Israeli society, even prior to the formation of the state, has been permeated by a strong myth of sexual equality. Shortly after the establishment of the Jewish nation-state, the Israeli Knesset began intensive debates on a body of legislation that would guide and define subsequent discourse on issues that concern the relationship between women and the state. One of those early laws, the Women’s Equal Rights Law of 1951, has had a lasting influence on the ways in which women have been incorporated into and mobilized by Israeli society. It has a direct impact on the construction of the Jewish Israeli female subject, first and foremost, as mother and wife, and not as individual or citizen. Using the rhetoric of equality, the state incorporated Jewish Israeli women via these traditional roles and not in terms of the universal characteristics of citizenship.

Law and legal discourse alone did not create this situation. Yet legal discourse is a powerful mechanism that reproduces, legitimizes and constitutes women as specific types of social subjects and citizens. Conceiving law as a cultural product that embodies the cultural practices of social subjects allows the investigation here of how the Israeli state, through legal mechanisms and practices, has constructed the social category of “women.”

Knesset Debate on the Equal Rights law

In 1951, the Israeli minister of justice presented the Women’s Equal Rights Law to the Knesset for consideration. According to the minister, the law was necessary since:

From the very beginning of the movement to return to Zion, the Jewish woman was a loyal companion to the early immigrants and settlers; and up until now the role played by the daughters of Israel (a biblical term) has never been diminished in all the activities of the Yishuv (Jewish community). [1]

It is no accident that the minister chose to portray Jewish Israeli women as “loyal companions” to the “Zionist (male) pioneers” and not as “pioneers” themselves. Even though in some other texts — both legal and non-legal — women are portrayed as equal partners in the effort to “build a new society,” the image of women as “loyal companions” to the male pioneer is quite widespread. In addition, the minister’s justification of the law presents it as a “reward” for women’s “good conduct,” not as a basic right to which women are entitled as equal citizens of the state. This notion of women being “incomplete citizens” has numerous other manifestations.

In presenting the Equal Rights Law, the minister of justice enumerated the various ways in which Jewish Israeli women contribute to the new society’s development, stating that “above all, in fulfilling her duty and privilege as a Hebrew mother cherishing the young generation and educating them…in all that, the Hebrew woman and mother continues the great tradition of the Israeli heroine.” [2]

Ben Gurion went further, declaring that

I will talk about my mother, but refer to all mothers. Mother is the most precious person to everybody…. My mother died when I was 10…but still I know that she was the symbol of purity, love, devotion and nobility. There is nothing more desecrating and offensive than thinking that my dear mother is not equal to me…. I cannot accept that my mother, our mothers, my sister who is also a mother, and my daughter, who will also be a mother one day, will be inferior to anyone else. This is the simple, human reason for this law. [3]

While some might argue that Ben Gurion spoke in this way simply because he tended toward emotional rhetoric, his motive is unimportant. What is crucial to note is that this type of “script” was available to him at the time, and that he could use such language when discussing a state law in the Israeli parliament. Many other speakers used similar terminology while commenting on the law, although with considerably less pathos and emotion.

Note here that “equality” and “difference” interact. The notion of sexual equality was promoted as an important component of the Israeli symbolic system. This does not mean that women are entitled to the same rights as men because they are individuals or merely because they are citizens of the state. The idea of equality is promoted with an emphasis on the distinctive characteristics of women and their unique contribution to the nation.

Religious Knesset members emphasized in their speeches the “uniqueness” of women and the inherent differences between the sexes. These differences, they argued, are crucially important for the wellbeing and betterment of the family. Religious parties were not the only ones to locate the family at the center of the nation in their speeches. Among others, a woman representative of the Labor party supported the Equal Rights Law by arguing that “it will improve the condition of women and will enhance the role of the family as the basic unit of society…. The law is required to improve family life.” [4]

Most religious MKs, however, argued that the Equal Rights Law would upset family harmony and corrupt the “Jewish family” by making it similar to families in non-Jewish societies. In effect the Knesset debate was transformed into a debate over whether the Equal Rights Law would strengthen or harm the institution of “family,” and not whether women should be guaranteed unequivocal civil rights.

Very few representatives rejected outright the concept of “equality,” but the definition of the word varied in accordance with emphases placed on other concepts. MKs argued that women “deserve” equality because they contribute to society and faithfully fulfill their roles as “Jewish mothers,” or that equality would itself enhance family life.

The Text of the 1951 Women’s Equal Rights Law

All the articles (except the first) refer to family issues and therefore only to married women. Undoubtedly the law did improve the conditions of Israeli women, since it replaced laws that had been highly detrimental. According to Ottoman law, for example, the father is the child’s natural guardian, while Jewish religious law stipulates that a woman loses all her property rights upon marriage. Muslim religious law allows husbands to divorce their wives without consent. The Women’s Equal Rights Law abolished these forms of blatant legal discrimination. It is important, however, to consider the category of issues addressed by the law: the type of “woman” to whom the Law extends “equality” is a “woman” who is either a “wife” and/or a “mother.”

Although the Equal Rights Law sought to equalize the rights of wives and mothers with those of their husbands, it also granted these women a unique status, emphasizing “difference” over “equality.” This is most obvious in Article 5, which reads: “This Law shall not derogate from any legal provision protecting women as women.” The official published explanation of the Law states that it is intended to protect the rights of “mothers and wives.” The Israeli legal system later adopted the doctrine of “special protection” for women through a variety of legal statutes and regulations issued by the judiciary in matters pertaining to employment, military service, social security and family maintenance. Although a few women’s organizations argued that these guarantees were not compatible with an egalitarian liberal ideology, they were in fact widely supported by numerous court rulings as well as the major women’s organization affiliated with the larger political parties. These guarantees were explicitly validated in Article 5 of the Equal Rights Law.

The Equal Rights Law (in Article 4) has been heavily criticized for retaining the religious courts’ exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce. Jewish religious law does not view husbands and wives as equal partners, and stresses both gender differentiation and women’s dependence on their husbands.

This dependence is justified by reference to the distinct roles women fulfill within the family and, consequently, in society at large — “consequently” since it is through their role in the family that women attain social status. Although this view is strongest in the Jewish religious worldview, it does indicate the manner in which women are constructed within society at large.

There are issues other than those of the family that might be addressed by a law about women’s rights, such as workplace discrimination (equality of wages, opportunity for promotions, and hiring policies) and sexual harassment and/or violence. Although it had been subject to a long process of editing and amendments, the 1951 Law addresses none of these issues. Alternatives to the 1951 Law were articulated in a more progressive proposal submitted and rejected at that time. [5] Several articles originally in the 1951 law were deleted by majority vote on the grounds that the content of these proposals and articles were either not important enough, too difficult, or would be more appropriately dealt with in other laws. As a result, the final draft of the 1951 law addresses only one category of women’s issues — family issues — and by doing so, defines them as the “real” women’s issues.

Women’s Participation in the Discourse

In the years since the 1951 law went into effect, women themselves have participated in the legal discourse in ways that reflect and reproduce their status as “wives” and “mothers.” Very few cases have been brought to court by women appearing as “citizens” or “workers;” in the overwhelming majority of cases women have presented themselves as “mothers” or “wives.” For example, the 21 cases citing the Women’s Equal Rights Law that have come before the Israeli Supreme Court since 1951 have all dealt with family matters.

Thus, Jewish Israeli women are more likely to “use” the 1951 Women’s Equal Rights Law when their rights as “mothers” and “wives” are violated than when any other types of rights are violated. Consequently, women reinforce their definition as a distinct kind of citizen — as “mothers” or “wives” — in the way they participate in the legal discourse. In this sense, power not only operates negatively by restricting and defining women but also positively by producing certain discourses. This manifests itself through the activities women engage in and how they exercise their rights to bring these cases to court. Thus, women are not merely constructed by others as objects — “mothers” and “wives” — but also actively engage in transforming themselves into subjects of that same discourse.

Endnotes

[1] Divrei Haknesset, vol. 9, p. 2004.
[2] Ibid., p. 2004.
[3] Ibid., p. 2131.
[4] Ibid., p. 2121.
[5] Several alternatives were proposed by a representative of the Women’s International Zionist Organization — the first and last women’s party to be represented in the Knesset.

How to cite this article:

Nitza Berkovitch "Women and the Women’s Equal Rights Law in Israel," Middle East Report 198 ( ).
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