the recent elections as part of the combined Arab bloc known as the Joint List, she was elected to the Knesset for the first time. She now serves as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, the first Arab woman to head a parliamentary committee.

When I told Touma-Sliman about the lack of Arab women in The War on Women in Israel, the seasoned activist just laughed. Arab women’s voices and perspectives, she said, are hardly heard in Israeli public discourse. “Arab Palestinian women are on the margins of Israeli society,” she explained. In the eyes of most Israeli Jews, women “are ‘good Arabs’ as long as we do our utmost to be invisible.”

Using a metaphor that I heard from other activists, Touma-Sliman described Arab women as trapped in three circles of discrimination: along with Jewish women in Israel’s macho and militaristic society; with Palestinian men as part of the country’s Arab minority, many of whose members continue to feel under siege in the wake of last summer’s violence and the unvarnished right-wing racism that accompanied the election campaign; and as Arab women within conservative and traditional Palestinian society.

Though women from different communities are affected by these pressures differently—an educated urbanite from Haifa, for instance, has more resources at her disposal than a Bedouin woman from the Negev desert—the problems that all Arab women face are compounded because of how these three circles interact and reinforce one another.

This can most clearly be seen, perhaps, in the case of violence against women. Even though Arab women only make up some 10 percent of Israel’s population, according to police figures 25 percent of the 71 women murdered by their partners from 2009 through 2013 (the latest year for which data is available) were Arab, as were some 15 percent of the victims in cases of domestic violence overall.

Just as alarming is the fact that every year Arab women are murdered by their families in what are commonly known as “honor killings.” However, these cases of what activists call “femicide” are not simply families’ retaliations for the shame of a daughter or sister’s perceived sexual transgression. According to research by Women Against Violence, reinforcing male authority is as much at issue. “As women have gained mobility and freedom in decision-making, men in the family have increasingly felt their authority being threatened and have thus increased their control over women’s lives,” Touma-Sliman wrote in the 2005 collection “Honour”: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. With these crimes, “men try to stabilise a changing world by using violence against women.”

This violence is exacerbated by the Israeli criminal-justice system. Activists have reported that investigations of femicide are often closed for lack of evidence, even though the perpetrators were well known, or in which family members who are found guilty walk away with reduced sentences. Women who complain to the police, seeking help and protection, are often either ignored or, worse, handed over to community notables who return them to their families and to danger. In at least two instances, in 1997 and 1998, activists provided the police with a list of women in the town of Ramle who had been threatened by their families but were afraid to come forward themselves. Despite the warnings, women from these same lists were later murdered.

Activists have long argued that there is a sinister motivation behind these lapses. The justice system, they claim, often closes cases in which Arab women are murdered by their families for political reasons, using the excuse of a lack of sufficient evidence.

It is the fact of overlapping discrimination, in these instances and others, that convinces Touma-Sliman that feminists cannot concentrate on one area alone. “I don’t believe a feminist struggle can separate between struggles, that it can say: I want to fight violence against women but don’t make it political, don’t talk to me about settlers or the Palestinian people,” she said. “That’s not the feminism I know. Feminism is a movement not only for individual liberation, but for structural change to build a more just society.”

Israel’s policy, described by Sztokman, of religious control over marriage and divorce is not directed specifically against Muslims and Christians. Divorce strictures in Judaism often mean that Jewish women suffer as much or more. Rabbinic law stipulates that a man must grant his wife a bill of divorce—a gett—of his own free will for the marriage to be dissolved. If the man refuses to grant the gett, women are left in limbo, sometimes for years, unable to marry again.

Nevertheless in the case of the religious courts, too, Arab women are caught in overlapping circles of discrimination. “Palestinian women are silenced when they talk about the damage family law does,” said Shirin Batshon, 36, a dynamic and poised feminist lawyer and activist originally from the city of Lod. “Not only by the state, but also by the Palestinian political leadership.”

In 2013, Batshon composed an open letter to Haneen Zoabi, then the only female Arab member of Knesset with the Balad party, asking her to promote the issue of civil marriage for Israel’s Arab citizens, an issue that Balad had not supported. As Batshon sees it, this lack of support for marriage and divorce reform does not come from religious belief or traditionalism. “Part of the conservatism here has to do with the fact that this is a society under constant attack from outside,” she said when we met in her Haifa office. “It needs to protect itself; it’s the psychology of a minority that needs to protect its tradition and its culture.”

“Look at what happened with the Arab parties,” Batshon continued, referring to the Joint List, which was just forming when we spoke. “Balad, which defines itself as a secular, democratic party, needs to sit with the Islamic movement. Do you think that they won’t pay a price? If once there was a chance that Balad would want to advance civil marriage, today there’s no chance. But who caused this to happen? Among other reasons, it’s the attack on the minority.”

“If I take the example of the arbitrators, what happened?” continued Batshon, who worked on the case for the Palestinian feminist organization Kayan. “The Sharia court didn’t agree to appoint a woman. No one got involved from the Palestinian leadership. So what did that woman have to do? She had to go to the state, which also discriminates against her in other areas, and to say: ‘Protect me from the Sharia court.’”

