In early December, under banners declaring “This is an emergency” and carrying signs with pictures of the 24 women murdered in 2018, more than 20,000 women gathered in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest against femicide and gender-based violence in Israel.
The demonstration was the culmination of a day of street theater, local demonstrations, rallies and 24-minute strikes throughout the country. All day, dozens of women lay in the roads with fake blood spattered over their clothes; others poured red-colored water into fountains; in Tel Aviv, protestors created an installation of red-dyed shoes. Hundreds of municipalities, public institutions and private companies supported the strikes and gave their workers permission to participate, with pay, in the day’s events.
Since then, the violence continued. The 25 women murdered this year represent a 30 percent rise compared with previous years, but it took a series of events to release the pent up sorrow and rage.
The week before the demonstrations, Silvana Tsegai, aged 13, was raped and murdered in her Tel Aviv home, allegedly by her mother’s former partner, and Yara Ayoub, 16, from the town of Jish in northern Israel, was found dead in her hometown. According to media reports, Tsegai had called the police several days earlier to complain about violence in her home. Authorities have identified the primary suspect in Ayoub’s murder as a 28-year-old man from Jish and have arrested several others.
Also that week, a bill for the establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry on gender-based violence was voted down in the Knesset. Putting politics ahead of social justice and women’s needs, all of the female Knesset members from the coalition capitulated to coalition discipline and voted against the proposal in order to deny the opposition, which had presented the bill, a parliamentary victory.
Two days later, in observance of the International Day against Violence Against Women, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, paid a photo-op visit to a battered women’s shelter. When confronted with his government’s decision to reject the bill, Netanyahu announced that he would establish and personally head an inter-ministerial committee.
Netanyahu, it appears, not only doesn’t view women’s lives as important–he also seems to think women are stupid. In July 2017, his government accepted the recommendations of a previously-appointed intra-ministerial committee and adopted a comprehensive program to deal with gender-based violence. The government also promised to allocate 250 million shekels ($67 million) to the program.
The promised funds have never materialized and implementation of the program has yet to begin. Who needs another committee?
That week, a group of young feminist activists took to Facebook. They designed the logo with the “This is an emergency” and “I am a woman and I am on strike” slogans. Their anger caught on, first on social media, then in the mainstream media, then in mainstream women’s organizations, then in political and social institutions.
The demonstration was sad, angry, inspiring and determined.
Arab, Jewish, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Russian; Muslim, Jewish, Christian; Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and secular. Women demonstrated together, holding signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, and English.
Specifically, we demanded that the government allocate the NIS 250 million it had already promised. Yet the demands were so much broader. By demonstrating–even as the government launched a campaign to uncover infiltration tunnels in the north–women were stating that women’s security is national security. Women don’t need wars to die, and don’t need Hezbollah or Hamas to terrify us.
The backlash was quick and angry. On social media, the usual suspects posted the usual catcalls about feminazis and feminist radicals who hate men. Some noted that more than half of the victims are Arabs so it’s not “our” (that is, Jewish Israelis’) problem. But as women, we reject the politics of hate.
Some politicians, pandering to their lowest-common-denominator constituencies, proved that sex offenders still enjoy public support. A female Knesset member, Nava Boker (Likud), showed her disdain for women and girls by bestowing an official cultural award on Eyal Golan, who had been implicated in (but never convicted of) sex scandals involving under-aged girls, whom he drove around in his “Pussycar” (his words).
That same day, Iman Awaad, 29, had her throat slit; her husband has been arrested as a suspect in the murder. Now, still sad, angry, inspired and determined, we will strike once a week for 25 minutes.
In his visit to the shelter, Netanyahu said, “We need to help abused women on the one hand, and on the other hand punch these abusive men or abusive husbands in the face. Both have to come together.” No, Mr. Prime Minister; in a country where an estimated 200,000 women suffer from violence at the hands of their spouses and partners, punches in the face—whether real, metaphorical or virtual—are not the solution. The solutions are rooted in the social system that perpetuates all forms of inequality–and it takes more than force to change them.
Sensing the momentum, some have called for the establishment of a women’s political party to run for Knesset. Yes, standing together was a heady, stirring experience, but it’s not likely that that will translate into a political party. The struggle for women’s rights cannot proceed at the expense of other parts of our intersectionality, and women’s rights will not be won if we repress other forms of human rights. In the struggle against violence against us, Israeli women have been wise enough to effectively avoid the excesses of identity politics, despite the differences among and between us that have undermined so many feminist struggles. If we want to succeed, we will have to create a new form of feminist politics. We don’t know how to do that yet, and we don’t have many examples to learn from.
But that doesn’t mean that this is not a political movement. The demand to set the public agenda, criticism of the ineptness of the government and rejection of the politics of hatred are political acts. Asserting a demand for equality–not “merely” equal rights to our lives and our bodies, but also for equality in salaries, public presence, power and voice–is a political act. The hope for a kinder, more compassionate society, in which we don’t merely not-die but actually live and flourish is a supremely political position.
We will stand for each and every woman who suffers until the government accepts its responsibility to eradicate gender-based violence. Or at least until it allocates the NIS 250 million it promised nearly a year and a half ago.