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Women won't solve Israel-Palestine conflict, but feminists might

In a study published by The Palestine-Israel Journal, my review of public opinion data showed only minimal differences between women and men in supporting peace. A strong and thriving feminist movement may be the key to advancing peace, and addressing deep, underlying chauvinism in general.

Sometimes I worry that if I start writing about the state of feminism in Israel, a storm will gather inside me, and a tirade will come pouring out. The post will explode into an uncontrollable, possibly incoherent, manifesto of frustrations.

So I’ll start with two specific issues: passing the buck, and the internalization of male-driven worldviews of society, life and the conflict.

Passing the buck might also be called discrimination-denial. The recent series of outrageous incidents coming from extreme elements of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) society makes life easy for Israelis: Everyone can jump on the self-righteous bandwagon against those nasty Haredim who spit on little girls.

I won’t be the first to say that the far greater challenge is to look at the reality among mainstream society. I’m not even talking about the putrid political establishment and the shock of having had a rapist for a president. It’s daily life, stupid. One guest writer from ACRI questioned government policies that lead to the exclusion of the weakest women from society. But I’m talking about the automatic exemption regular people give themselves – mainstream, non-marginalized, establishment, and men – from exposing and fighting chauvinism. It’s as if because they aren’t Haredim, the subtle, almost invisible insult, injury, and condescension to women in daily life has nothing to do with them.

I’m talking about women who tolerate despicable attitudes invented by and for men, women who have internalized these attitudes so deeply they don’t even know the difference.

Here’s what I mean by internalization: I’ve gotten comments – including from professional colleagues – to the effect that I must be dying to put aside all this nice little career and political stuff, in order to catch a husband and reproduce. Many women I know have no sense of why this is offensive; the notion that a professional peer is violating my personal life (and disparaging my career) would never occur to them. In Israel, a woman’s most intimate physical and spiritual parts are often considered public property to be tossed around and dissected at any man’s whim. Many women internalize the legitimacy of this invasion of their souls.

They may also legitimize ideas that are simply absurd: I’ve heard women snicker their agreement with the wacko male mantra that women are terrible drivers, mostly because some women switch lanes too slowly. Never mind that with my eyes closed, I can predict that the murderous psychopaths butchering whole families as they careen across lanes, bearing down on victims, grunting and sneering through their windows as they sail toward their death – or that of others – are men. The data leaves no room for doubt – in 2005, for example, 91% of all lethal accidents involved male drivers (women, who hold 40% of the drivers’ licenses, were the drivers in nine percent of such accidents).

The female internalization of male violence, superiority complexes, or patriarchal, machoistic conceptions of reality upsets me the most. But compared to separated sidewalks, it may be the hardest form of male dominance to expose and oppose.

I think this is what lies behind my findings in an article I recently published in The Palestine-Israel Journal, in a special issue called “Women and Power.”  The article, “Gender Myths and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A summary of Differences and Similarities in Israeli Jewish Public Opinion” explored whether women are more likely than men to hold peace-related attitudes, based on public opinion data from a range of surveys.

In some countries, scholarly research has found somewhat higher support among women for various peace-positions, or less militarist approaches to conflict. Two excellent articles summarizing the theories and possible explanations are Tessler and Warriner’s 1997 article “Gender, Feminism and Attitudes Toward International Conflict” in World Politics, and Tessler and Natchwey’s 1999 “Further Tests of the Women and Peace Hypothesis…” in International Studies Quarterly.

Those articles found no evidence that women in Israel or other Middle East countries they examined were any more supportive of peace than men (in Israel, their data is from the Jewish population only).

Using fresher data (their Israeli data was from 1989 and 1991), I pored over the numbers (unfortunately, I was only able to look at the Jewish population in this article). Two decades later, there was little change. I found a few differences among male and female approaches to the conflict, but they were not significant or consistent, and were not always in the expected direction. Sometimes women expressed more hard-line attitudes  than men.

Here is an excerpt from my conclusion.

