The feminist movement has been always torn between two competing goals: saving women (from violence, from economic exploitation) and transforming society. The first goal has always had priority since it is urgent/acute and this is why most feminist organizations turned to be service-oriented more than politics- oriented. This phenomenon might explain why Israeli women's status has worsened in the last decade, especially since October 2000.
Although the Israeli feminist movement has many gains within the last 30 years such as new pro-women legislation, it failed, however, to change the overall poor women reality. Actually Israeli women's status has severely deteriorated financially and socially.'
These paragraphs form the gloomy conclusion of Dr Erella Shadmi's new book, 'Thinking Like a Woman'. For over 30 years, Shadmi has been a radical feminist and a lesbian, peace and anti-racist activist in Israel. Currently, she is the head of the Women and Gender Program at Beit-Berl College, besides being involved with several women's organisations. She is the founder of Women's Watch - a car-patrol service that comes to the rescue of women stuck in troubled situations.
"Three decades of research," she says, "have taught me that in spite of our technological progress and despite the liberal and pluralistic winds blowing across Israel, the situation of women has worsened dramatically. Violence against women has expanded to new territories - cyber sex, trade in women and abuse of new immigrants - and all these have added to 'regular' violence (abuse by spouses, sexual harassment at the workplace, sexual abuse and rape)." One merely needs to take a look at the figures: In Israel, between 2001 to 2006, sexual harassment cases increased by 78 per cent; figures of battered women increased by 32 per cent; the scale of trade in women went up by 36 per cent and rape figures rose by 26 per cent.
Shadmi's book argues that neo-Zionism ideology, which evolved in the last decade and became more apparent since the last Al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000, is characterised by the return of capitalism, machoism and militarism and has been accompanied by a process that has pushed women back into their homes. (Al-Aqsa Intifada or the Second Intifada refers to the second major wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. In Arabic, 'Intifada' means uprising. While Palestinians consider the Intifada to be a war of national liberation against foreign occupation, Israelis consider it to be a terrorist campaign.)
"From a feminist perspective, Israeli society currently seems racist, sexist, masculine and violent, " Shadmi observes. "Neo-Zionism has harmed women because it has endorsed the male model; and pushed women out of the labour market and into their homes, thereby increasing their dependence on men once again. Also, the concurrent domination of military forces and religion - both built on men-only and male supremacy - marginalises women. Both also uphold brotherhood - men supporting men - as a way to preserve their supremacy."
While the deterioration of the status of women in Israel has often been seen as a result of the increasing number of new immigrants or minorities and their culture, Shadmi argues that the central cause lies in the new capitalistic economy that started after the last 'Intifada' and which led to drastic governmental budget cuts. "The harsh economic policies of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harmed women and also widened the polarity between the poor and rich as well as women and men. Women form the majority of civil servants, so they are the ones to get fired in case of budget cuts. Most elderly, too, are women and, courtesy the new policies, they now get less elderly allowance. Most single parents, too, are women, and they are suffering due to a cut in child maintenance allowance. Seventy per cent of the manpower in the industries comprises women and there they work under very harsh conditions with no pension or other benefits. The new economy harms men and women alike, but its effects on women are more devastating."
Through her book, Shadmi wishes to leave the legacy of first-generation feminist activism to the younger generation. However, she also enumerates the mistakes that feminists have made over the years. "As feminists, our main pitfall is lack of solidarity. Sometimes Israeli women's NGOs are blamed for not being united enough. It is important that Mizrahi [Jews from Arab countries] organisations like Ahoti [My sister], radical outfits like Isha LeIsha [Woman to Woman], multicultural ones like Kol Haisha [Voice of Women], and religious women NGOs like KOLECH [Your Voice] work together to achieve women's rights in the orthodox religious scenario. Each is doing an important job. The main problem, however, is to build solidarity across lines and remove divisions of ideology, ethnicity, class and so on. Here, we have we failed. Again, because the economy works on the principle of 'divide and rule', it is almost impossible to build solidarity between women that come from two different social strata."
She adds, "Another reason for the Israeli feminist movement being less successful is that we often have blind spots for other women's NGOs. For example, Ashkenazi [Jews of Western States] peace activists, who usually come from high socio-economic strata, hardly put up a fight for poor women. I feel feminism is not about equality. It is about women's solidarity and about transforming a militaristic, machoistic social order to a new order built on women's traditions and values. I believe that younger feminists understand this now and are trying to change their strategies accordingly."