For decades, Palestinian women have been left behind in the Israeli workforce. In 2014, according to government figures, about 31 percent of Palestinian women in Israel were employed, a rate far lower than in any other sector in Israeli society. Studies have consistently shown that this low figure among Arab women has little to do with conservative or traditional opposition to women working outside the home; as with other Israelis, the rising cost of living means that for most Palestinian families, having two incomes is an economic imperative.

Recently, the Israeli government has begun working to increase employment in the Arab community and among women in particular; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first post-election meeting with Joint List head Ayman Odeh in May dealt, among other topics, with employment. Working with programs developed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other international NGOs, the government is seeking to correct the lack of investment in infrastructure, childcare, education, and job training in Arab communities that activists—and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in a 2010 report—have identified as obstacles to women’s integration into the workforce.

Nabila Espanioly, one of Israel’s most prominent feminists, has no doubt that investment is crucial for creating social change for Arab women. But she insists it is only part of the story.

Espanioly, 60, heads the Al-Tufula Center based in Nazareth. Stately and unhurried, the German-trained clinical psychologist described how Al-Tufula grew from its founding as a pedagogical center in what started as Nazareth’s first nursery in 1989—the bottom floors of the center’s building are still given over to brightly colored playrooms and pint-size jungle gyms—to become a multipurpose organization working on all aspects of women’s empowerment. Like Touma-Sliman, Espanioly has also had a long career in the Hadash party. She was set to enter the Knesset just before the previous government fell, and lost to Touma-Sliman in the internal election for the second-place slot on the Hadash list.

For Espanioly, the main obstacle to Arab women’s employment is political: institutionalized racism against Arabs in the labor market, both by employers and on the government level. Rather than speaking about a glass ceiling blocking Arab women’s career advancement, she uses the metaphor of a sealed room to emphasize the impenetrable barrier that she argues excludes Arab women from the larger Israeli economy.

Espanioly recalled a study, conducted as part of the Israeli Democracy Institute’s Caesarea Economic Policy Planning Forum led by Technion professor Yosef Jabareen, comparing the labor market in Israel to that of neighboring countries. While elsewhere in the region education leads to better performance in the job market, the same is not the case for Arab citizens in Israel.

“When you see that Saudi women are able to be integrated in jobs when they are more educated,” Espanioly explained, “but for Palestinian women in Israel education doesn’t support them entering the job market, you have to ask why. And the answer is that most of the jobs are in the Jewish economy. And we are connected to the Jewish economy. So if the Jewish economy doesn’t open up to the Palestinian woman, education is creating the opposite effect.”

I met Rajaa Natour, a poet and activist originally from the small village of Qalansuwa in central Israel, at a trendy cafe in Jaffa, the historically Palestinian port city now part of greater Tel Aviv. Natour, 43, is a poet—her work was recently published in the Hebrew-Arabic bilingual anthology Two—and a feminist activist and educator. She smokes incessantly, and talks fast, more quickly than you would imagine a poet would speak.

The coordinator of the “Just Right” project on behalf of Coalition of Women for Peace, Natour said that her traditional family is skeptical of her work and her outspoken political commitments. “Every time I post a status on Facebook, they call me and say: ‘Have you gone crazy? Haven’t they arrested you yet?’” she explained. “They don’t say that they don’t believe in the work that I do, but I know that they don’t.”

As Natour emphasized, activists inherently upset the cultural expectations for Arab women, which can lead to conflicts with family and society. “The concept of what it is to be a Palestinian woman is very specific,” she said. While going off to study in university is acceptable, “in the end, she should come back to the village. That’s the narrative. Every woman that goes off this path and decides to live alone, far from the village or from the city where she grew up, and to do something political or to be an activist—it’s just not something common.”

Natour described Arab feminists as beset from all sides: family and community on one hand, and the state and the Jewish majority on the other. Even Jewish feminists, who would seem to be natural allies, are not engaged in a common struggle with Arab women. She identified part of the problem as structural: Every women’s organization is preoccupied by its own particular population, making for a diffuse feminist constellation that precludes a unified movement.

But just as important for Natour is the fact that the mainstream Israeli feminism is dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry. Her natural partners, as she sees it, are Mizrahi women, the descendants of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom came to Israel as refugees in the 1950s and ’60s. Recent years have seen the revival of interest in Mizrahi identity among Israelis, expressed in music and culture as well as politics, and a reinvigorated discussion of how Mizrahi Jews were, and continue to be, subject to Ashkenazi dominance.

“What dialogue do I have with Ashkenazi women, really?” Natour asked. “Of course, they are oppressed in some way as women, but if we’re talking about political dialogue, I want to work with Ethiopian women and Mizrahi women, who are oppressed in similar ways—who understand me when I talk about racism, that when people talk in Arabic on the bus it’s like setting off a bomb.”

“To engage in a cooperative struggle doesn’t mean that you take my side,” she added. “You don’t become a Palestinian. You’re still a Jewish woman who is fighting the occupation because it also oppresses you. You’re against racism because it oppresses you, against dispossession because it oppresses you—and not only Palestinians.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to “the village of Taybeh in the West Bank.” The village in question is an Arab-Israeli town located in central Israel, and is more often spelled Tayibe. A town with a similar name, Taybeh, is located in the West Bank. The piece has been updated to correct the errors.

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