The Israeli Political Crisis of the Spring of 2023: A Gendered Perspective
Recently, I spoke at the protest against Israel's government in NY's Washington Square Park. The response was overwhelming, but I know that criticizing Israel publicly can be difficult for its friends in America. To that, I said, "If you think you will support Israel by not speaking up against its regime, there will be no Israel left to support. Israel as you know it is on the edge of extinction."
My speech (YouTube) in NY came just after I visited the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to offer my thoughts on the gendered aspects of the new Israeli regime as part of the Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights. My talk at Brandeis came after many weeks of protesting in Israel, leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone his planned judicial overhaul. But the fight is far from over.
The Attacks on Israel's Judicial System — Why and How
The November 2022 elections formed the most extreme nationalist, religious, and misogynistic coalition in Israel's history. All four coalition parties share a common interest in weakening the judicial system. The two ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties aspire to prevent the Supreme Court from forcing their men to be drafted into the military. Because Israel's political system is dependent on the ultra-Orthodox, no government was able to legislate around military waivers. Hence, this ungrateful mission falls on the shoulders of the High Court of Justice, which has declared in the past that this waiver from service is unconstitutional due to its violation of core principles of equality. That is why stripping the Court of its authority to strike down unconstitutional laws would protect Haredi men from the draft.
The Religious Zionists need the judicial overhaul to apply their messianic plans. These include annexation of the occupied territories without giving civil rights to Palestinians, an extreme neoliberal economy, and an expansion of Jewish halacha (with their fundamentalist interpretation of it) as the law of the land.
Netanyahu, seeking to avoid his criminal indictment, aspires to vengefully take over judicial nominations in order to control the judges that will review his criminal appeal. He therefore agreed to the extreme demands of his political allies, and is willing to turn Israel into an internationally isolated, corrupt, bankrupt, backward theocracy, with a judicial system of puppet judges, taking over the media and academia, transferring a large share of the budget to ultra-Orthodox and settlers, returning women to their homes, persecuting LGBTQ+s, and halting policies to prevent domestic violence.
The incoming government's hostility to women is evident in the shameful share of women in it. There are no women heading parties, six female ministers out of 32, and not a single woman chief executive of a governmental ministry.
Massive Protests, Threats to Women and LGBTQ+ Communities
The government's plans were met with unexpected public protests on a scale that Israel has never seen before. The portion of Israeli society that have been demonstrating every Saturday for more than 20 weeks to date is equivalent to 10 million Americans taking to the streets, as I learned from a recent report by MSNBC. For the first time in Israel's history, protestors are talking about basic democratic ideas such as separation of power and fundamental constitutional rights.
Israel has always been an imperfect democracy. Its two major impairments are the lingering occupation, controlling over 2.8 million Palestinians who are denied basic rights. The second challenge concerns the power given to Jewish law. The monopoly of religious tribunals over marriage and divorce leaves Israeli women subject to all-male judicial boards, who decide according to an ancient patriarchal religious system of laws that women had no part in designing.
In this climate, the gains of women and LGBTQ+ communities have been fragile, but the current regime threatens to undo those fragile equality achievements of Israeli women and the queer community.
Examples of some pending legislation by the new government include allowing business owners to refuse business that contradicts their religious faith, broadening the authority of rabbinical courts to adjudicate in civil matters, legalizing gender segregation in the public sphere, and promoting anti-women in criminal law and welfare policies.
Like generations of Israelis, I was raised on an ethos of Israel as a country where women can be strong and equal, surrounded by heroic stories of female warriors and pioneers. Indeed, in recent decades we realized that much of Israel's egalitarian ethos was a myth and that women were pushed into traditional gender roles even, for example, in the Kibbutzim, but still — the ethos is strong and it ignited our imaginations and shaped our aspirations as Israeli women.
Recent studies have shown that populist regimes worldwide rise to power by promising to return to traditional "family values," promoting misogynistic and homophobic laws, legitimizing such views in public discourse, and even banning studying and teaching about gender and sexuality. They even drafted a law that would criminalize women who are not modest enough at the Western Wall with a maximum penalty of six months in jail.
The Centrality of Gender to Populist Regimes
The new government recently canceled Israel's plans to join the Istanbul convention, a document that obligates signatory countries to track, report and prevent domestic violence.
The arguments used against joining the Istanbul convention concerned the provisions that require state parties to provide asylum to refugees suffering from domestic violence in their home countries.
The arguments used by opponents of the convention bring me to another use of gender by illiberal populists. Global experience indicates that some populist parties adopt an anti-Muslim ideology, by promoting the view that Muslim culture is primitive in its treatment of women, while European societies are superior in that regard, hence must protect themselves from illiberal cultural influence. Like populists in Europe, Israeli populists utilized xenophobia and Islamophobia to halt any advancement in the guarantees of women’s life and autonomy.
Parallel to the developments in the U.S., liberal values such as equality or the very term "gender," have recently become provocative words of "woke" progressives who should apologize for their unpatriotic liberal values, and give up their power to the "responsible conservatives."
Another common characteristic of populist illiberal regimes is their methods. One major method is the constant utilization of lies. Flooding the public discourse with demagogic lies that are unfathomable, but doing it non-stop and with a straight face, makes it no longer possible or meaningful to distinguish between truth and lies. It exhausts the other side that is now preoccupied by explaining why half-truths are essentially lies.
This attack on the truth is gaslighting. In populist regimes, women are told that being ashamed of their bodies is in fact a testimony of their honor. They are made to believe that men are the victims and women are the predators. The new Israeli government is trying to convince women that what they know is unfounded, that what they feel is misguided, and that what they want is by definition too much.
This government elevates freedom, but it will respect women's freedom only as long as women “choose” correctly: To minimize themselves, to sit at the back of the bus, not to make a fuss, to be nice.
Again and again, Israeli women's equality, liberty and dignity are sacrificed at the altar of national unity. Except it is a national unity between men, always at the expense of women who are told to wait a bit more, to sacrifice, or even that the sacrifice expected of them is not that high. Women are told that we are in a post-feminist era where their rights are secure, and they should be a bit more considerate towards other minority groups.
To conclude, changing women's place in society is both the means and the final purpose of the theocratic dictatorship planned in Israel. The keys for preventing these attacks on gender equality are in the hands of liberals who must stand guard and refuse to compromise on women’s freedoms and equality.&
To invoke a slogan that we use in the campaign against sex segregation, "Equality is the Shabbat of democracy." Just as violating the Shabbat rules is a last resort in case of life-threatening emergency, so too is violating the right to equality, especially gender equality.
Yofi Tirosh is the vice dean of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.