The data affirms that there is little genuine or consistent difference between the genders. Yet the slight differences that do appear yield some observations.

The 2007 Ir Amim survey could indicate that women are less inclined to support provocative or unfair policies. In wartime, women appear somewhat more likely to side with policies to end the violence, including the need for long-term non-military solution to the conflict.

At several points, women seem to be more susceptible than men to fear and disappointment: They seemed to suffer greater disappointment by the collapse of hopes following the outbreak of the second intifada; slightly more right-leaning after the Gaza war and the failed September 2010 negotiations than men. Prior evidence offers some support: Arian’s study of attitudes toward Iraq’s SCUD attacks in the first Gulf War notes that women suffered from fear far more than men (Arian 1995, p. 86). Golan and Chazan’s research from 1989 found that there was practically no difference of attitudes — except regarding levels of fear.

I don’t love these findings. The scholars above offered some convincing explanations, such as the salience and proximity of conflict as the main factor forming people’s attitudes, rather than gender. But I’d like to propose that many women are complicit in behaving according to gender stereotypes, which includes letting fear govern their outlook, but also less critical engagement with politics – I see evidence of this in focus groups among women. I believe that too many women have internalized too many male-dominated narratives, including the relentlessly militaristic approach to the conflict.

Here’s my hope: Tessler and Warriner found that attitudes towards feminism and gender equality were much more clearly correlated to peace attitudes.  Israel does have a tireless and committed group of feminists – who deserve extra kudos for their struggle against anti-feminist attitudes (“feminist” is regularly used as a dirty word) and female resistance, in addition to fighting basic inequalities and discrimination. I have a dream, that Jewish women, Arab women and all women make equality and respect into a social justice demand. When half a million people demonstrate to support that, I’ll test the feminism and peace attitude hypothesis, and pray that it’s proven right.

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    1. Carl

      Dahlia it sounds like you’re expressing an Israeli manifestation of a wider problem. I’m back at university and I dearly wish the twenty year old students around me would revert back to adding ‘…but I’m not a feminist’ to the end of their sentences as they would a decade ago. It would actually be a significant improvement. I can’t get into any debate about the politics of gender and society because it’s simply beyond their comprehension. I used to hear the argument that pole dancing or stripping was liberating because the woman were in control. Nowadays the vast, vast majority of young men and women I talk to simply can’t conceive that it might be problematic so there’s no debate to be had.
      I’m not sure it’s about internalising ‘male dominated narratives. I think it’s a product of a growing, individualised view of society. I can’t get the young women on my course to understand that the fact the UK has only ever had one female prime minister is problematic as they don’t identify with the idea of ‘women’ on a political level. They take the world as they find it and see no need to ask questions.
      In the case of Israel, if you’ve taken the effort to try and understand the conflict there, you’re more likely to apply some of the concepts and processes to other issues, so you’d think that feminism and peace would go along together. But then I’ve just remembered gay rights activist and all round Muslim hater Pim Fortuyn, so my argument just fell apart.

      Reply to Comment
    2. What does a male gay rights activist have to do with feminism?

      And how is “accepting the world as it is” different than accepting/internalizing patriarchal norms (i.e., how the world is…)

      Feminists are also almost always peace activists. Most brands of feminism include a recognition of the need for advocating the rights of ALL marginalized/oppressed groups.

      And I know a LOT of feminists in the UK.

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    3. Carl

      Tsipi my point is that that the commitment to equality between genders that comes from feminism doesn’t necessarily extend to other contexts. Logically you might expect Pim Fortuyn would extend his belief in equality past sexuality and on to the wider world. Instead he kept that commitment only for the people he thought deserved it.
      I’d agree that many feminists are also peace activists, but I don’t think the two are inherently linked. Many people are for equality and empowerment, but only for the people they deem deserving.
      Lastly, I know there’s a fair few feminists in the UK, but finding ones who are under 25 is damn hard. As I say, I think that’s a generational shift and a damn sorry one at that.

