Speaking Up Against Femicide in Israel

Dec. 4, 2018

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

Today, Dec. 4, women in Israel are taking to the streets to protest the unprecedented violence against women this year. The Women's Strike, a bottom-up and spontaneous initiative, has roots in similar protests over the years all over the U.S., Europe and Latin America. These are over issues regarding sexual abuse and harassment such as the #MeToo movement that is sweeping the world and issues of gender wage disparities, access to abortion or the general policy towards women.

The tipping point for this action stems from the murders of two young women. On Nov. 26, the remains of 16-year-old Yara Ayoub were found in a trash bin in the Palestinian village of Jish in the North of Israel. Several hours later, in the South of Tel Aviv, a 13-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, Silvana Tsegai, was found murdered at her home with signs of violence on her body.

The two girls did not know each other and had little in common, but the few characteristics they shared are very much related to their almost simultaneous death. They were both suspected to have been murdered by men they knew. They both belonged to disempowered minority groups — Ayoub as a Palestinian National and Tsegai as an Eritrean asylum seeker. Despite the fact that Ayoub was a citizen of Israel and a part of an indigenous minority group, and that Tsegai was an undocumented black asylum seeker, both existed in a liminal sphere, in the margins of the Israeli society, where they were subjected to double subordination — as women and as members of a disempowered minority. >

As members of disempowered minority groups they were less likely to receive any assistance from the authorities. Perhaps the most striking evidence to this is the fact that Tsegai had repeatedly complained about being subjected to violence by her alleged murderer, her mother's former partner, but had not received protection, according to an account in Haaretz. Since Tsegai was an asylum seeker and not a citizen or resident, she was not eligible for access to social services, which are not extended to undocumented persons in Israel.

In addition, Ayoub and Tsegai belonged to distressed groups. Asylum seekers ar often traumatized from the occurrences they endured in their country of origin and their experiences en route to their country of asylum. In Israel, they find themselves lacking any formal status or any stable protection, living in abject poverty, with no job security and with a feeling of constant threat. Much like them, Palestinians in Israel are marginalized and discriminated against (in structural forms of discrimination as well as spontaneous forms), and often also live in poverty with limited access to education or the job market.

Femicide and Violence Against Women on the Rise as Restrictions to Gun Access Are Relaxed

Ayoub and Tsegai are far from the only victims of femicide in Israel in 2018. The past year marked a dramatic increase in femicide, from the already-too-high number of 17 in 2017 to a shocking number of 24 in 2018, with a month until the year ends, according to a report published by WIZO, (Women International Zionist Organization), on Nov. 25, just one day before the bodies of Yara and Silvana were found. The same report highlights the following findings:

  • In the past decade, 192 women have been murdered in Israel.
  • About half of the women murdered in the past two years had filed complaints with the police.
  • More than 13,000 women have been treated for abuse in battered women’s centers across Israel.<
  • In total, 200,000 battered women live in Israel along with a half a million children who witnessed their abuse.
  • The police open an average of 50 domestic violence cases each day.

This data indicates a troubling situation, especially if we consider the general problem of under-reporting, often the case regarding violence against women.

Several women's rights groups voiced concern that a plan recently pushed forward by Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan to relax the country's restrictions on gun licenses will exacerbate the problem. This policy is especially concerning in light of the fact that since 2002, the off-duty arms of private security firms have taken at least 33 innocent lives in Israel as documented by Isha.org. A coalition of women's rights organization filed a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice, challenging the legality of this policy.

Not only has the current government pushed forth a policy that might put women’'s lives in danger, but also refrained from implementing the protective policy from an interministerial committee whose recommendations were approved in 2017 by the cabinet. Though the recommendations were endorsed, they were not funded or implemented. A recent initiative led by the opposition parties to establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry on the issue of violence against women was not supported by the Coalition.

After massive public condemnation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to initiate yet another ministerial committe to look into the matter, ironically led by Erdan. The issue of femicide has turned divisive, voted on along party lines. The government does not seem sufficiently committed to do anything substantive to prevent the victimization of additional women.

Femicide and the Double Standard on Women's Rights and Agency

This recent increase in femicide should also be considered in the context of dramatic changes in the prevalence of women's rights in Israel. While Israel is committed to gender equality in it Proclamation of Independence, and in a long series of laws, gender equality has not been reached. There are several structural barriers to obtaining gender equality in Israel. Two examples include the jurisdiction of religious courts over issues of marriage and divorce and that equality is not an explicit constitutional principle. The Israeli legal system has two basic laws covering human rights issues: Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) and Freedom of Occupation (1992, amended in 1994 make up the human rights charter in Israeli constitutional law. Both do not include an explicit reference to the idea of equality in general, or gender equality in particular.

These structural barriers to gender equality translate to the daily experiences of Israeli women. Just last week, the Israeli High Court of Justice upheld a Rabbinical Court decision denying property rights of a woman over the joint apartment where she had lived for decades because she committed adultery. A few days later, the Israeli Council on Higher Education approved a plan to hold separate campuses for men and women, allegedly to meet the demands of Ultra-orthodox men, who would not agree to study alongside women, or from women professors.

The overall trend, referenced in a Haaretz editorial, is even more concerning as segregation and marginalization of women becomes more widespread in academia and public schools, public office, public space, and in family life. It conveys a message which is received loud and clear by the perpetrators of femicide: a message about the inferiority of women to men, the lack of actual commitment to women’s rights and liberties, and the vulnerability of women in absence of meaningful protections from the state.

The Response of the Civil Society

Today many employers, including municipalities, major corporations and civil society organization announced their support of the strike. While this support of corporations is impressive, it should also be understood as an attempt of various employers to gain legitimacy by supporting this cause and co-opting the struggle. 

While it remains to be seen what impact the strike will actually have on the fight against femicide or the broader battle for women's rights in Israel, it represents an impressive effort to fight back to preserve and regain women's rights. Today, take a moment to think about Yara Ayoub and Silvana Tsegai and the other victims of femicide who received no state support for their attempt to navigate the harsh reality of their violent lives.

Tally Kritzman-AmirDr. Tally Kritzman-Amir, z”l, was an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She was a 2018 GCRL Scholar-in-Residence at the HBI.