Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gender Discrimination in Israel on the Rise Due to Surge in Extremism

ُThe emergence of the extreme right has increased gender discrimination in Israel, particularly in politics, the workforce, and the army.

Gender Discrimination in Israel
Demonstrators dressed in red as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series march during a protest rally against the Israeli government’s judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. JACK GUEZ / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Extremist discourse is on the rise in Israel, and the national and religious right’s influence in public politics is expanding. This change culminated in December 2022, when it gave rise to the election of the most extreme administration in the nation’s history. With far-right parties in charge of 13 out of the country’s 32 ministries, this administration currently controls a substantial portion of the political landscape. These include critical and essential departments like defense, interior, and finance.

Israeli public policies, particularly those pertaining to the West Bank, have been significantly impacted by these changes. The acceleration of settlement operations in regions that Israel has been illegally occupying since 1967 has sparked concern on an international level. Additionally, the Palestinian Authority, a key partner in the Oslo Accords-based peace process, is grappling with strained relations as a result of the far-right’s increased influence in Israeli decision-making.

Beyond its effects on the Palestinians, the emergence of the extreme right has had negative repercussions for women’s rights and gender equality. There is growing evidence that the rise of conservative parties has widened the gender gap and increased discrimination against women, particularly in politics, the workforce, and even the army.

The protection of women from assault and discrimination has been particularly weakened by the conservative tilt in Israeli policies. The nation’s poor performance in the Social and Gender Institutions Index of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development offers proof of this. Israel was ranked last out of 38 economically developed nations when the organization’s assessment was made in May 2023. Based on four essential criteria—within the family, personal security and protection, access to financial resources, and civil liberties—the score gauges discrimination against women.

Rise of the right and the decline of women’s political participation

Religious movements affiliated with the Haredi movement in Israel uphold jurisprudential principles that frequently bar women from taking an active part in public life, including running for office or serving on their party’s electoral slate.

During the November 2022 elections, the “Shas” movement, representing the eastern Haredi religious current, and the “United Torah Judaism” party, representing the western Haredi movement, failed to include any women on their electoral lists. Similarly, the “Religious Zionism” party, part of the current right-wing coalition, only had three women elected out of the 14 seats it won in the Knesset.

The rise of far-right parties in representation within the Knesset and the government has coincided with a decline in women’s participation in key political decision-making roles. In the last election, the right-wing coalition, which secured a majority and formed the government, had only nine women out of the 67 seats won. This amounted to women holding approximately 13 per cent of the seats in the parliamentary majority, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As a result, the total number of women in the Knesset decreased to 29 out of 120 seats in the last elections, compared to 35 women in the previous elections. Within Netanyahu’s government, there were only six women out of 32, including two ministers without a portfolio, in comparison to nine women in the previous government.

Notably, the Haredi religious parties, Netanyahu’s partners, refused to include any women in the new government, further reducing apt representation. Women in the Israeli government were relegated to less influential posts or no portfolios at all as a consequence of Netanyahu’s concessions to the far-right parties.

Given the lower participation of women in political decision-making, the composition of the Netanyahu government has sparked concerns among Israeli civil society regarding the predicted marginalization of women’s rights issues in public policies. The large representation of religious ideological groups in government, which uphold patriarchal ideologies and may be hostile to LGBTQ+ rights, has alarmed feminist organizations and supporters of LGBTQ+ rights.

Implications for Israeli public policies

Under the impact of Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its ideological affiliations to specific parties, Israel’s public policies have taken a worrying turn. This change has made it so that the defense of women’s rights and interests is now overshadowed by extremism.

Notably, as part of a bilateral agreement with the coalition’s “Religious Zionist” party, the Netanyahu government swiftly reversed the progress made by the previous Israeli government, led by Yair Lapid, toward Israel’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention to Combat Violence Against Women.

Established by the European Union in 2011, the Istanbul Convention requires signatory nations to take action against violence against women, including issues like forced marriage, sexual assault, genital mutilation, and domestic abuse. The agreement’s elements that emphasize gender equality and actions to prevent domestic violence are particularly opposed by Israel’s religious far-right parties, who see them as an infringement on religious and family laws.

In response, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu put out a proposal that would give rabbinical courts more authority in personal status matters, which are generally heard in civil courts. Due to the discriminatory character of religious laws, this action drew complaints from women’s rights organizations who saw it as a violation of a 2019 Supreme Court ruling.

Further actions by the Netanyahu government included the elimination of gender-specific language in government job offers, replacing it with exclusively masculine pronouns. Additionally, a bill was introduced to restructure the Authority for the Advancement of Women, aiming to reduce its independence and subject it to more executive control from right-wing parties.

In addition, despite Israel’s requirement for both sexes to serve in the military and the fact Haredi Jews comprise only 10 per cent of the military, controversial measures like the formation of a specific directorate to enforce conservative and modest dress regulations for female troops have led to the exclusion of women from a number of military units.

As the Supreme Court’s authority has historically protected minority groups, including women, in a political system that gives the government and its Knesset majority extensive power, the Netanyahu government’s efforts to curtail the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction through the “judicial reform” project also alarmed many. Legislation restricting women’s rights could be passed if the Court’s power is diminished, in line with the political objectives of religious parties.

These events highlight the serious threats to women’s rights in Israel, which are made worse by the rising power of the religious and radical national right. The hazards to the Arab minority in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip are increased by the present situation. The persistent societal rift between religiously conservative and secular elements complicates issues and is intricately tied to the country’s stark political divide, as is clear from the “judicial reform” battle and the Supreme Court’s authority.

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