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    4. SOS

      Didn’t read the full article, which I intend to do, but here is the problem- Tessler et al, found (based on Chazan and Golan’s findings)the correlation between support for a two-state solution and gender equality. However, although this same correlation needs to be further examined in depth today – we do know that women and men in Israel are far more informed (and endorse)feminist ideas about gender equality thanh they did in 1989. We have various indicators to show this: from legislation, governmental mechanisms, public opinion surveys, in depth interviews etc. Simultanously, we know that women’s attitudes about the conflict HAVE NOT changed- so, why do we keep searching for the ‘Feminism brings peace hypothsis’? Rather, isn’t it more important to explain why, in Israel, women tend to have other calculations. Hint- during the last decade 30% of all Israeli casualties were women and girls.

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    5. SOS – I appreciate your comment and I would just love to see the studies showing that people are “more informed (and endorse) feminist ideas about gender equality than they did in 1989.” I have seen one fairly in-depth survey about this but there was no comparison or time series. I would be mildly surprised to find the kind of rise you mention in public opinion (though happy!) – because traditionally and especially historically Israelis tended to praise gender equality – i would argue much more so in its earliest years when it was an explicit part of the zionist ethic (although still in the framework of old fashioned gender roles). In terms of legislation I agree that there have been advances promoting gender equality although some is still needed, and enforcement remains a problem. But beyond that, as you will see here, I’m referring mainly to the deeper psychological and unconscious aspects, that are much harder to pin down. So I’ll be curious for any references you may have to further research – and also interested in your perspective once you have read the piece.

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    6. AYLA

      Carl–it’s different here. To speak only to one part of Dahlia’s analysis–the part about people saying she must be dying to put aside her career to get married and reproduce: When I first arrived here, I was asked in job interviews if I was married and had a family and when I said no, asked, Why not? When I opened a bank account, the bank teller saw that I had checked the box “single” and said in what then sounded to me like a very judgmental tone (now it just sounds Israeli…), “You’re not married? Why not?”, and when I went to get an Israeli I.D. at the government department that issues them, the woman issuing my I.D. said, “You’re not married?!” and when I said, No, she shrugged curiously and said, “Okay”, to which I laughed and thanked her. My response a few years ago to all this was shock at the following: a) the nerve of strangers to comment on, and judge, my personal life; b) the nerve of people not to have any humility about the vast number of circumstances humans endure (what if someone I love died? what if I lost a child?)–thankfully, I haven’t endured such tragedy, but several people close to me have; c) No one considers I could be gay? (again, not, but couldn’t I be?). I’ve come to understand that everyone here thinks their your aunt, and they believe their comments are out of a familial sense of concern, but I’m not sure that makes it any better if every trip to the bank is an extended family reunion.

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    7. Ayla, you’ve probably noticed that in Hebrew, you would never say “single” if your partner had died – you would say “widowed,” and if you were divorced, you wouldn’t say single, but “divorced.” I find this to be a subtlety that affirms the point: single is stigma, and using the word “revaka” means you have never been married and probably are not in a relationship either. Re – the possibility that you are gay – that’s probably exactly what they think, after all, what other reason is there for a sensible woman not to be married? It couldn’t possibly be that this is just your choice in life. in some situations these comments can be a charming, if annoying, idiosyncrasy; in other situations the exchange can be downright primitive.

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    8. We predict what people will do based partly on their social relationships. I you apply for a job where I am, being married with a mortgage and children are pluses (and, yes, having a mortage is a kind of social relationship) because they predict a certain level of background fear which makes one “reliable” in the work place. I suspect Israeli society has similar evaluative tendencies. If you are unmarried into your 50’s without some compensating badge (such as active church service) many will keep you at a distance. They don’t know where to place you. You are not under their contingencies and obligations, and that causes almost visceral unease.
      So I suspect the comments one gets about marriage, etc. are warning signals: “I might be ok with it, but watch out” and “you aren’t going to have enough help on your side to either get by or advance.” The impression I have of Israeli society is that it is very competitive. Sterotypes are seen as the only way to go and, moreover, violating them puts you in some sort of flagged category. Facing these, feminists are more likely to challenge or question other categories. But this is in itself a danger: those who challenge rock the boat. You have probably seen coworkers distance themselves from “upsetting” people; they don’t want to be near the line of fire if someone is indeed fired or demoted.

