The sexism endemic to Israeli corridors of power has finally made it to front-page news. The all-male commission investigating the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Turkel, has been ordered by the Supreme Court to add a woman to its ranks. Turkel, however, has thus far responded by refusing to comply. The commission has already started its work, and this whole appoint-a-woman thing is just a thorn in his side.
Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor, who issued the ruling, gave Turkel until August 29 to comply.
This entire incident, which was brought about thanks to a petition brought by women’s groups Itach Women Lawyers for Social Justice and WePower, among others, reveals just how deep sexism in Israel runs, and exposes some of the rhetoric that works at disguising misogyny.
The government has created 20 investigative commissions over the years, only three of which have been headed by women. The first was the commission created in 1988 to examine the health care system, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Shoshana Netanyahu (Bibi’s aunt). Netanyahu headed another commission in 2002, to explore a rise in retirement age. Retired Supreme Court Justice Daliah Dorner headed the 2008 commission on welfare assistance for Holocaust survivors.
But this only tells part of the story. The commissions themselves often have zero female representation. Until 1997, with the exception of Netanyahu’s role in 1988, there were no women on any of the commissions. These commissions were investigating some of the most critical issues in Israeli history: the Yom Kippur War, Sabra and Shatila, the Machpelah Caves massacre, the Rabin assassination and other events. In all these discussions women’s voices were absent.
There are of course many smart, talented and accomplished women in Israel. Among the women who have been named as natural candidates for the flotilla commission are: Professor Dafna Barak-Erez of Tel Aviv University who specializes in public law, human rights and relationships between citizens and government; Professor Orna Ben-Naftali, dean of the law school at the Management College, (Michlala L’Minhal) who specializes in international law and worked in the past for the department of peace forces for the United Nations, and Yehudit Karp, former Assistant Special Counsel to the Government who represented the Israeli legal system in many international human rights forums and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the law.
And yet, according to the State’s response, “[Turkel] stands by his view that adding one or more new members to the panel would not contribute to the work of the panel and might even hurt it.”
This is the man in charge of one of the most sensitive commissions in the history of Israel’s position vis a vis the rest of the world. It’s not very encouraging.
Some of the language that has been tossed around this week has also been enlightening. Women should be appointed, said one radio interviewee, not because of their intelligence per se, but because of their emotions and intuition.
Women should be on governmental commissions because of their significant knowledge, skill and expertise, not because of some misplaced sense of innate intuition that a man like Turkel might one day learn to consider quaint.
“I wouldn’t want a woman to be appointed just because she is a woman,” Nurit Tsur, director of the Israel Women’s Network, explained. “There are so many women whose field of expertise qualifies them for appointment on the Turkel Committee. It won’t be difficult to find an appropriate woman.”
Finding a woman is not the problem. Ensuring that men in power actually see women is the challenge.