Mining Diamonds in the Land of Milk and Honey

February 11, 2015
By Anat Hoffman Israel is not rich in natural resources: no oil ($50/barrel) or diamonds ($10,000/karat); only milk ($3.80/gallon) and honey ($10/16-ounces). This means that human resources are our biggest asset. Israeli men and women are who stand between Israel and its enemies, and who can transform dessert into fertile land. Every Israeli is essential in the effort to meet our country's many challenges. How then can Israel allow itself to silence, segregate, ignore, and discriminate against more than half (51%) of its human resources – Israeli women? Discrimination against women in Israel gets its inspiration from two of Israel's main social forces: the religious establishment and the military hierarchy. These two dominant forces are characterized by their patriarchal nature. Forget the image of the female soldier with an Uzi. This image reflects a small fraction of women's army experience. Women make up only 3% of Israel’s combat soldiers. The majority serve in menial clerical positions. Today, there are no women among the 25 chiefs of staff, and the only women to be found in their offices are there to serve coffee to the generals. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has always had an over-representation of generals and rabbis — up to one quarter of the Knesset — and an under-representation of women. Achieving full equality for women in Israel could be a game changer for our society and the Middle East. Women are effective agents of social change and can be the harbingers of peace, religious diversity, and tolerance and equality for other minorities. To make this a reality, we must invest in our women. This propels the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and the Reform Movement in our tenacious struggle against gender segregation in Israel's public sphere, and in support of equal rights for women in marriage and divorce, increased rights for battered women and widows, and the promotion of bat mitzvah ceremonies and women’s ordination. First among our struggles were the “Mehadrin buses” — public bus lines run by the state bus company Egged that imposed gender segregation and “modesty” dress codes on women. Once on board, women were required to sit in the back of the bus. The consequences for not adhering to the segregation and modesty rules were verbal and physical attacks, or being denied entrance to board. IRAC filed a petition against Egged and the Ministry of Transportation on behalf of five women who endured these humiliating practices. After a long, protracted legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court finally declared, in January of 2011, that mandatory gender segregation on any public bus is illegal. Signs are now required on all formerly segregated buses stating that all passengers have the right to sit wherever they choose. We continue to monitor buses to ensure that the court decision is upheld. Next, we ensured the rights of women on the airwaves. In September 2014, we won our first class action lawsuit, the first dealing with gender exclusion in Israel. The Jerusalem District Court approved our claim against the ultra-Orthodox Kol BaRama public radio station for excluding women from the station's broadcasts. Kol BaRama has exercised discriminatory practices against women’s freedom of expression for years, by refusing to employ women, feature women as anchors, allow women to be interviewed or to call in to shows. The court ruled that our client, Kolech, can claim damages, as can all women who have been discriminated against by this illegal practice. The court made it clear that the station's policy was blatantly discriminatory and that regardless of the station's target audience, the exclusion of women cannot be justified. The court ordered the station to publish ads in two newspapers, one of them ultra-Orthodox, inviting women who have been discriminated against by Kol BaRama to lodge a complaint. Finally, we took on the fight against “modesty signs” in Beit Shemesh. Last week, for the first time, an Israeli court awarded damages to women for having to endure these so-called “modesty signs” on the streets. The court ruled that signs like these violate women's civil rights and fined the municipality of Beit Shemesh for refusing to take them down. The court hit the municipality in its pocket, ordering it to pay $15,000 plus court costs to the four brave Orthodox women we represented in this case. Our battles on buses, radio stations, and signs on the street have jolted public opinion in Israel. Israelis woke up to the phenomenon of gender segregation and demanded that it stop. The attorney general and a Ministers’ Commission published a comprehensive report in 2014 that states unequivocally that gender segregation is illegal in all its forms. Every ARZA member has been a partner in our work. We are all partners in the mending of the only sovereign Jewish state on the planet. Israel can make up for not having oil or diamonds by mining its own human resources. Luckily, we are finding many diamonds among us. Support equality by casting your vote for ARZA in the WZO elections. Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.

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