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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Religion, Politics and Gender Equality among Jews in Israel (Draft)

When thinking of politics of religion and state and their effect on gender relations, the case of Israel is unique in many respects: first, Israel has been established as a state for the Jewish People (in its Declaration of Independence), and is defined as a Jewish and democratic state (in its Basic Laws). Second, there has never been formal separation between religion and state in Israel’s legal and political structure, and religion is intertwined at all levels of governance, as well as in political and civil society. The struggle against religious exclusive rule over marriage and divorce has been on the agenda of women’s organizations since the British mandate on Palestine, but it has not met with much success: religious laws still govern marriage and divorce, and civil marriage is non-existent. In addition, Israel’s continuing, violent conflict with its Arab neighbours has overshadowed most other civil and social issues, rendering them “secondary” to the primary concern of securing the safe existence of the state.

This paper demonstrates how this perception has pushed pressing issues—such as gender equality and women’s rights—aside, marking them “less important” than the national conflict, thus allowing for the perpetuation of discriminatory, sometimes rather repressive treatment of women in Israel. The most blatant expression of this that the struggle for civil marriage and divorce has been turned into a non-issue.

This paper first presents a history of this political context, as well as a discussion of the sociocultural background against which issues of women, religion and state should be considered. This is followed by a review of the Israeli political system and its influence on women’s status, including some background information on gender and politics in the country. It then provides a more detailed review and legal analysis of women’s status in Israeli society. The paper concludes with a discussion of women’s organizations within Israeli civil society, highlighting the emergence of religious feminism.