International Women’s Day: 100 years

Seeing as it’s now exactly almost 100 years since the first celebration of International Women’s Day, I thought it might be important to have some perspective on the equality of women in Israel, a country where I spent many important years of my life.

It would probably surprise many people to know that the reason that I did not return to Israel to accept an academic position after my postdoctoral work was not that I was unable to get a job. Actually, I had several offers. Others might have thought that it was the security situation; the constant fear of terror and anxiety. Although I certainly do not miss these feelings, I must admit that that was not the main reason either.

Oddly enough, perhaps, the key reason was related to the inherent gender inequality in the country, stemming from (at least in my view) the religious domination of the country. How can one possibly expect equal salaries, equal opportunities, and equal treatment when women cannot even get divorced without explicit permission from their husbands. So it’s hardly a surprise to learn of the extent of inequality that exists there. And when I considered what the future held in store for my daughter, I could not envision giving up system where at least on paper, equality exists.

In keeping with the spirit of this date, I am going to cross post an article from the best Israeli newspaper by an outstanding journalist named Avirama Golan.

Israel is no country for women

    Feminism is arguably the most successful revolution in contemporary times, but a close examination of the situation for women in Israel in recent years reveals a number of worrisome steps backward.

    By Avirama Golan

    International Women’s Day is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but before we clear our schedules to join in the festivities – like a day of pampering at the spa, or getting flowers from the bank that charges us excessive interest for pointless services – it’s worth reminding ourselves what the celebration is actually about and asking whether it is justified.

    March 8 has been designated to commemorate the time when women joined the economy in general and the workforce in particular. In this respect, as in many respects that concern women’s lives, far-reaching changes have indeed been made. Feminism is arguably the most successful revolution in contemporary times. But a close examination of the situation for women in Israel in recent years reveals a number of worrisome steps backward.

    Let us set aside for the moment the really serious problems – trafficking in women, child marriages (Balad MK Hanin Zuabi is to submit a bill calling to raise the legal age at which girls can get married, but agreements between families in fact bypass even the existing law ), child prostitution, violence against women and so forth – and focus on the average woman here. A woman from the middle class, who has been told by the government that her life has improved immeasurably in recent years thanks to the impressive growth of the economy.

    What does she have to complain about? She has a job, an apartment, a car, and let’s assume also a husband and two or three children, as is accepted practice in Israel. She attended university, where she specialized in a modern profession and now, at the age of 37, let’s say, she enjoys good health and the kind of freedom her great grandmother could have only dreamed of. But perhaps not.

    Her great grandmother was indeed married off and had five children at a young age, without anyone consulting her; she barely ever left the kitchen, and no one heard her opinion about anything. The great granddaughter, by contrast, looks more like a small personal enterprise than a human being. When today’s woman reached the age of 29, and was still not married, her surrounding environment – which until then had politely clapped its hands over her academic and professional achievements – stopped being enthusiastic and started to get worried.

    When she got married, everyone heaved a sigh of relief, but when she was not yet pregnant at the age of 33, all the well-wishers began asking what she was waiting for, whether the time had not yet come and whether she perhaps needed the address of an excellent specialist in fertilization. From the moment she became pregnant, she became the property of everyone in sight. All her work colleagues asked personal and embarrassing questions and the family interfered in every decision. This merely grew worse once the baby was born, and she joined the club of those women who “combine a career and a family.”

    This nasty phrase is the front for an entire system of social codes, all of which demand the young woman be an exemplary mother who will nurse her baby, take him to all the developmental groups, and swimming and yoga classes; that she be an excellent cook and a sweet wife; but also that she keep her trim figure by taking exercise classes, and give off an aura of sexiness (but not too much, of course ) and charm – and all of this without losing the momentum of her success at work.

    Her partner, too, who is supposed to be attentive and sensitive, a model father and a wonderful husband (there’s no way he would forget a birthday ), while also developing a brilliant career and an impressive income, is collapsing under the pressure. To this we must add the crazy prices of apartments, massive mortgages, the lack of security about employment, and the huge costs of day care centers, emergency visits to the doctor, special medication, dental treatments and additional academic study – all those services that a welfare state is supposed to provide its citizens – and you have a desperate and fearful couple. Only the woman even more so.

    Women in Israel earn about one third less than men. Compared to their counterparts in the West, they are doubly inferior. The majority of women here serve in the army, which means they must delay their academic and professional plans; they are under pressure to start a family at a young age and to give birth to more children than what is accepted practice in the West; and all of this in a traditional and conservative environment that denounces any exceptions (and this is several times more serious when talking about Arab women ), despite the dramatic rise in the number of divorces. Of course, they find themselves facing additional emotional and economic struggles.

    On the one hand, women are subject to draconian laws with regard to marital ties and must face rabbinical courts that are galloping back to the Middle Ages; and on the other hand, they must contend with the oppressive demand for eternal youth (to be obtained through botox injections ) and success in a wild work market filled with hatred toward families in general, and specifically toward mothers (as well as fathers ) who are merely trying to remain sane.

