Golda Meir was elected prime minister of Israel in 1969, when American women were just beginning to wake up to feminism. Today, Israeli women perform military service alongside their male peers, while in the United States, we’ve never had a female president and women are not conscripted, even during times of war. From the outside, it’s easy to assume that gender equality must be fundamental to Israeli society — but that is not the case, says Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, an Israeli legal scholar and feminist.
There is historic sexism and gender bias inherent in Israeli family law because all marriage, divorce, and family law is based in Jewish religious law, which favors men. There is no civil marriage in Israel, whether or not one is a religious Jew. However much some Israelis might chafe at this, it has always been this way. What has changed in recent years, Halperin-Kaddari says, is the growing exclusion of women from Israeli public life. For instance, major public research universities have bowed to pressure from ultra-Orthodox students and community leaders to teach men and women separately. Female professors are no longer allowed to teach male students, though men continue to profess to women.
“What I just described is not the law,” she says. “It’s the cultural norms that are now encroaching on policy and decision makers, and they are being approved by regulators like the Council for Higher Education. In fact, gender segregation — I and others argue — is not required by religious law except for in religious rituals or where there are issues of modesty. But religious extremism is growing in Israel. That power is growing. Demands that would not even be thought of 10 years ago are now becoming the norm.”
Halperin-Kaddari delivers a lecture, “The Different Feminism in Israel: Where We Came From, Where We’re Going, What Ground Was Won, Challenges Ahead, and Present Setbacks,” at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12, at Temple Beth Shalom (205 E. Barcelona Road). Admission is free; 505-982-1376.