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‘It’s already happening’: Ex-gender equality minister says women’s rights under attack

One of the ways in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has distinguished itself from its big-tent predecessor has been in the arena of gender.

From limited female representation within its ranks to religious agendas that impinge on gender equality, Netanyahu’s government has attracted criticism from civil society organizations concerned about gender parity and women’s status.

“Deep concern over the infringement of women’s rights within civil society became tangible when reading the coalition agreements that form the basis of the government,” said Anat Thon Ashkenazy, a gender equality scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute. She added that these concerns were exacerbated by the coalition’s plan to sap the judiciary of its power, since the judiciary has been a key element in civil rights protection.

“All of [the coalition’s current actions] illustrate that not only were the concerns grounded in reality but that they have now become entirely real,” she told The Times of Israel.

Meirav Cohen, who served as social equality minister in 2021 and 2022 before returning to the opposition benches with her Yesh Atid party in December, also said that the concerns are justified.

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“It’s not just a gut feeling; it’s something that’s already happening,” Cohen told The Times of Israel in a Tuesday interview.

A group photo of the 37th Government of Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, December 29, 2022 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office)

Far-right coalition parties Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam incorporate messianic elements into their Judaism, and to varying degrees converge with ultra-Orthodox coalition partners United Torah Judaism and Shas in supporting more rabbinic influence in the legal system and pursuing policy to increase the influence of Judaism’s sacred Torah and its study.

UTJ and Shas do not allow female politicians in their ranks.

Forging a government with these far-right and religious partners of his secular Likud party, Netanyahu ushered in a cabinet with only six female ministers, three of whom were added after the government’s December swearing-in. The previous government had nine.

All this has been reflected in policy, Cohen, a vocal critic of the government, said.

Curbing the independence of Israel’s gender regulator

One of the most symbolic changes the government is in the process of making is to the structure and professional independence of the public regulator on gender issues, the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

The authority is the only governmental institution responsible for women’s rights, according to Thon Ashkenazy.

This unique office fell under Cohen’s purview in the Social Equality Ministry, but the coalition is advancing legislation to transfer the office to the newly created Advancement of Women’s Status Ministry. The new ministry, headed by Likud’s May Golan, is largely considered to be born out of the need to hand Golan a ministerial portfolio rather than a focused policy push to promote women’s needs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with May Golan, minister for the Advancement of the Status of Women, in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In June, Golan fired the authority’s director general to make room for a political appointment. In converting the position from a four-year professional appointment to a political one, the coalition will “make all of her actions political, rather than her being loyal to women’s interests,” Cohen said.

Similarly, the authority’s national council will also be politically appointed, rather than composed of professional appointees.

Cohen said that the coalition’s bill to retool the authority also “emptied it of content” by loosening enforcement requirements and skimping on educational initiatives.

Golan has responded to criticism by saying that she plans to bring funds to women’s issues through her ministry’s budget, but Cohen said she is skeptical that the money will “actually be used for promoting women.”

Monitoring domestic abusers

On Sunday, the Advancement of Women’s Status Ministry celebrated the first time it participated in funding a law, said Golan. The law establishes a much-fought-over policy to introduce electronic monitoring of domestic abusers as part of an attempt to curb endemic and rising femicide.

The version that was passed was sponsored by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who in March defeated similar bills sponsored by the former coalition, out of what he said was a desire to “balance the vital need to fight domestic violence and prevent violence with our duty to protect against complaints and false accusations and to preserve the freedom of the innocent.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks in the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The law that passed enables courts to order electronic monitoring bracelets to verify that alleged and convicted abusers respect restraining orders, and to warn women if they are violated. However, it sets a higher bar for obtaining the court order than the previous bills, and transfers monitoring to the Israel Prison Service instead of an independent company, among other changes.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect law, but it’s a first step and I voted for it,” Cohen said. “At the end of the day, it’s better than nothing.”

Other coalition initiatives

Cohen said that thanks to a long list of changes Netanyahu’s government has made, is in the process of making, or has signaled its intention to make, women’s rights are “already not the same, and it’s only the beginning of the process.”

By The Times of Israel’s count, there are about 20 proposed policy changes that would adversely affect women’s standing. Among the most prominent in public conversation are: a pullback on signing the Istanbul Convention, a international accord to combat violence against women; a coalition promise to enable gender-based discrimination in public spaces and in publicly funded events; and another coalition promise to exempt religiously motivated discrimination from the current Anti-Discrimination Law.

Labor MK Efrat Rayten attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor MK Efrat Rayten, who formerly chaired the Knesset’s Welfare Committee, also called out a recent coalition bill on child support payments, expressing concern that the measure would “take us backward a decade” in women’s rights.

Rayten told The Times of Israel that halacha, Jewish law relied upon by rabbinic courts, “always places the standing of a women below that of a man. Giving more rights to a rabbinical court reduces the rights of women.”

Anat Thon Ashkenazy, Director of the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions at the Israel Democracy Institute

Other measures advanced by the coalition include funding gender-segregated higher-education lectures, allocating funding for fighting violence against women at NIS 20 million below its recommended levels in 2023, and easing the pathway for personal firearm ownership, which is promoted as an anti-terror measure but may increase weapons in the hands of domestic abusers.

“We know that this is liable to hurt women,” Rayten said of the handgun plan.

Gender scholar Thon Ashkenazy said that women’s rights are “currently not adequately protected” in Israel, and that compounded with the coalition’s judicial overhaul, they could slip even further.

“Each [overhaul] bill on its own and all of them taken together would undermine the protection of women’s rights from various sectors of the population, and mainly women from marginalized groups,” she wrote in February to the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.

Pro-women’s rights policy rollbacks

Cohen’s Social Equality Ministry spearheaded a number of initiatives to increase women’s political and policy representation, as well as to combat domestic violence. Many of them, she said, have been either canceled or are not being actively promoted.

Her office had sponsored a campaign to support women running in October’s upcoming municipal elections as part of a bid to increase female representation in city halls, but Golan canceled the initiative.

In terms of developing the government’s legislative policy, the last government assigned a gender legal adviser to give a perspective on how proposed bills affected women before the Ministerial Committee on Legislation decided on its position. “They canceled that,” Cohen said.

Within the cabinet, the last government reached a decision to give fair representation to women in emergency and security forums, including the subset of ministers who handled emergency orders related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It needs to be a structural consideration, that there are women in these rooms,” Cohen said, using the coronavirus cabinet as an example. If the government wanted to open workplaces but keep schools closed, “a woman would understand very quickly what the problem is with that.”