As I returned home this weekend after spending three days representing the National Council of Jewish Women at the Israeli Presidential Conference last week in Jerusalem, I reflected on the fact that the very fundamental issue of inequality in Israel was not addressed in any meaningful way.
In fact, women who were asked to speak were often placed on panels that danced around the topic entirely. It was as if equality for women, and others in Israel, was the elephant in the room. As I drove home listening to the radio I learned that even as we gathered to discuss everything but equality, reality had been marching on, as one more woman from the Women of the Wall had been arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel.
And in a separate incident, police arrested Dafni Lief and almost 100 other protesters who were back on Rothschild Boulevard trying to establish another tent city in protest of rising prices, taxes and other social ills that were still not solved by last summer’s social protest.
Around 4,500 mainstream Jews and (some) non-Jews attended the conference to talk about this year’s theme, “Facing Tomorrow,” and, yet, no one was paying much attention to the very real issues we are facing today.
I attended the conference with an eye toward conversations I thought would touch on some of the social ills that are troubling Israel today. There were no major keynotes by women, and a typical panel had one token woman and several men, regardless of the topic. At one session, the woman on the panel said she would not accept that she was only one expected to discuss women’s rights in Israel, and that the men on the panel should address this issue as well. That was the beginning and the end of the formal discussion on women’s issues for that panel and on most panels. In total, 163 men and 52 women were given roles on panels and many of these women only served as moderators.
What a missed opportunity.
In the hallways, however, women gathered informally not only to express their outrage, but to begin collaborating on these issues, determinate our next steps, and vow that we would work to change the program for next year.
The next President’s Conference should include more prominently the issue of rights of women and other disenfranchised groups in the State of Israel, and should more prominently feature women speakers.
When I asked the organizers about the absence of women, I learned many others also inquired as to why so few women were invited to address this prestigious group and why there were no sessions at all on the issues that concern women. In response, I was told to send in an official request.
Here is my very public and I hope sufficiently official request: Please do something next year to address the issue of inequality in Israel. When Israeli and diaspora leaders come together to envision the future of Israel that is the time to bring these issues out into the light and have a discussion including perspectives of both men and women in order to determine a more equal course for Israel to follow.
Shari Eshet is director of NCJW’s Israel Office, based in Jerusalem.