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Meet the Women Changing the Face of Israel

by March 10, 2014
filed under Activism

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There is an internal battle raging in Israel between the secular Jewish public and the religious ultra-Orthodox. The tension has been brewing below the surface for decades, but in the past few years it has boiled over. In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East, Israelis launched their own protest for social justice. The protests became a call for an equal share of the burden, specifically between the secular and the religious. With only 40% of the ultra-Orthodox men employed and less than 10% of the ultra-Orthodox population drafted into the IDF (compared to national average of 70% for all Israeli citizens), many secular Israelis feel that they carry more responsibility for the country’s economy and security.

All at once ultra-Orthodox leaders called for unprecedented exclusion of women from the public sphere – forcing women to sit in the back of public buses, demanding women walk on opposite sidewalks from ultra-Orthodox men, calls to ban female soldiers from singing or even participating in IDF ceremonies, forbidding images of women in public ads and segregating men and women in healthcare facilities.

With increasing tensions, the struggle for the country’s future is not being led by politicians or mobs of angry men. Instead women are leading the movement for change, from grassroots organizations to the government. These three women, with different backgrounds and each in varying stages of their career, are at the forefront of this battle.

Anat Hoffman: Women’s Rights in the Public Sphere

Unlike in the United States, Israel never had a women’s rights movement. Created right after the Holocaust, Israel had such a small population that it needed both women and men in its workforce and defense force. As proof of its progressiveness, when Golda Meir became the Israeli Prime Minister in 1969, she was the third woman in the world to hold such an office. However, the year before her election, the ultra-Orthodox decided to separate men and women at the Western Wall. This move was one of the first stone in the wall of precedent for religion being used as a reason to exclude women from the public sphere. In the past few years, new exclusions became increasingly unbearable and reached a breaking point when ultra-Orthodox men spat on a seven-year-old girl for dressing immodestly in a city outside of Jerusalem. With the rights of women first limited at the Western Wall, it makes sense that this is a central battle ground for women to recapture equality.

Anat Hoffman has dedicated her life to social change and justice since she was in her thirties. Her most recent effort has been to gain female equality at the Western Wall as President and founding member of a group called Women of the Wall (WOW) – an organization created to achieve the social and legal recognition of women’s right to pray, wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.

Founded more than a quarter of a century ago, WOW only recently began achieving social change. The years of waiting for the organization’s moment were difficult on Anat, but she kept telling herself, “it is just waiting for its moment. We are waiting for some other thing to happen.”

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