      Reply to Comment
    9. AYLA

      Thanks, Dahlia. I meant that a boyfriend (not husband) could have died. Lots of things could have happened, do happen; just the lack of humility for the intensity of each life. Plus, yes: marriage and children are assumed to be the primary goal of all people.
      Greg–I get what you’re saying, but/and, I wish I could explain how it’s different here. It’s the presumed familial element, I think?
      I actually realized that maybe I was becoming a little bit Israeli when, when I went to pick up my new I.D. card on which I was a citizen (two years after the one I mentioned above which was for a longterm resident), the woman showed me how I would (not could) change my status from single to married when the time came, and instead of feeling really angry or annoyed as I surely would have two years ago, I thought, Awww, she’s sweet. My reaction marked a moment of inner horror and amusement.

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    10. I have written a book exploring a deeply feminist, non-macho, forward-looking and original idea: that the idea of “enemies” itself — the “enemies paradigm,” if you will — is obsolete and that, on the level of design (apart from morality, democracy, etc.), we need to retire this notion once and for all… “They” are the necessary if not sufficient partners we need to resolve our conflict with “them.” Labeling them “enemy” guarantees that we will get nowhere. –Please take a look at the NME web site… If it reads like a fairy tale, try again. Try the book (paperback or Kindle). “Enemies” is an idea we think with, rather than think about; and until we can learn to think without it, we will continually go round and round the same sterile roundabout to nowhere. Time for a profound change… and this is it. No More Enemies. Part IV has 50+ ways to begin integrating this view into your own life. Today.

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    11. P.S. Dahlia – There are two stories from “No More Enemies” excerpted in that same Women and Power issue of PIJ… I hear the PIJ office is getting a lot of orders for the issue… so far, ALL from women. Hmmmmm.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ayla, we get by in the world by what we understand–and are controlled by what others understand. We are raised in a family and, if one begins a family, that is what the world is for. But concepts take on a life of their own. Family, our happiness, can become a negative label in absence. The love for family is so very real. It is not hostility for its own sake, but derrivative of the true way of completion, satisfaction. I have always been on the side of gay marriage in the US because I do know what it means to be isolate; and I would not condemn others to hide their lives because gay. But for many, gay is inherently anti-family. Gay seems (seems) to deny this most fundamental category of survival. (Yet Israel has for years allowed IDF service of avowed gays).
      Deb Reich,
      Having lived in Evolutionary Biology for (too) many years, I cannot beleive all enemies will vanish. But I do believe that the nature of enemy can change, and I believe in many cases one may remove the category by personal action. I hope the best for your work.

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    13. Greg, arguably we have reached an era where we may need to become co-directors of our further biological evolution… If the internet is like a proto-nervous system for the planet and, in some ways, a proto-circulatory system too… and given that we have new feedback loops our grandparents did not have (imaging systems that enable us, in the laboratory, to see and map, in real time, the physiological and neurological impact on humans of their exposure to various cultural artifacts — violent films vs. films showing cooperation, etc., etc. — we may be entering an era when we are potentially equipped to push changes in our species and its habitat that we could only pray for, in earlier eras… Thanks for your good wishes Greg — best way to help is to send everyone you know to the NME web site, to go and “Like” the NME FB page, and to read the book (or Kindle) and spread the word! I’m afraid your work is too abstruse for me to be able to reciprocate (from what I saw on the web)… But best wishes!

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    14. Elisheva

      Hi Dahlia,

      I share your dream, but would like to widen the circle to include men. I think it’s only when we start gender mainstreaming the concepts that feminism will stop being a dirty word (although there has been improvement since my arrival here in the mid-seventies). And I know some awesome men, both Jewish and Arab, who are feminists. Let’s include them as our allies in social equality for all.

      Reply to Comment