    In short, the Israel of 2011 is not a state for women. Instead of a holiday, could we perhaps just have a little rest?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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20 Responses to International Women’s Day: 100 years

  1. A friend who recently appeared on a list of the UK’s ‘100 most powerful women’ said she thought it should be a list of the country’s 100 most exhausted women. I think everywhere, to some extent, there is this double bind for women of still being expected to be (although not all families adhere to this, my own included) the primary carer/cook/shopper as well as maintaining their teenage shape. Israel is obviously an extreme example, but culture has not removed it from other countries either. What we do not have to worry about in the UK is anything approaching rabbinical law and women tend to be the ones that initiate divorce proceedings rather than men, with no stigma attached for doing so. So life is undoubtedly much, much more pleasant here for women than the situation described in your post. But there are still cultural confusions about the role of women even here.

  2. cromercrox says:

    An interesting post, Steve. I did like Golan’s article, which put me in mind of many of my favourite Jewish jokes, which you shall not escape.

    (in the supermarket)
    Becky: Hey, Shula, haven’t seen you in ages, you look radiant!
    Shula [blushes]: Thank you – I’m having an affair…
    Becky: congratulations! Who’s doing the catering?

    A young Jewish actor rushes home to tell his mother that he’s just landed a role in a Broadway show. ‘Which part did you get?’ the mother asks. ‘The Husband’, replies the son. ‘So, not a speaking part then?’

    But srsly – it is indeed odd that a supposedly secular state (aside – the usual description of Israel on the BBC as ‘The Jewish State’ is not only wrong, but borderline racist, IMHO) relies for its government on a very small minority of ultra-religious parties who dictate many aspects of Israel’s national life. That’s what you get, I’m afraid, from an electoral system that relies on proportional representation, and which is why, when we get a referendum on this soon in the U. of K., I shall be voting to keep the traditional first-past-the-post system rather than to change to the alternative-vote (AV) system, which, while it has many advantages, could easily be used as a way for minor but vocal interests to get a say out of all proportion to their size.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      All credit due to Ms. Golan…

      As for Jewish jokes: How do you recognize a Jewish mother-in-law at the beach?
      It’s the lady applying sun-screen to her tongue…

      Seriously: The very small minority of ultra-religious parties has until now been the reason for a theocracy in Israel. However, frighteningly, more than 51% of the first grade children in schools across Israel are either orthodox or ultra-orthodox. While the former are Zionists who support the state, the military (and unfortunately, the settlements on the Palestinian side of the green line), with regards to religious issues, they are becoming closer and closer to the ultra-orthodox and farther from the secular Israelis, who are on route to becoming a minority in the next 10-15 years.

      A great Israeli ethicist and philosopher named Asa Kasher, who once gave a lecture that I had the good fortune to attend, has noted repeatedly that (and I paraphrase) “Democracy is not simple a situation of majority rule. True democracy must contain an inherent package of rights that protect frredom of press, religion, equality, etc. etc.” In this sense, whether it is a balance-of power minority empowering the rabbinate (or potentially a majority), this does not meet the criteria for true democracy.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Have you read “The Finkler Question”? I keep thinking of you and some of your recent posts as I read it…

      • cromercrox says:

        Yes, I have read The Finkler Question. My Dad bought it, read it, went ‘meh’, gave it to me to see what I thought. I also went ‘meh’. My rabbi read it too,. He also went ‘meh’. Just in case you think we’d turned into sheep, the ‘meh’ means that none of us liked it much. We couldn’t really see the point of it. Your thoughts welcome.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Actually, the first 1/4 of the book bored me–but I did begin to enjoy the parts about the ‘self-hating Jews’–thought that was really well done. I don’t recall any other work of fiction that really does this…

          • cromercrox says:

            My problem was that I couldn’t feel an ounce of sympathy for the protagonists. And for the rest, it seemed a rather hackneyed portrayal of Anglo-Jewry. So, what’s new, nu?

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Henry, that’s definitely a decent argument against pure PR, but you could also argue that the risk of loonies of any kind gaining representation forces you to try to actually address the problem. This in contrast to the first past the post system, where you have the luxury of ignoring small groups of loonies until they either go away or become very large groups of loonies.

      (Said as someone who’s 100% dead set against a pure FPTP system – my vote never having truly counted in the UK, with the same situation facing me here in Canada when I vote in my first general election here, which will be soon, I think. I like the mixed member PR system used in the Scottish parliament and elsewhere, FWIW).

      Sorry, Steve, for being off-topic!

  3. bean-mom says:

    American women may not face as much social pressure to reproduce (it’s still there, but I know so many women who have happily decided to not have children), but much of this article seems very applicable to Americans, too.

    Especially this paragraph:

    “. . .entire system of social codes, all of which demand the young woman be an exemplary mother who will nurse her baby, take him to all the developmental groups, and swimming and yoga classes; that she be an excellent cook and a sweet wife; but also that she keep her trim figure by taking exercise classes, and give off an aura of sexiness (but not too much, of course ) and charm – and all of this without losing the momentum of her success at work.”

