Day 16 - Understanding

Day 16   Conversation with Naomi Chazan on International Women's Day  Every democratic nation goes through struggles of ideology and develops laws intended to express core values.  Over the last several years, many within Israel argue that the core values, the “soul of Israel,” have been shifting to the right, especially influenced by ultra-orthodox religious groups.  Articles have appeared expressing alarm at the "remaking" of Israel such as one last November in the Huffington Post The massive demonstrations in the streets of the cities of Israel accused the current government of abandoning Israel's historic commitments to the social welfare of the nation.

 In January a major article appeared in The New York Times about the crisis over the role of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society and especially alarming challenges to the role of women.

 The article noted the role of the New Israel Fund in defending the rights of women.  On our visit to Israel, we were fortunate to meet with Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund.  A political scientist and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, Chazan has long been an advocate for equality and a robust democracy in Israel.  She spoke of a "period of deep democratic recession” and asserted that Israel “has the most right-wing government in Israel's history” and “has engaged in systematic support of attacks on progressive opinions . . . the alarming treatment of women is symptomatic of what is going on in Israel."   She believes that the status of women is an indicator of robustness of a democratic society, observing that  "women are attacked when there is fear and uncertainty.”

 In speaking to us, Chazan spoke with passion about a vision of a vital democracy in Israel but offered alarming examples of the rising discrimination against women in Israel despite laws to the contrary that she helped pass a number of years ago.   Because of the Ultra-Orthodox influence, there are now 59 gender-segregated buses in Jerusalem.  Advertising companies have removed the photos of women from billboards and even from political campaign signs so that women candidates have difficulty being seen.   (The New York Times article goes into great detail about a variety of incidents).  

 Chazan noted that, historically, women in Israel are to be envied:  60 % of university grads are women; 58% of the M.A.’s are women, as are 54% of Ph.D.’s.  However, this training is not reflected in professions.  For example, only 15% of full professors are women. Of the poor in Israel, 70% are women.  She argued that "Israel is in a paranoid period in its history . . . fear is a poor guide to policy".