The most important achievement of the women’s protest that swept across the country Dec. 4 was the intensity of its media coverage. It topped the news — even if that same morning the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a military operation along the border with Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah’s network of tunnels penetrating Israeli territory.
Every available studio was used to provide live coverage of the security incident in the north. As such, it was only natural that this would draw public attention. After all, Israelis had long been preparing themselves for just such a military conflagration. The leaders of a coalition of women’s groups skipped a beat, fearing that the tense security situation would sideline public attention from their campaign. In the past couple of days, they actually felt the seething outrage at the government’s apparent inability to act against the phenomenon of violence against women.
The protest began on Facebook following the murders of two young girls just two days apart last November. From there it spread like wildfire across social media. Sylvana Tsegai, 13, from Tel Aviv, and Yara Ayoub, 16, from Jish, were both victims of serious abuse by men just before they died. The murders sent shockwaves across Israeli society. They succeeded in breaking through the apathy and touching a raw nerve.
Two women, Ruti Klein and Dror Sadot, set the ensuing protest into motion. Both of them work in the public and social sectors. Together they decided that it was time to act — and they did. About a week ago, they started a Facebook campaign under the name “I am a woman. I am striking: Dec. 4, 2018.” In less than a day, some 10,000 people, men and women alike, announced that they would be taking part in the demonstration. Soon, women’s groups, businesses and local authorities announced that they would allow women who work for them to strike so that they can participate in the protests.
Adding to the public outrage was the fact that driven by coalition discipline, many female Knesset members, including government ministers, voted against the opposition’s initiative to create a parliamentary committee of inquiry to study the phenomenon of domestic violence on Nov. 21. At the same time, it was revealed that the government had failed to transfer 250 million shekels ($67 million) budgeted in 2017 for groups assisting battered women, even though the money had been promised to them. In the spirit of the #metoo campaign, this parliamentary and government failure was not overlooked by the media or the public at large. The overall impression was that while women across all divides are too often considered passive, this time they are showing solidarity with their sisters across the country. They want to take an active part in the protest.
Then, on Tuesday morning, everything seemed to be collapsing around the organizers of the protest. Anyone living in Israel knows that major security incidents have the ability to reshuffle the deck and overwhelm the public agenda. Yet despite concerns that this would happen again, the protest’s organizers made a principled decision not to cancel the event.
It turned out to be the right decision. From morning until that evening’s main rally in Tel Aviv, protest events only intensified. They topped the agenda in traditional media and social networks alike. The day started with the riveting exhibit of red shoes in Habima Square and continued with the blocking of roads and 24 minutes of silence in memory of the 24 women who have been murdered so far in 2018.
Knesset member Meirav Michaeli of the Zionist Camp has been a major figure in Israel’s feminist struggle for the past two decades. At noon on Dec. 4, she called on men and women across the country to take to the streets despite the tension in the north. In a post that appeared on her Facebook page, she wrote, “That’s right. A military operation is underway in the north: Operation Northern Shield. Trust the IDF. It’s on the case, and it says that everything should carry on as normal. So this is our new normal for today. We’re on strike.”
The climax was a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where an estimated 30,000 women and men converged to protest. No one could believe their eyes. The demonstrators included religious and secular, right and left, Arab and Jews. This was not a political demonstration, and that was the source of its strength. Family members of victims of violence, their daughters and their sisters appeared on stage to tell their loved ones’ stories.
All of this was happening while Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a press conference in the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv to report on Operation Northern Shield along the Lebanese border. As he spoke, one of the most moving and important civilian protests of the last few years was taking place less than 2 kilometers away.
Until Dec. 4 this week, the banner of women’s rights and action against domestic violence and sexual assault was held aloft mainly by women’s groups, a handful of Knesset members and hardcore feminist activists. This week, that all changed. The public at large took to the streets in a historic show of solidarity.
According to an October 2017 report by the Adva Center, some 20 women are murdered in Israel every year by the people closest to them. Another 10,000 women file complaints about violence, but in most cases, their cases are closed. It is safe to assume that it will take more time until there is a major change in the country, but it is now clear that public awareness of the phenomenon has infiltrated politics. Just one day after the big protest and strike, even with the military operation up north underway, Netanyahu convened the special ministerial committee that he heads to discuss domestic violence and violence against women. Participating in the discussion were Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan. At this meeting, Netanyahu said, “I see violence against women as terrorism for all intents and purposes.” He then promised to advance rapid legislation, which would require physically abusive men to wear an ankle monitor.
Still, what was very much needed now was for Netanyahu to order immediately the transfer of the 250 million shekels to the relevant bodies. This sum was already budgeted, but because of bureaucratic and coalition considerations, it never reached its destination. The money was supposed to finance important projects for battling domestic violence. As long as the funding isn’t transferred, the promises made by Netanyahu remain just that — empty words.
This is the same Netanyahu under whose leadership three inter-ministerial committees were created — in 1998 (during his first term), 2014 and 2016 — to study the same issue. In other words, this would be his fourth committee. Netanyahu has an acute ability to sniff out events that are potentially damaging. He realized that the current women’s protests were widespread and authentic, and he skillfully switched to the right side. He wasn’t the only one either. Including men, many politicians who were never very enthusiastic about raising the banner of “violence against women” have become frontline soldiers in this struggle. So, for instance, Zionist Camp Chairman Avi Gabbay released an aggressive post on Facebook that said, among other things, “Once we are in power, we will increase enforcement of the law and impose stricter punishment on violent criminals.”
Even if these are nothing more than public statements by politicians, they indicate a shift in the public discourse. What was once a niche topic has become a major agenda item. Now, the test for women’s groups will be whether they know how to take advantage of this momentum before the upcoming election, preventing their struggle from fading.