Israeli women excluded from decision-making on coronavirus

Israeli women are excluded from the government’s decision-making process on the coronavirus, even though they are the first ones to suffer the social and economic consequences of the pandemic.

al-monitor An ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a protective face mask returns from shopping in Jerusalem's neighborhood of Mea Shearim, during the coronavirus pandemic, April 12, 2020. Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 12, 2020

The government decided July 26 to reduce the coronavirus Cabinet — a small forum of ministers whose portfolios touch on the coronavirus outbreak — from 16 to 10 members. Two weeks later, on Aug. 10, the government decided to add members to this Cabinet again. The special forum now includes two of the ministers who had been excluded in July — Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen. Thus, the change in number brought also another change: The coronavirus Cabinet now includes one female member.

Indeed, the July 26 decision raised quite a lot of anger from several opposition and coalition members, as none of the remaining 10 members were women. At the time, Cohen said, “There are no women in the [coronavirus] Cabinet; I’m not talking about me personally. I understand the desire for efficiency, but it makes no sense for there to be no women among 10 representatives.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid also criticized the decision, stating, “The biggest government in the history of the country and they did not put one woman [in the coronavirus Cabinet]. Disconnected chauvinists.”

Several human rights and women rights groups joined the outcry. Na’amat — one of Israel’s most veteran and biggest women groups — issued a statement at the time, saying, "[We] recommend to the prime minister and the alternate prime minister, who always compare our situation to the rest of the world, to look at the common denominator of countries that have successfully subdued the epidemic — in all of them, women are in the decision-making elite."

The decision to reinstate Cohen to the coronavirus Cabinet was hailed by Na’amat Chair Hagit Pe’er. Still, Pe’er noted that the mere necessity of public pressure to get women into the decision-making process in Israel of 2020 was embarrassing.

One explanation for the exclusion of women from the current decision-making process could be the Israeli perception of the anti-coronavirus campaign as a military/male operation. Early in the pandemic, the Israel Defense Forces were called to assist with the management of the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, hit hard by the first coronavirus wave. Former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett saw his popularity rise, after proposing military-style measures to counter the spread of the pandemic.

In contrast, the Foreign Ministry hosted on July 27-28 an international online conference for female leaders. The conference has been held in Israel every two years since 1961, according to the vision of then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir to empower women. This year's conference focused on the social and economic ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak on women and girls, with women from across the globe participating and sharing experiences. It was a clear demonstration of female leaders engaged in battling the coronavirus health crisis and its effects on, for instance, women's employment and entrepreneurship.

The Foreign Ministry made a point of including in the conference women of the highest leadership level. Israeli professor Frances Raday, former special rapporteur for the United Nations Human Rights Council, participated in the first panel on analyzing the global economic impact of COVID-19 and women and girls, together with Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, and other top-level UN women. Participants made sure to mention the female leaders of Germany, Finland, New Zealand and Denmark, who have achieved excellent results in managing the coronavirus crisis so far.

Apart from decision-making, Israeli women are affected daily and more directly by the coronavirus-induced crisis. Shai Oxenberg, policy and legislation director at the Israel Women’s Network lobbying group, told Al-Monitor that the coronavirus pandemic affect Israeli women mainly in two fields: employment and domestic violence. The women who suffer most are those of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab minority groups — women who are more vulnerable even during normal times. She said that pregnant women were also subject to various hardships.

"Apart from suffering from unemployment and domestic violence, Israeli women were confronted with the heavy burden of caring for the children — as the result of the decision to shut down the education system. All this happened while women were conspicuously excluded and absent from the decision-making process," Oxenberg added.

Oxenberg’s claims are backed by statistics. A report drafted by Yael Hasson and Hadas Ben Eliyahu and published June 1 by the Adva center together with Van Leer Jerusalem Institute states that "by the first week of April, 21% of working women in Israel found themselves out of work, compared with 16% of men. Among women, this was the situation of 30% of ultra-Orthodox women and 18% of Arab women."

Another report published June 18 by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies also shows that the coronavirus pandemic resulted in higher rates of unemployment among Israeli women. Author of the report Liora Bowers writes that in the immediate term, a significantly larger share of unemployment claims have been submitted by women since March 1 — 56% compared to 44% of men. "It appears that Jewish women — in particular, ultra-Orthodox women — have been hardest hit. Furthermore, in 18 out of 19 industries more women have lost jobs disproportionately to their share of positions in that industry,’’ Bowers notes.

Still, Bowers highlights also some positive changes, such as the division between men and women on caring for their children, especially in small families. "In a survey conducted by researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, men reported a 10% increase in the amount of time they spend with their children during the coronavirus crisis versus the period before," Bowers writes.

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