The Advancement of the Status of Women in Israel

by R. Werczberger, Research and Information Center, The Knesset

(2001)


Background

Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has had the image of a country in which women enjoy full equality. This image, due to the liberal and socialist ethos of the Zionist movement, is, however, somewhat misleading. There are many areas, in which traditions, social institutions, religious rules, and even laws have kept women at a disadvantage: in the workplace, in divorce proceedings and as victims of violence. Changes in the political and economic climate, such as the Middle East conflict onflict in the Middle East and the influx of thousands of guest workers, have created new problems. The widening economic gap in Israeli society, along ethnic and geographical lines, points to the entrenchment of poverty and disadvantage in particular groups. Old women, single mothers, Arab women, immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and foreign workers (with or without work permits) are most vulnerable to poverty, health problems and abuse of basic rights. Women as a group are disadvantaged in the labor market, the health system, education, the courts and religious institutions and are subject to harassment and violence.

The status of women in Israel has been influenced by several social and historical factors related to the conflict between state and religion, which characterize the political scene. Though the founding fathers of the State were mostly oriented towards a secular and liberal, or socialist ideology, they assigned to the religious institutions all matters concerning personal status, i.e. marriage, conversion, divorce, burial, etc. Thus, the Orthodox stream of Judaism, acting according to Halacha - Jewish religious law - known for its patriarchalism, virtually obtained a monopoly over official Jewish religious life and personal status. Another factor influencing the status of women is the centrality of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Though women have always served in the IDF, the army offers a predominantly male environment

that spills over into civilian society by means of the "old boy's network". Finally, even though the Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel declares equality between the sexes, so far none of the Basic Laws, which in the absence of a constitution form the country's normative rules, incorporates this principle, due mainly to the unresolved relationship between religion and the State.

Legislative Developments

  • Legislation: The Committee for the Advancement of Women in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, and individual female Members of Knesset, have been active in the field of advancing women's status through legislation. Their initiatives involve a variety of issues: in particular issues of gender, equality at work, violence against women, welfare, health and fertility, and more.

  • The Authority for the Advancement of Women was established by law in 1998. This body is authorized to encourage, coordinate, promote and monitor the government's and the local authorities' activities regarding women's status, to promote legislation and to advise the government on the enforcement of laws promoting the status of women. It is also expected to initiate research and to enhance public awareness through the media and education.

Changes in the Political Arena

The growing awareness of the status of women has been manifested in the increasing presence of women in managerial and decision-making positions. The last few years have seen record numbers of women in these positions: the current Knesset has the largest number of women Knesset Members -16 out of 120 members; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government also includes a record number of women ministers - the minister of Education, the Minister of Industry and Trade and the Minister responsible for Regional Development. In addition, two women are deputy ministers: in the Ministry of National Infrastructure and in the Ministry of Defense. Since the establishment of the State, one woman (Golda Meir) has served as Prime-Minster. In the 1998 local elections, two women were elected as mayors (of the cities of Netanya and Herzliya), and the number of female council members rose from 153 in 1993, to 240. Three women now serve as justices of the Supreme Court and 36 are judges of District Courts; women constitute 34% percent of the total number of judges. The State Attorney is also a woman.

Facts concerning the status of women in Israel

Women in the Labor Force: In 2000, 45.44% of the labor force were women, of whom only 15.8% worked full time, compared to 34.1% of the men. The average monthly salary for women was 60.18% of men's wages. The average wage-per-hour was 80.5% of that of men. In the Arab sector, the participation of women in the labor force is significantly lower - only 22%, and the rate of unemployment is higher than in the Jewish population -11.7%. The average salary of Arab women is only 71% of that of Jewish women.

In general, women work mostly in lower-paying jobs, in services, education, health, welfare and clerical positions, and are significantly less represented in prestigious and lucrative occupations such as hi-tech, management and engineering,

Poverty: The economic gap between rich and poor has deepened during recent years. 16% of the women in Israel today live in poverty, compared to 14% of the men. The difference may lie in the fact that most single famlies are those of single women.

Violence against women continues to be a serious problem, ranging from domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, incest, trafficking in women for prostitution and honor-killing or femicide (mostly in the Muslim sector). It is estimated that about 200,000 women are suffering from domestic violence. At present there are 13 shelters for abused women and their families which during 2000, sheltered some 715 women and 882 children. There is also one hostel for battering and violent husbands.

In recent years, minimum punishment for sex offenders and perpetrators of domestic violence was legislated. A recent bill, which makes reporting of domestic violence mandatory, is in the process of evaluation. In 1991, the Domestic Violence Prevention Law was enacted, empowering family courts to issue protective orders against violent spouses. In 1998, Israel adopted a comprehensive Sexual Harrasment Prevention Law, which defines sexual harrassment, makes it a criminal offence and also cause for a civil suit against the perpetrator and his employer.

Education: Measured by years of schooling in the Jewish population, there is no educational gap between men and women. But many more boys study in the technical tracks that prepares them for well-earning professions. Among non-Jewish groups there is a slight difference between men and women in years of schooling, which is, however, closing swiftly. In the Bedouin community, there is a high drop-out rate for girls.

While 57% of all academic degrees are earned by women, and 46% of the doctoral students are women, only 22% of senior faculty members and 7.8% of full professors are women.

Health: Israel ranks among the leading nations in term of the health of its population. However, there are significant health differences between men and women that reflect the relatively disadvantaged status of women in society. For example, the basket of services covered by the National Health Insurance (which became effective in 1995) does not include papsmears, mammography, contraceptives and bone density scans. In 1998, life expectancy at birth was 80.3 years for women and 76.1 years for Jewish men. The life expectancy of non-Jewish women was 77.7. The leading cause of death for women is heart disease, followed by cancer. Breast cancer incidence in Jewish women is among the highest in the world: one out of eight women will contract the disease in the course of her life.

Women and the Armed Forces: Although service in the IDF is compulsory for both men and women, inequality does exist. The exclusion of women from many military professions and all combat units guaranteed that the highest positions were closed to them. In 2000, Israel's Parliament adopted an amendment to the Security Service Law, opening all military professions to women. Recently, this change has met with strong objections from religious institutions and politicians.


Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry