Tackling gender segregation in Israel

Israela Oron

TEL AVIV — With security issues still taking centre stage in news headlines in Israel, the country’s long-ignored gender-segregation crisis continues to fester.

That’s why retired brigadier-general Israela Oron, an analyst and commentator on Israeli security and strategic affairs with a background in gender issues, says that now is the time to put Israeli women’s plight on the table.

Oron, who was the first woman to command an all-male officer-training course in the Israeli Air Force and the first woman to serve on the faculty of the National Defense College, will be speaking on “Gender, Security and Religion in Israel” on March 25 at Temple Sinai in Toronto. The event is free and is being sponsored by the New Israel Fund of Canada, Temple Sinai and ARZA – Canadian Association of Reform Zionists.

In the last few months, gender problems hit the front pages in Israel. Women were instructed to sit at the back of buses, and female performers in the Israel Defence Forces entertainment corps were told not to sing, because it was “too sexual.” Then billboards in Jerusalem and other cities deemed “more religious” than elsewhere in Israel, blurred or cropped women’s faces in advertisements, and an eight-year-old Orthodox schoolgirl was called a prostitute by a group of men who deemed her attire too liberal.

“We are facing a problem in equality in certain cities and towns in Israel where the majority of the population are ultra-orthodox and this has an impact on all of Israeli society,” Oron told The CJN.

The haredi may be a minority in the overall population, but Oron warns that politicians who say they’d rather maintain the status quo than deal with the issues at hand are actually leading Israeli society astray.

“There’s an attitude… let us leave them alone and allow them to deal with those issues in the places they live,” says Oron. “Not only do I not agree with that but I object to it. If we describe Israel as a democracy, I cannot accept the fact that women are treated differently because of gender. It’s not about, ‘Let them do what they want because they don’t live in our neighbourhood.’ It’s not OK. We cannot have two kinds of rules. This is my business, even if I’m not religious.”

Oron knows what she’s talking about. She broke through the gender barrier during her distinguished military career. Oron’s last military posting was as the commander of the IDF’s Women’s Corp, for which she initiated significant reforms.

The original Declaration of Independence in 1948 promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” she says.

And while women have held top positions in Israel, Oron says that in politics, in the military or in day-to-day life, sexist remarks and practices are prevalent.

But she’s optimistic that activist groups will help Israeli society get back on track.

Oron serves on the boards of leading peace and social justice organizations, including the Geneva Accord, the Acharai Movement, and the New Israel Fund international council.

“Israel cannot separate itself from western society and excluding women is a no go,” she says. “The New Israel Fund is the kind of organization that is in the frontline of fighting segregation of women and minorities and fighting for Israel to be a democracy. If the NIF plans will be successful, I think that we have a good chance to stop this trend.”