Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Disenfranchised? Maybe disenchanted.
Justin Weitz, the original American Keiser (yikes!), has made some rather strange comments on Israeli Politics. Lynn B., always In Context, threw down the gauntlet, which I will now proceed to take up.

I hadn’t even bothered to read the original Haaretz article on the subject of the lack of a reasonable percentage of women Knesset members. Quite frankly, I find the issue extremely tedious. One thing struck me as particularly ridiculous in the article and that is the argument that “even China has more female politicians than Israel”. Well, duuuh! Last time I checked, China was a communist entity with tough affirmative action. And would it not be an understatement to point out that China is not exactly the same sort of democracy as Israel? I once saw a TV program about a Chinese family (in China), with two career-orientated parents (the mother was a successful radio presenter). They happily pointed out that they had put their solitary daughter, who was about 4 years old, if I remember correctly, in a 24 hour, 7 day a week, state funded kindergarten, so they could get on with their careers! Give me 17 women MK’s any day, if that’s the alternative.

Furthermore, it was interesting to see that (in the printed version of the article - cut in the translation for some reason) MK Marina Solodkin (from Yisrael Ba’aliyah, Natan Sharansky’s party) explains her opposition to reserving seats for women in the Knesset by reminding us that in the communist party of the USSR there was a 30% quota for women.

Coming back to our American Keiser, he writes that the relatively few women in Israeli politics, “tells of a great problem in Israeli politics”. He fails to point out that the percentage of women parliamentarians in Israel is actually higher than in the USA, according to the article in Haaretz.

He goes on to point out that the secular-religious “divide (in Israel) prevents Israel from enacting any true feminist legislation.” And that, “Israeli women have been largely disenfranchised because, the ultra-Orthodox aside, they are socially liberal”. I have no idea what “socially liberal” means as a generalization about women, or what that has to do with the price of fish, for that matter. I haven’t noticed that Likud MK’s, Limor Livnat, Naomi Blumental or Tzippi Livni, are more inclined to being socially liberal than male Likud MK’s, besides being more likely to promote women’s issues, for obvious reasons. But as to feminist legislation, as far as I know, the laws in Israel in this respect are very advanced by any standard, as are laws with regard to homosexuals rights, for instance (rather surprising, considering that “the religious parties control over a quarter of the Knesset”, isn’t it?).

Here are some examples of so-called “feminist” laws passed in Israel in recent years:
(* Denotes a Hebrew link).

“The 1992 Single parents Law has ameliorated (Hmmm, that’s a good word) the situation of single parent families. The law strengthens the protection for single-parent families with low income by increasing the level of means-tested benefits and awarding day care and child-education grants and priority in vocational training. Thus, almost all single-parent families - both official and unofficial - are eligible for income-support benefit at the increased rate”.

“In 1996, the Equal Pay (Male and Female Employees) Law was passed. Although previous legislation had intended to provide equal pay, the many loopholes had allowed for significant gendered wage gaps to develop; the current legislation will eliminate these loopholes. At this time, on the average, women earn 30% less than men who are employed in comparable positions do”.

In 1998 a law specifically forbidding sexual harassment* in the work place was passed, denoting a suggestion or a reference as enough to be regarded as harassment.

In 2000 the Knesset passed a law granting equal rights to women* in the workplace, the military and in other spheres of society. The law also lays out the rights of women over their bodies and protects women from violence and sexual exploitation. This law is in addition to a general equal rights law already in effect since 1951, which wasn’t specifically about women’s equal rights.

Another law protects pregnant women from being fired as a result of their pregnancy, and from what I understand, women get a far better deal in Israel, with regard to childbirth leave, than in the US.

So much for the secular-religious divide preventing Israel from enacting any true feminist legislation, which, as you can see, is completely without factual basis. I think the real problem in Israel, in this regard, is actually enforcing these laws. The police are busy chasing after Palestinian mass murderers, as you well know.

So, once again, back to Mr. Weitz, this time to his claim that “Israeli women have been largely disenfranchised”. Whatever could he mean? Where did he get this idea? Could he really mean that Israeli women have largely lost the right to vote and be voted into office? That, after all, is the meaning of the word “disenfranchised”, according to all my dictionaries. I have checked and rechecked, just to make sure. Could this be some sociology term I am not aware of? A term equivalent to, say, the “glass ceiling”?

If I’m right to understand the word “disenfranchised” literally, well, as I said recently, I haven’t missed a national or municipal election since 1983 and for most of that time I think I was what Mr. Weitz would call moderately “socially liberal”. However, I don’t remember anyone stopping me at the door on the way in to vote. And if we’re just talking about the right to be voted into office, there are still 17 female MK’s out there. It might not be much, and they must have had to work really hard to get there, but no one’s stopping them at the door either, although many of them are at least “socially liberal” (I can think of one, off hand, if not more, that is much further left than that). I’d also say they are, nearly all, really loud and pushy. They’d be screaming to high heaven if anyone were blocking their entrance. I assure you, we’d have heard about it. So I’ll just assume “disenfranchised” is a sociology term that is beyond me and leave it at that. I confess having taken sociology for one year in university but I was really terrible. I just didn’t get it. I’m still traumatized from discovering “mentality” was a dirty word, and to this day I continue to scramble for suitably PC alternatives, when I wish to convey an idea that necessitates the use of that particular word.

Having said all that, there are still only 17 female MK’s out of 120. Why is that? We mustn’t forget to take into account the ultra-orthodox, whose women are far too busy bringing up, not to mention working to support, double-digit sized families, and doing their portion of good deeds for their communities, to have time to be active in politics. That is, even if their rabbis and husbands allowed them to.

That aside, Lynn says her “feeling was always that there just weren't that many women who wanted to lower themselves into the slime pit that is Israeli politics”. I whole-heartily agree with this assessment. This goes for men too. In my view, that’s the root of the “lack of leadership” in Israel everyone whines about all the time. The most talented won’t go anywhere near politics. I actually see it as a sign of Israeli women’s wisdom and common sense.

I could suggest another reason. Politics demand much more personal sacrifice of women than of men, as do all demanding, powerful jobs. In Israel, family values are very highly regarded. This is probably why I was so horrified with that Chinese couple sticking their infant child into what ultimately is an orphanage type institute with a polite name. By the way, when I say “family” I don’t necessarily mean traditional families. What I mean is putting family before self. A lot of Israeli women wouldn’t dream of compromising their families for what is ultimately (in my view, anyway) a greed for power.

But this doesn’t explain women’s impressive representation in other areas, such as the judicial system. Compared to their under-representation in the Knesset, women fulfill a prominent role in the State Attorney and the District Attorney offices and in the Justice Ministry, and there are a quite impressive amount of female judges (including three high court judges).

So I’d definitely go for the slime pit theory.