    Oh, yeah, baby. I’m right there with you.

  4. Steve Caplan says:


    I agree. The major difference, I think, is that in the US the laws support the rights of women. In Israel, despite having had a female prime minister back in the 70s, equality is effectively delegitimized through the gov’t. For example, through pressure from the rapidly increasing orthodox religious, on various buses women are required to sit at the back of the bus, away from the men for modesty. Separate buses altogether are being proposed. In some supermarkets, at the entrance, women are given a skirt to put over their pants for “modesty”.

  5. bean-mom says:


    Wow. Women relegated to “back of the bus?” Separate buses? I had no idea the religious fundamentalists had such a hold.

    Ok, yeah. That *is* truly bad.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Unfortunately, they do. It’s not just a women issue, either. For example, on the Passover holidays, where traditional Jews don’t eat leavened bread, there is huge pressure to prevent restaurants from serving bread or anything made of flour. It is actually against the law, as it is against the law to open a restaurant on the Sabbath. Even in the non-religious city of Tel-Aviv, the NYC of Israel. However, restaurants just open anyway (the ones that don’t care about the restrictions and religious clientele), and simply pay fines for breaking the law. It is economically worth their while. However, as a student in Jerusalem, we had a guard who would check the backpacks/bags, etc of every person who entered our building (ostensibly for security purposes). No profiling–every day he would check my backpack for the 7 years that I worked in the building, as though one day I would wake up psychotic and decide to blow up my own lab and building. Anyway, over the Passover period, suddenly the security check would evolve to checking whether there was any bread or flour products in my backpack, and like a criminal I would be forced to hide my sandwich and sneak it through the checkpost. And this from one of the technologically and scientifically most advanced countries in the world. Go figure…

      • cromercrox says:

        You can make quite effective bombs out of chametz, Steve.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          As a poor student, after years of being a “wandering Jew” and living progressively in worse and worse neighborhoods, when I met my wife found that all we could afford was to rent a small flat in the south-east neighborhood of Gilo. Not a settlement, but like Mt. Scopus, a part of J’lem that was not in Israeli hands prior to 1967.

          In any event, we hated it, and the population there was–well–let’s say mixed, with many modern and some ultra-orthodox, many “greater Israel” types, and a smattering of poor students who couldn’t find anywhere else they could afford to live.

          On the other hand, it was an amazing place–you could see the old city in the distance, Herod’s fortress to the east, and a number of times I would stumble on ancient olive presses and other artifacts on the slopes of the hill when taking my dog out.

          Why all this? Ah yes–Chametz!

          One Passover morning when I took my dog out for the daily double, an ultra-orthodox walked toward me. Unusual, as stereotypically, they are usually terrified of dogs and other animals (although he was on a leash). He asked me what the dog was doing, and I tried to explain in simple terms that dogs don’t use toilets, but do their business in rose gardens and abandoned fields.

          He thought for a moment and then asked what the “bilde-chaya” eats. I told him that he eats “Bonzo” and “Dogli”, the 2 companies that make dry dog food in Israel–along with scraps of our leftovers.

          He thought again and asked, “Then the food he eats isn’t Kasher for Pesach.”

          “True,” I agreed, “nor is the food we eat.”

          His answer after the initial shock: “Then you cannot let him ‘secrete’ (my translation of ‘mafrish’) chametz!”

          While that sounds funny, my interpretation given he demography is more on the scary side…

          • cromercrox says:


          • cromercrox says:

            It’s bnot funny at all. As fior demography – the fastest growing section of Anglo-Jewry is the ultra-orthodox. Not only to they breed like rabbis (sorry, couldn’t resist) but there is a general wave of fundamentalism, such that the sons and daughters of quite secular Jews are becoming more funda,emtalist in outlook. It’s the same with British Moslems – women who a generation ago would have worn western dress are now wearing traditional Islamic dress, either through choice, or peer pressure, who knows. The reason that the Moslems get more publicity about this is because there are more of them than Jews in Britain, and Jews aren’t known for blood-curdling rhetoric or putting bombs on buses.

    • MGG says:

      We have that in my state in India. In buses, women occupy designated seats in front and use the front door to get in and out and men sit in the back of the bus and use the back door. Those women who dare to occupy an empty seat on the men’s side sometimes get pinched and poked– unless of course you get up and give the guy a piece of your mind or slap him across his face and then mostly they behave. But most of the time you just want to get from point A to point B without causing much of a commotion, so you either stand the entire length of the journey hoping that some women gets down soon and you get an empty seat to sit.
      Once my sister had cut her hair really short and was wearing jeans and a shirt and was travelling by bus this particular time. The men refused to occupy the empty seat next to her and so did the women…so she got to stretch her legs and enjoy the extra space..
      Of course this was how it was about 10 years ago in small towns..Bigger towns and cities are much more tolerant

  6. rpg says:

    I hate to be picky [liar—Ed.] but the first IWD was on 19th March 1911.


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