It is now evident that the incoming Israeli government has declared war against women on behalf of the representatives of extreme patriarchal Judaism, who make up at least half of the coalition. This war is manifested in the composition of the new government, which, according to a publication by Shavi Gatanio in the independent news site “The Hottest Place in Hell,” has downgraded Israel from 47th place in the world in the representation of women in government to 140th place, alongside countries such as Pakistan and Turkey. But the similarities to Pakistan and Turkey do not end there. Reading the coalition agreements reveals that the ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionism parties have made the patriarchal religious aspiration to restrict women’s rights, exclude them from the public sphere and subject them to the dictates of ultra-conservative Judaism a central project and a condition for their entry into the new coalition.
It is important to acknowledge that in certain areas, particularly concerning personal status, the State of Israel has, from its inception, sacrificed women’s right to equality in order to please patriarchal religious elements for political gains. As a result and due to other important factors, mainly the continuing occupation of the territories, and certain aspects of the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens, Israel has never been a fully liberal democracy. Rather, Israel could be characterized as a semi-liberal democracy, which combines a liberal outlook with religious and national tribalism. That is, while in some areas Israeli law is committed to a liberal perspective that protects the rights of the individual, including women’s rights, and treats all citizens as free and equal, in other areas Israeli law gives a clear priority to the Jewish nature of the state at the expense of human rights. Consequently, despite considerable progress in the struggle for women’s equality in Israel over the years, there remain islands of extreme inequality. Now, as part of its war against women, the new coalition seeks to expand these islands and allow extreme religious views, and the ultra-conservative rabbis who dictate them, to control almost every aspect of the state’s treatment of women and their rights.
At least four commitments in the coalition agreements subjugate women to religious patriarchal rule. First, the coalition agreements accept the demand by Religious Zionism and United Torah Judaism parties to permit gender segregation by law. According to the agreements, the law prohibiting discrimination in products, services and entry to entertainment venues and public places will be amended to allow gender segregation in cultural events and in studies for ultra-Orthodox and religious people, and such segregation in public places will not be considered prohibited discrimination. Additionally, the law will be amended to allow private businesses to refrain from providing a service or product due to religious belief as long as a similar alternative can be obtained in geographical proximity at a comparable price. This convoluted description of the purpose of the legislation masks a serious violation of women’s rights and of the principle of the rule of law.
The practice of separating men and women in public spaces for religious reasons began about 25 years ago, following pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders. This was done under the rationale of making the public space more accessible to the ultra-Orthodox population. Women’s rights groups submitted petitions to the High Court against gender segregation in public transportation and in professional training as early as 1997-98, shortly after the practice began. However, at that time, the Israeli Supreme Court chose not to intervene, believing it to be an internal ultra-Orthodox matter.
The court’s refusal to intervene in the segregation, combined with the active assistance of state authorities in institutionalizing it, meant that during the following decade the exclusion of women and the violation of their rights in the public sphere spread rapidly. The unrestrained spread of gender segregation led to a public perception that there is a right to exclude women from the public sphere, to assign them a limited and inferior space, and to demand they behave according to strict rules of modesty, all for religious reasons.
In 2007, another petition was filed against the segregation on public buses, but it took the court more than three years to rule on the case. Deciding for petitioners, Judge Eliakim Rubinstein wrote in the ruling:
A public transportation operator (like any other person) is not allowed to tell, ask or
instruct women where they should sit on the bus just because they are women, or
what they should wear, and they are allowed to sit wherever they want …
When I read these lines, I wonder to myself, “Why in 2010 did we need to write them? Have we returned to the days of Rosa Parks?”
In 2013, a team appointed by the Israeli Attorney General submitted a report on the exclusion of women in the public sphere. The report stated that:
The phenomenon, some of whose occurrences are sometimes referred to as the “exclusion of women” in the public sphere, is a serious phenomenon characterized by the discrimination of women regardless of who they are. This discrimination goes to the root of the matter and undermines the fundamental assumptions on which the democratic regime in the State of Israel is founded, which recognizes the human value of the person whoever he is.
The report called on the public authorities to act quickly, effectively and decisively to prevent segregation and exclusion of women.
The government adopted the report in 2014 and assigned its implementation to all relevant ministers. However, the report and court ruling did not cover all areas where segregation had spread. Moreover, while attempts were made to reduce the phenomenon in certain areas, the segregation and exclusion continued and expanded in other areas, such as academia, the military and professional training.
It quickly became evident that the Pandora’s box of women’s exclusion is hard to shut again, especially in a country where it is accepted that religious interests should take precedence over women’s rights in certain areas. What was initially presented as a voluntary arrangement for the ultra-Orthodox who wanted it, soon became — had it not been halted by legal actions of women’s organizations — a systematic, enforced exclusion of women of all kinds from job opportunities, army positions, public services and cultural events. It was only through the tireless efforts of both secular and ultra-Orthodox feminists to put an end to these unlawful practices by appealing to legal courts and enforcing women’s legal right to equality that the spread of segregation was curbed. These efforts have now been labeled by representatives of Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox parties as “legal persecution” of religious people. The amendments to the law promised to these parties in the coalition agreements will eliminate the existing legal tools for guaranteeing women’s right to equality in the public sphere and will allow religion to supersede the rule of law in these areas.
