When I retuned to Israel in the summer of 1998 after spending 6 years in the United States, there was only one dark cloud in the sky of my homecoming. I was thrilled to be going back home, but I felt that in one area there would be a price to pay. And this price had nothing to do with security or any of the other challenges normally associated with life in Israel. It had to do with the status of women in society.
Living in the US throughout most of the 1990’s I experienced a distinct sense that this was an exciting time to be a woman. By 1998, on the cusp of a new century and a new millennium, there was a palpable feeling in the air among my friends and I that as young women we were on the verge of taking over the world. Women were everywhere – prominent in the media, in Academia, even in business and politics.
As beneficiaries of the life’s work of a long line of female activists, we no longer had to fight our way into America’s top colleges and there was no question in our mind that if we only chose, we would have the jobs that we wanted and be paid well for them. Realistic or not, these were our expectations. Looking into the new century, we were certain that the world was ours for the taking. If in the twentieth century women fought for equality, the 21st would to be the one in which women would make great strides in their quest for leadership.
But landing in Israel, it was as if I was thrown back 15 years. It was not an exciting time to be woman. It was still a time to fight the fights that were already won somewhere else: ongoing legal fights for equal pay and against unlawful dismissal, fights against domestic violence and for changing the legal framework on sexual harassment. These were critical battles, but the sense of endless possibility for women was not yet there.
There is sometimes an illusion that when it comes to women, Israel is a highly advanced society, because we had a female prime Minister in the 1970’s, our women serve in the military and we had a history of a highly egalitarian socialist Kibbutz movement. But while there are pockets of high advancements, it seems that on the whole, we are trailing 10-20 years behind countries such as the US, and maybe even more when it comes to the Scandinavian ones.
It is not clear why this is the case. The most obvious explanations are the roles of the military and religion in Israel society, but I would argue that it is more simply about being in the periphery (as much as we like to think of our selves as the center of the world). Just as it is often said that if you want to see the future of the US 20 years from now, go to California, so developments in the US take time to trickle down to places such as Israel. Changing norms regarding women in the workplace takes longer than simply copying a new fashion.
So when a year ago in the summer of 2006 accusations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment surfaced against (the now former) President Moshe Katzav it was as if this was our 1991 Clarence Thomas – Anita Hill moment when accusations of sexual harassment were brought forward against the appointed Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas by one of his former assistants. This was the time in which these matters came to broad public attention, especially in the context of men who are in high-profile public service positions.
The accusations against Katzav, the media frenzy, the official closing of the affair yesterday in a heavily criticized plea bargain that may end up leading to persistent public condemnation of Katzav, and the women’s courageous stand to tell their stories is evidence that this is now the moment in which Israeli society is going through the normative change that is necessary for opening up fully the working world for women. It is a critical step to creating an environment in which women could be secure that in the workplace they are valued for their minds and talents.
One of the reasons I find myself optimistic about Israel and the future of Israeli society, despite numerous setbacks, is that Israeli society, because of its openness, restlessness and vibrancy, demonstrates a great capacity for renewal and emergence from deep crisis. While we often finds ourselves on the brink, looking down at the abyss, whether most recently it is facing an economic meltdown in 2002 or the Katzav accusations, we are capable of turning the corner and make “Tikkun”, the Jewish Kabalah term for the process of deep healing, of making whole again that which seemed to be irreparably broken.
The Katzav affair had the effect of deepening a feeling of a deep crisis of leadership in Israel. The role of the president is a ceremonial one, and Katzav’s actions, reprehensible as they were, were not as fatal as the decisions taken by the country’s leaders in the 2006 summer’s Lebanon War. But it was precisely the symbolic status of the role of the President that plunged Israeli society, and many around the world who are sympathetic to it, even deeper into despair leaving many Israelis wondering if they are doomed to be ruled over by people who range from the corrupt to the criminal to the incompetent. It is said that every people get the leaders they deserve, but in the past year most Israelis felt that even they don’t deserve these leaders.
Seven years ago, in the summer of 2000 Shimon Peres lost the presidency to Moshe Katzav in what many regarded as a shameful political game by the members of Parliament who vote for the President. But this summer, we made “Tikkun”. It is as if we needed to experience the shame of the Katzav Presidency for our representatives to set things right. When the time came again to elect a President it was clear that there is a limit even to petty political calculations and that there is a great good to serve. When Peres was elected as Israel’s 9th president on June 13th, there was a sense of relief and renewal among the public and its elected. We proved to ourselves that our elected representatives were still capable of doing the right thing and responding to the will of the people. Having experienced the deep consequences of their earlier mistake they healed themselves.
So there are reasons to look positively for the future. Israel has proved itself again capable of renewal and Tikkun. And if I am right, and this year was our 1991, then several years from I should expect yet again to experience the feeling that it is an exciting time to be a woman – this time in Israel.