Reflections on Gender, Democracy, and Religion in Israel

Israel, to date, has been unable to resolve the ongoing question of how it defines itself.  This fundamental dilemma is embodied in its self-appellation as a “Jewish and democratic state”. On the one hand, Israel has subscribed to an identity-based delineation of the nature of the state, one which rests on an ethno-religious foundation. On the other hand, it views itself in substantive terms as a democracy committed to safeguarding the rule of law and the civil rights of all its citizens. Much of the tug-of-war over the definition of the state revolves around struggles over the position and status of women.

What, then, is the connection between gender, democracy and religion in Israel?  This brief presentation examines how the ethno-religious definition of the state has compromised key aspects of democracy in the country and in the process effectively transformed Israel into a gendered society. Recent struggles over the place and role of women in the public sphere mirror continuous attempts to entrench principles of equality, justice and tolerance for diversity so critical for democratic societies. It thus highlights the vital role that a close study of gender relations plays in the determination of the democratic character of the Israeli polity—as of its counterparts elsewhere. 

Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948 specifically refers to Israel as “The Jewish State”, while simultaneously guaranteeing “the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex”. The assertion of the Jewish identity of the state—never specifically defined—took on symbolic meaning with the adoption of a flag, state symbols and a national anthem with avowedly Jewish contents. It assumed legal standing through the delegation of personal status to religious authorities (for the majority of the country’s citizens, to the monopolistic control of the orthodox Chief Rabbinate). Since, from the outset, matters of marriage and divorce in the Jewish tradition discriminate against women, aspects of gender inequality have been embedded into the structure of the state. This pattern has been reinforced by the ongoing conflict, which by its very nature favors male dominance in the public sphere, as well as by cultural tendencies (familiar in other countries as well) which downplay women’s rights. 

Under these circumstances, the transition from gender inequality to a gendered society has been unsurprisingly swift. In broad strokes, the gendered nature of Israeli society is manifest, first, in the division between the (primarily male) public sphere and (the predominantly female yet still male-dominated) private sphere. The structure of the labor market, even though women constitute a majority of those with higher education, also retains this gendered aura. Despite substantial advances on virtually every conceivable measure, women still earn only 70% of their male counterparts in the same positions; their average hourly wage is 15% less than men.  Despite substantial progress in closing the gaps in key professions—most notably medicine and law—almost 50% of the professions are still heavily gendered. 

The situation in the realm of power is no brighter.  Women are severely underrepresented in all key decision-making positions. Only 17% of senior management in the private sector is female.  Although there is evidence that there is a gender gap in voting preferences, these have not been translated into power terms: barely 25% of members of the Knesset are women. Most significantly, as the Gender Index: Gender Inequality in Israel 2014 (Jerusalem: The Van Leer Institute, 2014) so tellingly underlines, systematic gains in the status of women in Israel have not been translated into any significant narrowing of gender gaps in the country. 

The symbolic, cultural, legal, material and political facets of the gendered nature of Israeli society rest on solid religious and ethnic foundations. As ethnocentric definitions of the state have gained ascendancy in the political and public domains, gender inequality has become more entrenched. It is hardly surprising that in this context many of the struggles between these hegemonic groups and those elements in the Israeli population who adhere to the substantive definition of the state as a liberal democracy center on women. 

During the past few years, there has been a palpable rise in the number and scope of contestations over the status of women in the public sphere. These have focused on efforts by ultra-religious elements to coerce gender segregation on public buses and on allied efforts to prohibit the display of portrayals of women in public places. Women’s voices have been prohibited in official ceremonies. The ongoing campaign of Women of the Wall to achieve gender equality for those worshipping at the Western Wall has been repeatedly stymied. The role of women in the military has been queried by religious groups within the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). And the segregation of girls and boys in religious schools and educational institutions continues apace.

These are but a few of many examples in which contestations between altering definitions of the state have been played out on the backs of women (similar patterns are also discernible in the sphere of Arab-Jewish relations in the country). As long as Israel remains in a situation of continuous tension between its identity and its substance, it is reasonable to assume that this friction will continue and even grow.

At this juncture, Israel is in the midst of a fundamental internal confrontation between its nationalist-religious and its democratic-secular poles. The place of women is the best indicator of the balance of forces at this time. The prevailing and persistent gender inequality points to the rising domination of identity-based politics at the expense of democratic norms and practices. From this perspective, too, a concerted effort to ensure greater gender equality is a key to the democratization of Israeli society.