Women in Israeli Politics

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When many of us think of gender equality in Israel, we envision the strong Israeli pioneer woman, working the land and defending the fledgling state alongside men. The ideal of gender equality has been a cornerstone of Zionist ideology since before the foundation of the state. However, the reality in Israel today is far from this ideal, particularly in Israel's public life. 

Equality between the Sexes

Many early Zionists strived for equality between the sexes in all areas of life, including politics. The early Kibbutz movement, which was central to the establishment of the Jewish state, had gender equality between the sexes as a key goal. The founding members of the Kibbutz movement believed that they were building a new society, free of the old patriarchal institutions of marriage and family, where there would be sexual freedom and the community would raise all children. Women, no longer limited by their traditional roles as wives and mothers, would work beside the men in the fields, fight beside them in the army, and serve as political leaders.

livniEven from the beginning of the movement this value was far from the reality. Many kibbutzim quickly reverted back to the traditional family structure, in which a husband and wife raised their own children. Women were seen as too weak to do heavy agricultural work, and returned to jobs traditionally associated with women, including education and social welfare. Although some women participated in kibbutz politics, they did so in far smaller numbers than men, and they tended to serve in positions that were far lower in the political hierarchy.

Women's Rights

In keeping with the ideals of gender equality on which the country was founded, legislation on women's rights in Israel is among the most advanced in the world. Women's suffrage was granted in the Yishuv, the Jewish self-governing authority in Palestine of the British Mandate period, at about the same time as the United States, 25 years before the establishment of the state. Israel's Declaration of Independence specifies that "The State of Israel will maintain equal social and political rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, race, or sex."

In 1951, the Women's Equal Rights Law was passed, prohibiting legal and social discrimination against women (although matters of personal status remained under the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts). In 1975, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed an ad hoc Commission on the Status of Women, which presented its recommendations in 1978. These recommendations led to the institution of several governmental units designed to promote women's equality.

In the 1990s, with the establishment of primaries to select parliamentary candidates, women's issues rose to prominence in the legislature, as candidates realized that promoting women's issues was in their best interest politically. This led to the initiation of legislation aimed at promoting women's concerns that had not yet been addressed by earlier legislation, including the establishment in 1994 of a sub-committee on the status of women, the 1991 Prevention of Violence within the Family Law, and the 1995 affirmative action legislation directed at the civil service.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.