Feminist MK talks hasbarah with Halifax Jews

HALIFAX — In eight hours in Halifax, MK Einat Wilf made quite an impression.

A dynamic speaker, oozing with confidence and intelligence and freely offering well-considered opinions, Wilf met with close to 50 Jewish community members and separately with local politicians and the media, each time stressing the importance of women in political life and decision-making, and touching on foreign policy and education.

Wilf’s first stop on a whirlwind Canadian trip was Halifax, followed by engagements in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa. She arrived April 2 and returned to Israel April 5 in time for Pesach with her family. She was invited by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and was hosted in Halifax by the Atlantic Jewish Council.

Elected to the Knesset 18 months ago, Wilf noted that there are 24 women in Israel’s parliament – representing 20 per cent of the Knesset’s 120 members – which exceeds the proportions in similar bodies in the United States, Britain, and France, and is close to Canada’s 25 per cent ratio.

“It’s no longer unique in Israel to have women in stronger positions, although the business sector still lags behind in female leadership… but it’s improving,” she said.

Wilf said she’s a feminist, but added she didn’t realize she had those leanings until attending university and then working in the United States after her mostly Israeli upbringing.

“My home was egalitarian [both her parents were teachers], and I was allowed to let my ambitions take me as far as I wanted. I served four years in the army, in intelligence, where brains were more important than brawn and had more equality [as a woman] than in many other units.”

But when she studied at Harvard University and then worked in New York, “I sensed the cusp of women moving forward very quickly. When I came back to Israel in 1998, I didn’t feel the same. I considered us more 20th century rather than moving into the 21st century.”

Now, 14 years later, she said Israel has caught up and is doing well. “It’s a good time to be a woman in Israel,” she said. “I think we’re in the 21st century in seeing women’s role in leadership grow, but still in the 20th as far as equal pay, ability to balance home and career, and sexual harassment. Yet strides are being made.

“Of course, we’re still in the 10th century when you look at the way women are treated in the Arab minority and the ultra-Orthodox minority, both of whom see themselves threatened by the majority culture. That’s certainly a challenge for feminists.”

Women’s issues, education and foreign policy have been main interests for Wilf, who said that as a teenager, she dreamed of being Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“I haven’t given up that dream yet,” she smiled. “But to do what I wanted to do, I had to get into politics.”

She joined the Labour party and moved up the party list, and by February 2009, she was 14th. Labour won 13 seats in elections that year, so “I was the lady-in-waiting. I watched the swearing in from home but, when a member resigned soon afterward, I was moved into a seat.”

Now, as a member of the recently formed Independent Party headed by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Wilf is one of five party members in the Knesset, of whom two are female. She fights for women’s rights and better educational opportunities. In May, she will become chair of the Knesset’s education committee.

“I think I’ve had some influence in education, which is now the second largest budget item, after defence. Yet I think we have a long way to go in building a good education system.”

Her efforts in foreign policy focus on building present and future alliances, as she did on her Canadian trip, and helping build a positive image of Israel in the world.

“I’m not the official spokesperson for the government, but in Israel, I’m among the top three who are not men who engage in foreign affairs for the government,” she said. “I’m able to articulate the classical Zionist position, which, sadly, needs that articulation. I believe in partition. Jews and Arabs both have claims to the land, but while Jews have acknowledged it, the Arabs have never been willing to accept that Jews have claims [as well]. The fundamentals are attacked, distorted and lied about.

“This is a war fought with words,” she continued. “In op-ed pieces, and by academics and in supermarkets, not with guns and tanks. We need to fight this war and win it – and I think we can. We can’t just be nice and think the truth will come out. We have to fight back and meet the lies head-on.”