At the start of the summer, Israel’s social protest movement looked like it would represent a real turning point for women in the public sphere.
The face of the movement was indisputably female. The story began when a young filmmaker, 25-year-old Daphne Leef, pitched a tent in downtown Tel Aviv to protest the lack of affordable housing. The movement she kicked off lasted all summer and culminated in a massive countrywide march that drew 450,000 protesters demanding that the government take steps to ease the cost of living in Israel.
But over the course of the summer, it has seemed to some Israeli feminists that the women are being left behind.
These worries are intensifying now that summer is over and the activism is being translated into political reality.
Commentator Merav Michaeli, writing in Ha’aretz, detailed some of the causes for concern in a column titled “Women Mustn’t Sink to the Bottom of Israel’s Social Protest.”
She noted that male leaders of the protest movement are being spotlighted by the media while one, Itzik Shmuli, is regarded as the leader of the movement, while Leef and other female activists are being given short shrift. Michaeli wrote:
Women began this protest, but very quickly, things changed - as they always do, and certainly with much “success”: The women “sank” to the bottom, to behind the scenes, to doing the dirty work. Meanwhile, the men sprouted up like mushrooms and “floated” to the top. Suddenly, most of the speakers at the press conferences and protest rallies were men.
This dynamic cannot be allowed to take over yet again. Real change will oblige the wielders of power to understand that they must “make room” for many more women in key roles and positions of power.
Michaeli says that the difference in the way those in power are treating Leef and Shmuli is rooted in the different ways that they speak. Leef, she says:
…Speaks openly about all she is going through personally, and also about what “we” are going through - combining the emotional with the ideological, the political. She doesn’t talk about “a moment in time” or “a final verdict,” but about a process; she remembers all the types of “we” and speaks about the ability to incorporate differences, multiplicity and conflict, and she is teaching the public sign language.
Leef allows herself to be photographed shaving her legs in her tent, or crying, and is demanding direct and public negotiations with the prime minister. Hers is a candid language, direct and inclusive; feminine language at its very best.
Shmuli, on the other hand, speaks in a male style that those in power relate to, according to Michaeli and as a result is described as “the most serious” of the protest leaders.
Another feminist and activist, Hanna Bet Halachmi, wrote on her Hebrew-language blog why she chose not to attend the “March of the Million.”
She said that she felt that working mothers were being pushed to the margins of the struggle – complaining that their voices were not heard in the organizing committees and that incidents of sexual harassment in the tent city were hushed up in order to preserve the image of the protest. She concluded that “it’s a waste for me to wear out my shoe leather in a march that I don’t feel will substantially improve the situation of women in Israel, a change that is the real key to achieving social justice for everyone.”
Both of these women make legitimate points, but I don’t see the situation as being quite as gloomy as these two women portray it. From my “glass half full” perspective, the prominence of Leef and other female activists, and the summer-long focus on social-economic issues instead of security issues is good for Israeli women.
A particular point of light has been the “Stroller Marches” which were an offshoot of the movement. They were initiated and organized on Facebook by working mothers wanting spotlight their concerns: extending maternity leave, tax exemptions for child care, government intervention in the pricing of basic baby care products, and government-funded preschool and daycare for children under the age of four. It was inspiring that plenty of fathers participated in these marches, which, unlike the generalized cries for “social justice” at the mass marches, had a very specific and detailed list of demands.
I won’t be at all surprised if the stroller owners are the first to see substantive achievements from this inspiring summer protest movement. If working parents are, indeed, first in line, it will undeniably be an achievement for Israeli women.