Fighting for Equality for Women in Israel
The following is the first in a series of interviews with people active in NA’AMAT’s programs in Israel and elsewhere in the world. We hope you will enjoy these dialogues with thoughtful and inspiring women (and men) who are working to improve the lives of women, children and families.
We are proud to begin the series with a conversation with Gali Etzion. Gali is an attorney living in Israel who heads NA’AMAT’s Legislative Department. After earning her law degree from Tel Aviv University, Gali lived and worked in the United States for several years before returning to Israel in 2001 to assume her current role. She spoke with NA’AMAT USA about her work for the organization, the status of women in Israel and her hopes for the future.
NA’AMAT USA: What would you like members of NA’AMAT USA to understand about the work you are doing in Israel?
Gali Etzion: We are trying to make a difference at all levels. We are trying to improve the lives of women in general, but we are also helping individual women. We provide legal advice to women at very low cost. We are like an ER for women and families who need help in solving their problems. We are helping women all over the country. We are teaching them to be strong and not to be afraid. Currently, we are going into another election in Israel and we would like to see more women as candidates. We are trying to convince women to take part, to vote, to make a difference, to stand up and be counted.
NU: What sorts of legal issues are you involved in?
GE: We are involved in cases of family law: helping battered women and dealing with domestic violence. Our other major concern is labor law. We are trying to make sure that women enjoy equal opportunities in the workplace. We also deal with sexual harassment.
Recently, we had a very interesting case involving a single parent, a father who was also a widower. He died in a terror attack and left three orphans. There is a special ruling in Israel regarding the Social Security Act; in the early 2000s, during a time of terrible terror attacks, the law was changed to allow children, who’ve lost both parents to terrorist attacks, to receive a large sum of money. We argued that for the children in this case, losing their single parent was equivalent to losing both parents. We joined this case as an amicus in the name of single parents and we won in the local Labor Court. The government has appealed to the state Labor Court. We are hoping that we will prevail again.*
We also recently won a victory in the Knesset about the issue of dividing pensions in divorce cases. Pension Law is a mess. According to family law in Israel, pensions are the property of both parties. You need to share it when you separate. However, according to pension law, an unregistered spouse is not recognized. If a wife is not registered in her husband’s pension, she gets nothing.
I personally have been involved in this issue for more than ten years. I was a member of a committee that was trying to find a solution. We did a lot of work with the Knesset and this August a law was passed that brought family law and pension law into agreement. The other spouse will now get her share. It becomes law this February. It is a major victory for women and for equality between couples.
NU: That must have been very satisfying to you.
GE: It was very satisfying. It was a moment where I felt that my job has a purpose. It’s important to get those victories.
NU: How do you assess the state of women’s rights in Israel today?
GE: It’s not great, but it’s not so bad. As far as legislation, we are in quite a good place, apart from family law, which remains a problem. In terms of equal rights legislation, we have a Sexual Harassment Act, an Equal Pay Act, and an Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Act. The main thing, however, is to ensure that things are happening according to the law. It’s not easy and it can be frustrating.
I was recently going through some historical material in preparing for a lecture and came across a speech given by Beba Idelson, one of the founders of NA’AMAT, in 1934 about the gap between men and women in the workplace. She said that a woman earned about 66 percent of what a man earned. I am ashamed to tell you that it is the same situation today. Her speech is as relevant today as it was then, which is sad.
NA’AMAT is leading a campaign to bring men home. In order to create equality in the workplace, we must first get men to share the burden of raising a family. If both parents share that burden, women will have more opportunities for equality at work.
NU: It sounds like you are not only trying to change laws, you are trying to change attitudes.
GE: Yes. Changing the law is just the means. Our real purpose is to change the world. We need to reeducate people about the status of women for the benefit of everyone.
NU: You are currently working on a case involving the religious court system in Israel. Could you tell us something about that?
GE: In Israel, there is a civil, judicial court system and a religious court, the Rabbinic Court. Although the Rabbinic Court is under the Ministry of Justice and supposed to act according to Israeli civic law (at least in some aspects), in practice judges rule according to Halakha, Jewish religious law. According to Halakha, the court can have no female judges, only dayanim¸ male judges.
Currently, there is an opening for a General Manager of the Court. The way the law is written and has been interpreted, only men can be elected to this post, but our position is that women should not be excluded. Just this morning, there was news that a political deal had been reached to nominate someone for this position, a man, of course. We are petitioning the court to prevent that from happening and to give women an opportunity to apply as well. The Minister of Justice has until Thursday to answer our petition.*
In Israel, Jewish couples seeking a divorce need to apply to the Rabbinic Court. Half the people litigating in the court are women, and yet there are no women judges. We said, at least, this position, which has more of an administrative function, ought to be open to women. We applied to the Supreme Court this morning. We’ll see what happens.
NU: It sounds like a tough battle.
GE: Yes. One of many.
NU: Do you feel confident of the outcome?
GE: You know what they say about Moses: he kept hitting the rock and eventually there was water. I feel the same way. It’s tough. You climb some and then you fall and then you climb some more. Eventually, we will get there. I’m an optimist. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in this position.
NU: Why have you chosen to dedicate yourself to NA’AMAT and women’s issues?
GE: I believe in justice. I have four kids, two girls and two boys. I’d like all my children to be treated equally and not be judged by their gender. I would like them to have a better future in Israel, so they ‘ll stay here. I believe in human rights and I want to do good in the world. We come into the world for a short time; we should do something good.
*The Israeli Supreme Court has postponed action on this matter until after the upcoming parliamentary elections.