Second-class citizens in a nation at war
Betty Friedan seemed to be in shock.
On a visit to Israel, the American feminist stopped by for a chat with Yael Dayan, the novelist and daughter of Moshe Dayan. Surrounded by her children, Dayan talked apologetically of her commitment to the ideals of femininity and motherhood. Says she: "I presented a model of the slaving wife resigned to her fate."
It was hardly what Friedan expected.
Though Americans tend to think of Israeli women as strongly independent souls with a grenade in one hand and a wrench in the other, reality is more prosaic. After 30 years in a progressive democracy, one of whose founding precepts was sexual equality, the women of Israel are still clearly second-class citizens, severely restricted by law and custom. "The liberation of Israeli women is a myth," says Journalist Lesley Hazleton in her new book, Israeli Women. "They move in a male world of reality in the false guise of equals."
Hazleton, 32, was raised in England, and is both a British subject and an Israeli citizen. She has lived in Israel for twelve years, teaching psychology at the Jerusalem Experimental High School and at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, writing for the Jerusalem Post and serving as a stringer for TIME.
By Western standards, she reports, Israel's attitude toward women is regressive. Women are not allowed to testify in rabbinical courts, which handle divorce and marriage for all Jews. They cannot divorce without a husband's permission, and childless widows need a brother-in-law's approval for remarriage, sometimes gaining it with bribes. If a woman has been widowed three times, with all three husbands dying of natural causes, she is declared the isha katlanit, the fatal woman, and is legally forbidden to marry again. If a husband simply disappears, no matter how long he has been missing, his wife cannot remarry without absolute proof of his death.
Despite the fighting Amazon image in American movies like Exodus and Judith and in a stream of popular novels, women in the army are not allowed in combat—or anywhere near the fighting. Instead, they serve mostly in support jobs as typists, clerks, nurses and teachers. The reason, says Hazleton, is that Israel is committed to paternal protectiveness toward women: "The army exists to protect Israel's women, not to endanger them in its ranks."
In civilian employment, women are not much better off. Only a third of them work outside the home, mostly in lower-paying jobs. Women account for only 9% of the higher-grade civil service positions, 2% of full professors, 1% of the nation's engineers. Only 6% of working women are employers or self-employed. Though the law calls for equal pay for equal work, many women are paid less than men for similar tasks, and, with a few exceptions, women are legally barred from nighttime work on the theory that it is potentially injurious to their health.
Why such inequality? Hazleton believes that 30 years of anxiety about war has sapped all energies for reform. Says she: "It is too much to fight against in a country that has plenty of wars already." Feminism is judged a curious American import. Asks Tamar Eshel, head of the working women's organization Naamat, "Should we demand far-reaching changes at this time, at the price of splitting the nation, when we are involved in a national struggle for our existence?"
More important, says Hazleton, the shock of the Holocaust, followed by a generation of intermittent wars, has produced a hunger for the normality of traditional sex roles—man as protector and breadwinner, woman as mother and comforter of men. Marriage and childbearing are "national priorities" that produce social prejudices against the widow and the unmarried woman. "To be single," writes Hazleton, "is considered the greatest misfortune that can befall an Israeli woman." In primary schools, she says, youngsters absorb "a shocking degree of sex stereotyping" that takes its toll on Israeli females. One kibbutz psychologist finds that girls are consistently more moody, tense, tired and anxious than boys.
In the kibbutzim, men call the tune and fill almost all of the important jobs. Writes Hazleton: "Sexual polarization is by now so deep on the kibbutz that not even the extreme crisis of war can induce women to work in production." Instead, women are cozily content with minor roles and worry a great deal about their looks. "There is hardly a kibbutz that does not have a beauty parlor—an abomination and unforgivable bourgeois luxury in the old days," says Hazleton. "The fight of kibbutz women is against wrinkles, not against discrimination."
Because of the Arab threat, she says, the ideals of femininity and male dominance are still gaining in Israel: "It may well be that Israeli women will not... be ready to enjoy or demand full equality until there is some form of peace for Israel. But lest that peace be meaningless for them, they must start now."
Click to view image: 'Wife beating'
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