Israeli women tell their side

By Julian Wise - June 1, 2006

While much of the media attention in the Middle East fixates on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian National Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and the controversial Hamas boss Ismail Haniya, it's easy to forget that half of the Middle East's population has been virtually ignored by the press. Women in Israel and the Palestinian territories have shouldered more than their fair share of hardships as the region struggles to find a solution to the long-standing conflicts between Israelis and Arabs. This Sunday at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, the community will have the opportunity to hear Dana Savoray, Naomi Katz, and Margalit Flanzer, three Israeli women who have been active in the struggle for progressive feminist policies and conflict resolution in the Middle East.

Ms. Katz, Ms. Savoray, and Ms. Flanzer are currently studying at the Wexner program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Together with Rabbi Caryn Broitman they will preside over a panel discussion titled "From the Heart: Women in Israel." Topics will include changing gender roles for men and women in Jewish, Israeli Arab, and Palestinian communities, job opportunities, and upward mobility for women in the Israeli workforce, and the ways women cope with the daily stress of raising families amid the specter of violence and terrorism.

While traditional paternalistic mores carry over from millennia of patriarchal practices (both Judaism and Islam regulate family law with all-male religious courts that perceive the husband as owner of his wife), feminism has made progress in the region. The Israeli Women's Network , started in the early 1970s, helped give rise to the 11 female Knesset members in 1992 who succeeded in passing more than 40 laws or amendments designed to improve the lot of women in Israel. Grassroots organizations like Kolech ("your voice"), Achoti ("my sister"), Peace Now, The Jerusalem Link, and Itach ("with you") have helped address gender injustice and weave links of understanding between Israeli and Palestinian women.

Ms. Savoray, who has worked with women from Ethiopia and Argentina to address domestic violence and has been an advocate for Maschom (Checkpoint) Watch, an Israeli group that helps pregnant Palestinian women move through security checkpoints to receive obstetric care, says that women in the Middle East are finding their voices to demand justice and equality. She founded a gender equality department in the municipal government of Herzliya, one of two Israeli cities headed by a woman mayor.

Ms. Savoray cites the statistic that 68 percent of Israeli women between the ages of 24 and 54 work outside of the home, a number that has been rising since the 1950s. This increase in work force participation presents both opportunities and challenges. "The problem is that while women start working out of the house and making contributions to the family income, they still do most of the housework," she says. "They basically work much more. When you compare the average workweek of women and men, women work around 10 hours more."

Women's voices have a vital role to play in the peace process, says Ms. Savoray. "I think that it's extremely important that women be equal partners in this process," she says, citing the success of Four Mothers, the organization started by four Israeli women in 1997 that helped raise awareness and shape opinion in favor of the eventual Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Ms. Savoray notes the July, 2005 proposal by Knesset members Yuli Tamir and Eti Livni to mandate the inclusion of women in any Israeli group appointed for peace negotiations. While the law has not been implemented and women remain excluded from negotiations on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, the proposal's existence indicates a paradigm shift from previous generations and may be a sign of things to come.

"When women's voices are heard, all in all it makes an important contribution," says Ms. Savoray.

"From the Heart: Women In Israel," panel discussion, Sunday, June 4, 2 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Center Street, Vineyard Haven. 508-693-0745.