For the first time, Jewish women’s foundations–14 in the United States and three in Israel–are pooling resources to effect social change for women and girls in Israel. The Jewish Women’s Collaborative International Fund has awarded a two-year, $150,000 grant to Itach-Maaki, the lead organization of Bringing Women to the Fore: A Feminist Partnership. We talked with some of the leaders from these foundations to find out more about the discirmination of women in Israel, and what we can do to help.
What recent events was the Jewish Women’s Collaborative International Fund responding to with this project?
An 8-year old girl walking to school in Beit Shemesh was spit upon by a group of ultra-Orthodox men who also called her a prostitute for her “immodest” dress. Around the same time, a group of Orthodox IDF male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where women were singing. An Israeli woman who refused to move to the back of a public bus was accosted by a hostile crowd, women’s faces were blurred in billboard advertisements in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods, and a national conference on women’s fertility banned women experts and speakers. This sad confluence of events prompted the Jewish Women’s Collaborative International Fund to look at the exclusion of women from the public sphere in Israel.
Do the traditional laws of Judaism have anything to do with this discrimination against women?
Discrimination is rooted in patriarchy and in the fact that men still hold most positions of power in politics, the economy, and the media. The concept that the woman is the carrier of the family honor, or more bluntly, that her body is the carrier of the family honor, can be found in many traditional societies, and it continues to generate limitations on women’s participation in the public sphere. Sadly, the Jewish concepts of “the honor of a daughter’s king is indoors,” and “that a woman’s voice is fowl” still inform and impact beliefs and behaviors in some religious circles.
Is this collaboration mostly looking at discrimination that happens in the Orthodox community or secular communities as well?
The partnership will address all forms of discrimination against women, in all spheres of life, and in all communities. Not a week goes by without some form of exclusion of women from decision making, public media, etc. Just this week, an ad in the paper announced the establishment of “the Public Council for Education in Israel,” with only one woman out of nearly 20 members. The partnership will identify salient issues concerning the rights and status of women in Israel, such as employment rights, economic security, public participation, inclusion, and the like.
How do you feel the social and political climate for women in America compare to women in Israel?
While many of our issues are different–for example, reproductive rights are not really an issue (yet) in Israel, nor is gender-segregation an issue in the US–the issues of employment, childcare, quality in the workforce, and healthcare are similar. Our political systems are different but on the ground, Israeli women are taking the lead as agents of social change and we want to continue to encourage that and offer our support. The political climate in the US is polarized right now between right and left, and women have become one of the issues being used as a wedge. In Israel, the climate is polarized between religious and secular, yet again women are a wedge issue. So, in each country women are targets but for different reasons.
A lot of people believe that because both men and women are forced to serve in the army, there is actually less discrimination in Israel than in America. Is that true?
Not only is that not true, the army is actually a microcosm of Israeli society, where women, while required to do “service,” take a back seat to men, and where the haredim (ultra orthodox) are “allowed” to insist on their own rules, such as not listening to women sing in the army in ceremonies and not serving together with them. As in Israeli civil society, women have made gains; however, the differences and the discriminations must be pointed out and dealt with–both in the army and in civil discourse.
Are there ways that American women can get involved with this initiative on their home turf?
Most likely, there is a Jewish Women’s Foundation in your city with an open seat at the table–and if there isn’t already a JWF in your community, you can start one! Jewish Women’s Foundations have been growing in their impact and success because our model–which is similar to a giving circle–truly taps into the heart of what today’s modern women donors are looking for: a place to engage in a democratic and hands-on philanthropic experience, one which gives them an opportunity to learn, connect and effect change. For more information about Jewish Women’s Foundations or how to connect to one in your community, please contact Sara Gorfinkel from the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Washington DC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributors to this interview include: Rebecca Garrison and Joy Sisisky of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, Sara Gorfinkel of the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, Hamutal Gouri of the Dafna Fund, and Nancy Kaufman of the National Council of Jewish Women.