Einat Wilf: “You shouldn’t be afraid to use the word ‘feminism”

This article by Kateryna Zarembo, deputy director of the New Europe Center, originally appeared in Ukrainian on womo.ua.

People don’t like using clear-cut definitions because this “diminishes” them somehow.

During the conference “Israel’s Experience of Nation Building: Lessons for Ukraine,” which was organized by the New Europe Centre and the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter and held on 12 June 2018 in Kyiv, I talked with Einat Wilf, a politician, author of three books about modern-day Israel, member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (2010–2013), and mother of three children. The result of the half-hour-long interview about the connection between feminism and geopolitics is a mini-guide to understanding Israeli society, Israel’s geopolitical thinking, and the role of women in it.

In many developed countries women have still not headed states or governments, whereas Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel back in the years 1969–1974. There is mandatory military service for both men and women in Israel. Can Israel serve as an example of gender equality?

The answer depends on the point of reference for assessing the status of gender equality. I would say that the situation in Israel is somewhere in the middle. We have nothing to be ashamed of, but neither are we one of the top countries in the world where women and men have equal rights. For example, out of 120 members of the Israeli Knesset, there are 34 women, approximately 28 percent. This is more than in the US Congress, and the British and French parliaments, but less than in Sweden. In other words, we are not among the top gender-equal countries, but we occupy a completely respectable place. In some sense, Israel has a unique society, I would say, the only one in the world where economic development (this very week Israel surpassed Japan in terms of its GDP per capita) is combined with a high birth rate. In fact, Israel is the most “fertile” country among the member-countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In other words, Israel is a wealthy country with large families, and such a combination is rare.

For example, Israel has the highest number of working mothers with three or more children. The reason for this is that, first of all, in many countries women rarely have three children, and those who have that many usually do not work. But in Israel, mothers with three children work; this is the standard. I am one of them. So, this is truly a unique combination that is rooted in the history and culture of Israel, where the family has always occupied a very important place. Some even call this an obsession. Israeli society is truly very oriented on the family. So, we are not a leader in terms of gender equality, but if you look at countries where a considerable share of leading positions are held by women and the family is viewed as a great asset, then Israel is probably a unique country.

However, in many instances we are also fighting for equal rights for men and women. We have problems connected to unequal pay and sexual harassment. Israel’s sexual harassment prevention legislation is among the most progressive in the world, but a long road lies ahead to ensure that society treats this the proper way. You mentioned the army. From the day Israel was founded, it was in a state of war, so the army also mobilized women, who are subject to military conscription. However, this does not mean that women in the Israeli army were equal to men. For many decades most women in the army held secretarial positions, they did not fight. Much time passed before women were able to be combat pilots, for example. Even today, although women hold military positions, they are not in leading positions. So, women’s rights are a process that also encounters considerable opposition.

You offered a very interesting example of working mothers with three children. What is the secret behind the large-scale nature of this phenomenon? Is it rooted in the social mentality or is it encouraged by the state? 

There are several explanations here. First of all, the issue is Jewish culture, which views the family as a priority. The Holocaust also plays a role here, in the sense that we have to restore our numbers. The conflict [with Palestine—K.Z.] is significant as well; the understanding that we are a minority in the region and cannot allow ourselves to disappear. So, having children is practically part of the greater struggle to show that we are not going anywhere from here. Israeli society is still in a state of struggle; it is attempting to prove that it is alive, and children are proof of life.

There is state support on the whole. Starting from the age of three, children have access to free education; state subsidies are granted for children attending preschool facilities from six months of age. On the other hand, a family with three children cannot survive on the one parent’s salary; such cases are rare. So, women simply have no choice; a family needs two sources of income. It is rare that a woman in Israel can say, “Oh, don’t know yet, maybe I’ll stay at home with the children or maybe I’ll go to work.” They don’t have this kind of choice. They can choose only whether they will stay at home for three months (the period of paid maternity leave) or six. They can continue not to work for another three months, but they will no longer be receiving a salary. I personally don’t know a single woman who was on maternity leave for longer than a year. Right now, discussions are taking place in the country about the possibility of introducing paid paternity leave.

Israel exists in a region of countries that are hostile to it. What kind of impact does the state of women’s rights in Israel have on the region, where the condition of women in the majority of countries is much worse?

Compared to other countries in the region, Israel is undoubtedly different. Some say that Israel is not doing enough to integrate into the region, that it is too different, that it will never have peace as long as it is so different. My answer is very simple. As a woman, I look at the north and the south, at the west and the east—in all directions. And there is literally nowhere and nothing into which I would like to integrate. Even if someone thinks that it is not quite correct to speak like this, facts are facts: We all applaud Saudi Arabia for allowing women there to drive! In other words, the difference is truly colossal. In Israel there is a significant Arab diaspora with a patriarchal system, as well as a Jewish minority that is also very conservative and practically resists the lifestyle of the modern world. In other words, Israel is truly distinctive, and it is not planning to change. I hope that one day peace will reign in the region. However, women’s rights are spheres in which Israelis will not concede and will not make compromises. On the contrary, we would like our neighbors to move in the direction where men and women are maximally equal in terms of rights and opportunities.

