All of the issues that we have mentioned here may contribute to answering the question that was raised earlier:
Why is it that, despite seemingly enlightened legislation, the gap is still so great between what was promised in the Declaration of Independence – freedom and equality for all regardless of gender, and the reality that we see around us today?
It is clear that a great deal more remains to be done.
Let us conclude by asking whether there are any optimistic signs that can be pointed to today in this regard. We have painted a picture of women’s situation is Israel that is not overly encouraging. Nevertheless, there are indeed a number of aspects of the general picture that are encouraging. Let us briefly mention four important developments.
1. We have already mentioned the fact that the number of women elected to the present Knesset is eighteen. This replaced the thirteen women in the previous Knesset, which was far greater than the number elected to any earlier Knesset. The current eighteen represent seven different parties, and significantly, include for the first time in recent years a representative of a specifically religious party, the Mafdal (National Religious Party) which faced a vociferous demand from its women members to place a woman on the party list.
The women of the present Knesset are divided by many different aspects of personality and ideology. However, many of them have stated that they intend to try and work to improve the situation of women and there are plenty of precedents for women of very different parties working together on a common agenda.
2. We have pointed out the importance of the army as a premier national institution in the country. Within this context we have emphasised the problem of the limited number of jobs (often secondary and secretarial) that women have traditionally performed in the army. This has done much to influence the image of women in the eyes of the country as a whole and the self-image of women.
In the last few years, partly due to recourse to the Israeli judicial system, many more professions in the army have begun to open up to Israeli women. Women can now be air force pilots and ship’s captains, and there are women who have completed both courses, something unthinkable just a few years ago. There are women integrated into combat forces in a training capacity, training recruits for armed combat.
Only about three years ago, no more sixty percent of army professions were open to women. Today the number is closer to eighty per cent. A decade ago, some forty per cent of all women soldiers were in clerking positions. Today the number is around twenty per cent. In Summer 2003, the first group of women combat soldiers whose length of service will be three full years, like that of male soldiers, was admitted into the army. The plan is for these women to continue with full reserve duty when they leave the permanent army.
These are major changes. The issue of women actually being involved in military combat has not yet been resolved. This is due to the reservations and questions that were mentioned above, but there is no doubt that the boundaries of “productive labour” for women in the army are being extended all the time.
3. There are a number of women’s organisations that are doing excellent work in the field of lobbying and raising consciousness regarding the need for changes in the attitudes towards and legislation regarding women. The Israel Women’s Network, set up by Alice Shalvi in 1984, is the primary advocacy organisation in this respect and it has achieved some important results. Its voice is listened to in the corridors of power and its research gets high profile publicity.
We have mentioned the Knesset Committee for the Status of Women, set up in 1992 and in addition the government created in 1998 an Authority for the Advancement of Women. Israeli Universities have developed departments of gender studies and continue to sponsor valuable research in subjects that have been neglected up till now. There is a real chance that the cumulative effect of all of these institutions will change the situation of Israeli women in the future.
4. Within the Orthodox religious world, there is an extremely important development going on. In the last two decades or so, increasing numbers of institutions within the Modern Orthodox world have started to offer a deep text-based Jewish education for women.
Options open to high-school students have greatly increased in this regard, and there are now a significant number of Yeshivot and Batei Midrash open exclusively to women. Universities routinely offer higher education in Jewish studies to women and many women avail themselves of the opportunity to study for a doctorate in Talmud, for example, whereas, a generation ago, such a thing was almost unheard of. This has had a number of significant results despite the fact that the “movement” is still largely in its infancy.
Firstly, there is the beginning of a large group of Orthodox (and non-Orthodox, needless to say) women, knowledgeable in Torah in a way that was inconceivable at any other time in Jewish history. Women who have been educated in this way will certainly insist on making their presence felt within the Jewish world, and among other things will attempt to enfranchise their fellow women Jews and to claim a new status within the Jewish world. We already see the first important results.
There is a large number of talented Orthodox women, knowledgeable in Judaism and educated in Jewish sources, who are making their way out into the Orthodox world as representatives of women before Rabbinical Courts and as advisors to women on Halachic issues in the area of family purity.
This has the potential of causing major change to develop within the institutions of Israeli Orthodoxy and forcing the rabbinic leaders to begin to deal seriously with issues that they have been free to ignore or to merely pay lip-service over the years. Already the subject of Agunot is being examined much more seriously by watchdog organisations that suggest Halachic solutions to the problem of women and divorce. Just recently, family violence and sexual abuse within the Orthodox world have started to be placed on the agenda by Orthodox women.
It is clear that the era of passivity in public affairs on the part of Orthodox women has passed never to return. There is another interesting development that is worth mentioning within the Modern Orthodox world. Still at the a-typical radical fringes of that world, but arousing increasing interest, there are a few strongly “egalitarian” Orthodox synagogues in Israel, primarily in Jerusalem, which are exploring the limits of expanded women’s roles inside the ritual service, within the limits of the Halachah. These developments within the Modern Orthodox world are certainly an important and interesting development that promises much for the future.
When we assess the situation of Israeli women today, there remains a great deal to be achieved in order to even approach the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence. A society that prides itself on its democratic character and purports to model itself, in social terms, on the examples of the Western democracies, clearly has a lot of self-examination to do in everything connected with the situation of women.
There are those who would say that the situation is gloomy and getting worse.
There are others who will point to the various factors with which we have closed and say that there is indeed room for hope.
It might be, that both positions are tenable in the present reality. It might be that Israeli society rests on a kind of a knife edge in relation to women’s position. The knife can fall both ways. For those who believe in the words of the Declaration of Independence and would like to see the country drawing ever closer to the vision of those words, let us hope that the knife falls in the right direction and that a better world for the women of Israel is indeed on the way.