In S.F. visit Israeli feminist calls peace key to womens equality

For Israeli women, peace will carry its own dividend — social equality, says leading Israeli feminist Galia Golan.

Golan, a Hebrew University professor and co-founder of several Israeli women's groups, asserts that peace will help women by breaking down the biggest obstacle to gender equality — the army.

"The army is a male institution, a patriarchal institution," said Golan, who has led an advisory committee on women's status in the Israel Defense Force. "In the army, you have a reinforcement of stereotypes…With few exceptions, women are in subordinate roles."

Once Israel achieves peace with its neighbors, Golan said, the army's significance within Israeli society will shrink and women's issues will rise on the country's priority list.

Golan was interviewed on a recent San Francisco visit, part of a nationwide fund-raising tour for the progressive New Israel Fund. The group grants money to assist grassroots efforts in Israel to improve civil and women's rights, pluralism, and Jewish-Arab relations.

Her assessment of the Israeli army's impact on the status of women stems from its very structure, which she considers inherently unequal.

Virtually all Israeli men are drafted into the IDF, she said, compared to nearly 75 percent of women. Men generally serve for three years, while women serve two years. While men must follow up their army service with annual reserve duty, virtually no women must do the same. In addition, women aren't allowed to train for combat positions.

This military system, Golan maintains, socializes young men and women into believing that men play the more important role in society.

"It winds up reinforcing traditional roles of women," she said.

Israeli feminists aren't waiting for full-scale peace to improve women's status, however. Activists, for example, are waiting for the High Court of Justice to decide a case in which a woman with a civilian pilot's license has asked to enroll in military pilot training.

But Golan acknowledges that she isn't optimistic about this case's outcome because the courts have not been leaning lately in the direction of women's rights.

This fall the Israeli high court ruled against a petition from the Women at the Wall to allow women to pray together at Jerusalem's Western Wall on Simchat Torah. Women are currently prevented from praying together, reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls there.

Golan isn't ready to give up the fight, though. The 57-year-old Jerusalemite has been working for women's rights since the early 1970s.

Born in Cincinnati, Golan earned her undergraduate degree at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She immigrated to Israel in 1966 and began teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Feminism was far from her mind, until she got married in 1972.

"The man I married was a feminist," she said. "I was a queen bee. I had made it and didn't see any problems."

She wasn't alone. In the early 1970s, Golan said, feminists were combating the "myth of equality" that stemmed from the belief that Israel's socialist origins translated into women's rights.

"Women weren't even equal in the kibbutz, let alone anywhere else," she said. "Today, there's a much greater awareness of the problem."

Since her conversion to feminism, Golan has founded or co-founded Israel's first women's studies program, the Israel Women's Network, the National Council on the Status of Women, and Jerusalem Link — a Jewish-Palestinian women's group supporting the peace process. She has also been active in left-wing Israeli politics, acting as a spokesperson for Peace Now.

Despite these efforts and her personal success, Golan believes Israeli women have a long way to go before they achieve equality.

In 1985, for example, she became a full professor of Soviet and East European studies. But only 8 percent of all full professors in Israel are women, she said, and only 20 percent of new academic jobs go to women even though they earn 43 percent of all doctorate degrees.

There is also a growing salary gap between women and men. In the 1980s, she said, women earned about 80 percent of what men brought home. Today, that gulf has widened, with women earning 50 percent to 60 percent of what men earn.

Women face other hurdles as well, such as conflicts with the Orthodox religious establishment, which has jurisdiction over all Jewish marriages and divorces in Israel. The problems remain unsolved regarding agunot, women who cannot force their estranged husbands to divorce them under Jewish law and thus cannot remarry. The Israel Women's Network has been meeting with Knesset members and religious leaders to find a solution, Golan said, but no progress has been made.

In some areas, however, women's status has improved. Earlier this year, homemakers were granted social security benefits.

Affirmative action arrived in Israel this year as well. One new law requires that all state-owned companies include at least one woman on their boards of directors. Another new law requires the civil service to hire a female applicant if an equally qualified woman and man apply for a job — until parity is reached in its workforce.

Despite such advances, Golan contends that only comprehensive peace in the Middle East will lead to substantial changes for women. So far, she acknowledged, peace agreements with the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians haven't led to any measurable improvements for her gender.

"We haven't gotten peace yet, so the army is still very central," she said. "I do believe that once we get there, it will get better."