Those who try to downplay the harm of the forthcoming legal changes and claim that they pertain only to segregation in cultural performances for religious populations are wrong. The language of the coalition agreements proves otherwise. First, the agreements state that the separation also applies to all forms of study. This means that the separate courses in the academia, which were previously limited to the ultra-Orthodox, will now be open to national religious people and to anyone who declares they are not interested in studying with the opposite sex for religious reasons. These separate studies will also be extended to master’s and doctorate degrees, contrary to the ruling of the Supreme Court. Second, the proposed wording will allow segregation not only in classrooms but also throughout the campus, including corridors, courtyards and cafeterias. This, too, is contrary to the Supreme Court ruling. The expansion of segregation will further damage female lecturers, who already have difficulty getting tenure in academic institutions where studies are held in segregation since they are not allowed to teach men, while male lecturers can teach women, making their employment more profitable for the institution.
Another serious aspect of the expansion of segregation lies in the protection it will offer to private businesses that refuse to provide a service or product due to religious belief. The public discussion of the potential violation of individual rights arising from this aspect of the new coalition agreements mainly revolved around its potential impact on LGBTQ people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even hastened to declare that the law would not harm LGBTQ people. However, the serious harm to women that will result from the proposed law was not mentioned in the public debate and was certainly not denied by Netanyahu.
The proposed law, already submitted to the Knesset by representatives of Religious Zionism, would allow private businesses to impose gender segregation and to require women to dress modestly as a condition for service. It would even prevent women from entering businesses during certain hours. Moreover, the language of the agreements and the bill suggest that the business owner may refuse to sell a product or provide a service to prevent offense to the religious beliefs of a part of the public. This would allow any business owner to exclude women and discriminate against them, both as customers and as employees, in order to attract customers who are not interested in receiving service from women or in their presence.
As a result, job ads for men only will soon appear for positions in banks, health-care providers and private businesses to cater to the new right of ultra-Orthodox men to receive service from men only. Workplaces will refuse to accept female employees and prefer to hire male employees who can provide service to both genders and all religious backgrounds. Secular and ultra-Orthodox women who seek services at banks, cell-phone companies or health-care providers will have to enter through a separate side entrance, away from the men’s view. Unsurprisingly, the quality of services and space allocated to men will be significantly higher than those allocated to women, as is the case in services already provided separately. This new right of ultra-Orthodox and religious people to be separated on grounds of religious belief will lead to the elimination of women’s right to equality in the public sphere and the employment market.
A comparison between the public’s justified indignation sparked by the anticipated harm to LGBTQ people due to this forthcoming legal change and its parallel disregard for the expected harm to women caused by the same legal change is disheartening. It sheds light on the continued disdain for the price paid by women due to patriarchal religion’s position in Israel, which is set to increase even more with the new government’s dramatic strengthening of the power of ultra-conservative Judaism. This disdain is also evident in the public’s indifference to the three additional commitments to violate women’s rights for religious reasons, which the new coalition has made. These include the subordination of the IDF Chief Rabbi to the Israel Chief Rabbinate in halakhic matters, despite the latter’s opposition to the conscription of women, and even more so to the advancement of womens’ equal standing in the military and their integration into combat units; the expansion of the authority of rabbinic courts to rule in civil matters with the consent of the parties, which will lead to serious harms to the proprietary and economic rights of women, who will be forced to agree in advance to the authority of a religious court that operates according to Torah law and is free from any subordination to the principles of equality and the justice applied in Israeli law; and the damage to the fight against violence against women due to the commitment of the new government to refuse Israel’s accession to the Istanbul Convention Action against violence against women and domestic violence, which the former government agreed to join.
Moreover, some of these arrangements, such as various aspects of the exclusion of women from the public sphere or the expansion of the powers of rabbinic courts to rule in civil matters, have been struck down by the Israeli courts in the past due to their serious violation of women’s right to dignity and equality, stipulated in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. So as to prevent the Supreme Court from intervening to safeguard women’s rights, as well as other rights that the new government is set to restrict, the incoming coalition has committed itself to enacting a superseding clause that will circumvent the court’s ability to invalidate laws regardless of their anticipated harm to rights. This clause is included in the basic guidelines of the incoming government and its enactment is given first priority by all coalition parties.
The war against women is a central component in an array of radical changes that the incoming coalition is committed to making in the constitutional structure and in the legal system in Israel. This onslaught on women’s rights joins other equally serious onslaughts on liberal rights and institutions, which together are intended to transform Israel from a state that preserves, even partially, liberal human rights, to a state with a tribal authoritarian regime based on an incendiary combination of corruption, ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalism.
The above text is based on an article published in Hebrew on Dec. 29, 2022, on the Israeli independent news web site “The Hottest Place in Hell.”