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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Feminist Gera discusses Israel Women’s Network

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: News

Ella Gera spoke at Brandeis Wednesday about the state of women in Israel. The event, held at the Women’s Studies Research Center, was sponsored by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute and other groups to commence Women’s History Month.

Gera, an economist and attorney, is considered by many to be the leading advocate for feminism and women’s rights in Israel. She has served as both Deputy Mayor of Kfar Shmaryahu and Executive Director of the Israel Women’s Network (IWN), an Israeli feminist organization. She spoke about several women’s issues in Israel, focusing on everyday topics such as gender distinction in schools, the military and the government.

Last year, Gera served as chair of a committee appointed by Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat to investigate gender discrimination and stereotyping in Israeli textbooks. Following the study, which showed that more than 90 percent of textbooks didn’t meet committee standards, Gera became more dedicated to fighting discrimination in Israeli schools.

IWN has two primary goals, advocacy and education, Gera said, explaining that the organization sponsors programs for tenth graders, both boys and girls. In the programs, girls are taught skills to help them be heard by their male counterparts and boys are taught that there are different ways of being a man, not just the archetypal “Rambo” militaristic persona embodied by so many Israeli men.

“We teach them that empowering girls is not at their expense,” Gera said.

Twenty percent of the programs are culturally adapted for students in the Arab sector, but still follow the same general pattern.

IWN hopes teens will carry the skills they learn from these workshops for the rest of their lives, whether that means opposing gender stereotypes in the military, the workplace or the family.

Gera identified the military as a major place where gender discrimination occurs. She pointed out that it is constitutionally illegal, but happens anyway.

“American feminists don’t really need to think about the military, but in Israel, well, we are not that lucky,” she said.

She said that the military is not perfect, but is approaching gender neutrality, which is much better than in the 1940s and 1950s, when women were only fighters if they were needed.

One woman who attended the event was part of the Israeli Women’s Corps, a women-only branch of the military, disbanded in 2001. She described the Women’s Corps as “a special place for women to strive for, to learn, to grow,” and thinks that men and women training together is a sexist mechanism for men to oversee women. Gera countered her argument, saying that during the institution of the Women’s Corps, women were less likely to rise up the ranks, and are now more likely to rise professionally after leaving the army.

“You can point and say ‘it’s not so bad,’ but we know that these are the exceptions,” Gera said after naming female professional role models, including Tzipi Livni, head of Kadima, the largest political party in Israel, and Galia Maor, CEO of Bank Leumi, one of Israel’s largest banks.

Although women comprise more than 50 percent of B.A., Masters and Doctorate students, there is a lack of women in the Israeli professional world. Only 20 percent of the Knesset, or Parliament, is female. That number is similar to the 17 percent of American Congress that is female, but ranks far behind most European countries.

Gera spoke highly of the advocacy efforts of the Israeli Women’s Network and their attempts to change what they still see as problems for women in Israel. Referring to their small size (a 9-person mostly part-time staff and a network of volunteers) she said they have a “disproportionate effect,” and are proof that “a small but focused NGO can make a difference.”