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ISRAEL: Far from Feminist

In his celebrated New York Review of Books essay, Peter Beinart wrote: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.”

Too often, I feel that Israel has asked its women (and men) to check their feminism at the door. The irony is that as an American, born into a powerful matriarchy, I don’t think I realized I was a feminist until moving to Israel. Forgive me, American sisters – I know about all the gender struggles I would face if I lived in America as an adult today. But in Israel I witness some that I have only read about in the annals of pre-feminist history.

The classic male mentality in Israel revolves around an incessantly militaristic, machoistic attitude toward life, society and manhood with a sexually-tinged, your-body-is-clearly-in-the-workplace-for-my-amusement attitude. The combination of bluster and patronizing sexual objectification can be poison. In July 2006, then-Justice Minister Haim Ramon was busy giving a young female soldier unwanted kisses while the country was going to war in Lebanon. The former President of the country has stood trial for rape (Katzav’s verdict is expected very soon, and today Haaretz reports that it will be read secretly – and only a censored version of the verdict/sentencing released to the press). Earlier this year, a violent and barbaric near-rape was perpetrated by Erez Efrati, a member of the security detail for the IDF Chief of Staff. Through a plea bargain  he was sentenced to half the jail time he would have received for attempted rape (this happens too often in my opinion).

Female identity is rooted first of all in motherhood, sexuality and wifehood – both women and men tend to hold these views. A woman without a man is an aberration to be remedied; a woman without children – pitied. Careers are often considered a darling way to pass the time until the babies take over.

As such, I regularly have flashes of “how can such primitive, pre-feminist attitudes still exist in our society?” But these past few weeks, events have outpaced my incredulity. Not one but two top contenders for Chief of Police were accused of sexual harassment; the accuser, Dr. Orly Innes, took the unprecedented step of exposing her identity (protected by law), speaking out to encourage more victims to do the same. But as I wrote last week in The Jerusalem Report, it’s not so easy speaking out.

I submit that these (and many other) awful incidents derive in part from the quotidian realities – the banality of chauvinism. Here are some snippets from daily life:

In a recent advertising campaign for Carmit-brand chocolate, very realistic handwritten letters dripping with lewd sexual innuendo and menacing stalker signs – were delivered to female MKs and journalists. Some women, disgusted and terrified, alerted the police, while the ad folks boasted like buffoons about the great PR they got when the campaign was exposed.

Tsafi Sa’ar, writing in Haaretz, expressed the spitting anger I felt pretty well, and she also linked such demented ideas with increasing nastiness in Israel in general (free translation):

“Sexism and nationalism have always gone beautifully together….To our great sorrow, the opposite is not necessarily true: A man can also work for peace, be a left-winger, a human rights man, etc – and a total sexist…A society becoming more brutal, increasingly violent …in which more and more people are considered human waste: Arabs, labor migrants, left-wingers, transgenders and more and more – shouldn’t be surprised that even a campaign for chocolate uses fear (humorously of course, we could just die laughing), hints of violence and smacks of twisted sexuality, which of course in the eyes of those who created it is considered super cool or whatever.”

Then last week, an email surfaced from a student at the insidious “Center for the Art of Seduction,” showing in great detail how men are taught to cajole, coerce and when that fails, force women into having sex. Dimi Reider reported on it and translated the terrifying text here on +972 . How can unilateral pressure-cum-force ever be a basis for healthy, respectful, dignified – let alone beautiful – male-female relations? How?

Israeli women and men owe bottomless thanks to the earlier generations of Israeli feminists – just imagine where things might be today if not for their heroic contributions and elaborate organizations.

Israel lacks neither organization, nor legislation – but it does seem to be missing an attitude. Where is the understanding that women belong anywhere, in any field, any profession, at all levels of success? Where is the sense of personal purpose that goes beyond traditional gender roles or worse, sexual objectification?

So when a friend told me about a feminist meeting last week, I went. The women were excited and talkative; it felt grassroots and good. And yet – during the introductions, one after another woman said she worked in self-made jobs or small businesses dealing with relationships, motherhood, sexuality or the traditional woman’s profession – education. One of them proudly distributed a pamphlet advertising a workshop she would be offering (and charging handsomely for) just prior to New Year’s Eve. The workshop would help women to revive and release their sexuality – to hone their man-catching skills before the big, wild parties. If it had been a political meeting, I might have thought she was a Shabak (GSS) agitator.

Anyone’s professional passion is legitimate. But I was left with the disconcerting feeling that some women never entertain the idea of taking themselves outside roles so clearly dictated by the mindset of patriarchy.

Then a passionate woman explained that she had started a movement called “mitpakdot” (which in this context means party registration). The group tries to get women to register for any given political party as a woman’s lobby – so they can vote in party primaries to back women and pro-feminist candidates for the party lists. It sounded great: wield our numbers to push feminist legislation and attitudes in Knesset. The group has started with efforts directed at two parties so far – Kadima and Meretz –  but the speaker had sound arguments for why Kadima was the higher priority: unlike Meretz, it is a large and powerful party, even outside the governing coalition. It has the highest representation of women in Knesset (9 of the 23 women are from Kadima). Meretz, she reasoned, will already support feminist causes – Kadima needs us more.

True, true, true. At this moment, little seems more important to me than advancing feminist causes in Israel. But join Kadima? When in government, they started two wars, and failed to advance the peace process, while making lofty motions that kept international pressure at bay. Led by a woman it is – but Kadima has supported some of the nastiest, most destructive legislation  to civil society and equality in Israel.

It seems that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not solved, and until the dangerously nationalist forces it stokes are not dissolved, gender issues will never truly improve. The militaristic, machoistic ethos that legitimizes hatred of certain communities – hatred that knows no community boundaries – will perpetuate itself. As the feminist activist waited for me to sign the Kadima forms, I felt like I faced an unhappy choice between my feminism and my commitment to ending the conflict and strengthening democracy – where Kadima failed.

What’s a womyn to do?

*UPDATE: Haaretz reported on 27 December that following appeals by Haaretz and other media outlets, the Tel Aviv District Court has agreed to read the main points of the verdict in public, this Thursday (30 December).

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