In one article you compare Zionism with feminism. In Israel, Zionism does not raise objections in Israeli society. What about feminism? Is it also a generally accepted phenomenon? 

In Israel this word still elicits a mixed reaction. Here is one of my favorite situations: Whenever a woman is elected to parliament or becomes a minister, some journalist always sticks a microphone in her face and asks: “Are you a feminist?” Imagine, these are women who have just won a political struggle, they led a campaign, were public figures; in other words, they don’t lack courage. On the contrary, they strive to gain authority. So, all of them, with rare exceptions, say this: “I really don’t like that term.” Then they add: “But, of course, I support equal rights for men and women.” In these moments I always joke and say: “But you are a feminist; feminism is exactly what this means!” In other words, very few women feel comfortable with this definition, this label, even though they will say “Yes!” To the question of whether they support equal opportunities for men and women to pursue their dreams and reveal their talents. So, I personally advocate that women have the courage to use this term.

People don’t like using clear-cut terms because this “diminishes” them somehow. When a person uses a clear-cut term, s/he is confident, but people don’t like women who are confident in themselves. Meanwhile, I insist that this definition be used. First of all, there is an element of gratitude in it because no woman in today’s world could have done anything, if not for the feminist movement: have their own bank accounts, the possibility to choose a husband, a profession, and the time for bearing children. So, emphasis on the word “feminism” is a sense of gratitude and understanding that what we have today is the result of the struggle of many women.

But this is not just about the past; it’s also about the future, because the struggle is ongoing. Women still lack security—in the workplace, on the street, in society. Women have to know that when they go to work, nothing more than work will be expected of them. Perhaps this sounds naïve, but it is this that shows how far away from our goal we still are. And equal pay for work? Claire Foy, who played the role of Queen Elizabeth [II] in The Crown [TV] series, was paid less than the man who played the role of Prince Philip! This angered the whole world. How could a “queen” earn less than a “prince”? There is still a long way to go in order for women to be able to attain higher positions, pay, [and] the right to state support for childcare. And use of the term “feminism” is essentially a declaration: Yes, I know that I have rights. But I have to use these rights in order to continue this movement.

Women attain high positions much more rarely than men, particularly in the sphere of international relations. In your opinion, what is this connected with: women’s lack of confidence in themselves, which leads to their stopping themselves voluntarily or with the fact that they are not allowed to advance?

Both. When I was an MP, I was a member of the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Men predominated there: former military men, people who worked in the security sphere. Many times, when I raised some questions, I got condescending looks, along the lines of: “What does that babe know?” But, over time I noticed that men who appeared confident were frequently mistaken, and I was right all along. I have enough confidence already, but this bolstered it even more.

The issue is that in international relations, practically no one knows anything. For example, when the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un took place, everyone was talking about it, but who really knew anything concrete about it? So, what is really important in international relations is how confidently you speak. And here men speak with greater confidence about things that they don’t understand any better than women. So, I decided that I would do the same thing [laughs]. Or let’s take the Arab Spring. At the time, we were sitting in the Committee, and distinguished military men were explaining to us that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was secure, and literally two days later the people brought it down. Or other distinguished military men were predicting that Bashar al-Assad had a few weeks left, but years have passed and he’s still in power. In both cases, I held the opposite view. I thought: “How can you know that he is secure? How can you know what these people with Facebook accounts who are filling the streets of Cairo are capable of doing? And why do you think that Assad will go soon? He saw what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, he drew conclusions, and he won’t go just like that.” In other words, these are simply my reflections based on common sense; I didn’t lay out the history of Egypt of the last 50 years. Common sense is very useful for analyzing international relations, and the fact that someone once drove a tank doesn’t give that person a greater ability than I have to say whether Assad will remain. The challenge for women in international relations is that they will be encountering the attitude, “What does she know?” more often. But in reality, the question is what do those who think like that know?

What kind of prejudices and obstacles have you encountered as a woman, and how did you overcome them?

In my career there have not been that many hierarchical aspects. My posts were elective offices, where there is one ruler—the people. However, there is no leader. On the whole, of course, I was witness to situations in which women were looked at up and down and their qualifications were called into question. Today I have reached a level where I am respected for what I write and what I say. Nevertheless, in order to reach this, a lot of time was needed, a lot of confidence in myself. And I truly admit that in order to end up where I am, I have to give 200 percent. I have to write very well, possess truly original ideas, be an awesome speaker. Meanwhile, men with average ideas, weak writing skills, and wretched public speaking abilities are invited to speak at public events only because, as I have said, they had once driven a tank.

In recent years a change of approach has been completely apparent—in the States, maybe in Europe, too; that it is not good to invite only men; it happens that the audience simply demands that a woman be invited as a speaker. So, this opens up a few more opportunities. Now I am frequently in a situation where I know that I have been invited only because the organizers needed a woman speaker. But once I get to the podium, I speak better than my male colleagues. I accept these situations. Other women say: No, if you’re inviting me only because I’m a woman, then don’t invite me at all! I say: No, invite me, and when I go up to speak, I will demonstrate that you should have invited me for other reasons.

Author: Kateryna Zarembo, deputy director of the New Europe Center.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian on womo.ua

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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