In the Coming Elections, Gender Equality Should Take Center Stage in Israel
The coming elections for Israel’s 24th Knesset represent a vital opportunity to place the values of gender equality — and with them, those of liberal Zionism — at the forefront of Israeli national development.
The good news is that the issue of gender equality is already at the heart of public dialogue. All political parties have recognized the centrality of the issue, and are highlighting the women in their ranks. Almost every party has its own women’s committee, even the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
But ultimately, such steps are insufficient. After all, it is one thing to raise the banner of gender equality across all parts of society; it is another to take these calls forward and translate them into tangible action.
Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox parties, including Shas, have no women at all among their elected officials — yet they still receive state funding for election campaigns. As long as this remains the case, full gender equality will be out of reach.
Any coalition that involves the two ultra-Orthodox parties will be incapable of promoting gender equality. This is not to say that there are not voices within ultra-Orthodox society seeking to create important change. There are indeed ultra-Orthodox women activists fighting back.
Knesset legislation must be introduced conditioning state funding on parties having at least 30% representation by women.
According to a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Israel is ranked 83rd out of 189 countries when it comes to global parliamentary gender equality, and is ranked 27th out of 35 OECD countries. These figures are highly unflattering.
Measured in the absence of Shas and UTJ, most Knesset parties have female representation ranging from 26% to 45% — not a trivial percentage, and in line with the Western average.
Greater commitment to gender equality education in our school systems is also required, from kindergarten to 12th grade. This is currently not compulsory in Israel, and making such gender education part of the curriculum would be a revolutionary act that could happen in the 24th Knesset.
Similarly, it is time to open more IDF roles to men and women, and while the military has made progress in this direction, ensuring that only suitable candidates reach such positions — irrespective of gender — should be enshrined in legislation.
For any of these things to happen, the ultra-Orthodox parties must be forced into the opposition. The choice is clear: Israel can have either ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition, or it can promote women’s rights. It cannot have both. If an enabling coalition is formed, a broad range of issues can be tackled.
Reform is also overdue in the private sector. Among publicly traded companies on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, only three have women as CEOs. To help address this issue, a “traffic light index” was introduced in the last Knesset to measure the integration of women in the workforce and in senior management in companies on the Tel Aviv 125 Index.
This was based on research conducted abroad, where gender equality indexes are published for investors, since companies with a higher percentage of women have been found to be more profitable, creating investor pressure for the publication of the indexes. Israel is still trailing many other countries on this front. The new index will publish figures twice a year, and highlight green companies, which have over 40% women in senior management; yellow companies, with 20% to 40%;, and red companies, which have under 20%.
The coronavirus pandemic has been especially harmful to women, with some 70% of unemployed people in the current lockdown being women. There has also been a sharp rise in the numbers of women falling prey to domestic abuse. And yet, just seven out of 37 people on the government’s committee of experts to exit the crisis are women. Out of the expert guests who appear on the media to discuss these issues, a mere 15% are women.
Only one woman has served as a Knesset chairperson since the parliament’s founding, and important Knesset committees such as Finance, Defense and Foreign Affairs, and Law and Justice have never been chaired by a woman. Meanwhile, 25 women were murdered in domestic violence attacks in the past year.
Despite the challenges that remain, today’s young generation is demanding gender equality, and such values are familiar territory for it. But it is vital to take the next necessary steps — because gender equality will make it more likely that we all live in a stable, prosperous society, and in a liberal Zionist country.
Sharon Roffe Ofir is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute and Deputy Mayor of Kiriyat Tivon in the Haifa region. She is in charge of government relations and gender equality, and a member of WCCS (Women’s Council for Civil Security) strategy group.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel-focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.