04/26/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Israel's Founding Pledge

As Israel celebrates its 64th birthday, many pro-Israel women cannot help but wonder what its founders would say about the uproar over the increasing examples of gender segregation on buses and in certain public spaces. Unlike the U.S. Founding Fathers, Israel's visionary leaders never thought that there would be a conflict between religion and state issues. In fact, Israel's Declaration of Independence clearly stated that the new state "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex... " Now, after our own struggle here to uphold our right to control our own bodies and to access contraception, the situation of Israeli women doesn't seem so distant. And it's an occasion to examine and assess the progress of that commitment with regard to the legal and social status of women.

Israel, however, is caught in an unusual conundrum -- how to ensure the egalitarian principles upon which Israel was founded while acknowledging the lack of separation between religion and state that was (supposedly) guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution but never made explicit in Israeli laws. As a result, ultra-religious parties, way out of proportion to their numbers in the general population, have gained significant power in the Knesset, due to the desire of some major parties to include them in their governing coalitions in order to retain power.

Nevertheless, Israel has taken many steps to implement its founding pledge as it applies to women. Landmark legislation is on the books that any modern democracy committed to equality should aspire to stand for. Israel's 1998 law against sexual harassment, which makes such behavior a criminal matter, goes beyond anything in U.S. law and is not confined only to employment. Indeed, the law figured in the prosecution of former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who is serving a seven-year term in prison after being convicted in 2010 of rape, sexual harassment, committing an indecent act while using force, and obstruction of justice. More recently, a man who referred to a female soldier as "prostitute" when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem was criminally charged under this law.

Last year, Israel enacted a model law on sex trafficking that is similar to one adopted in many European countries, but not in the U.S. It turns the spotlight away from the women and focuses instead on prosecuting those who perpetuate the commodification of women's bodies.

Israel has the whole panoply of social legislation common to European social democracies, including laws that mandate equality in work, education, and public accommodations, among other aspects of public life. However, just as in the U.S., women in Israel earn lower pay ($.86 as compared to $.78 in the U.S.), and many struggle to balance work and family life, and have yet to achieve equitable representation in government bodies at all levels. Women of Arab descent and other minority backgrounds suffer even more, despite laws that apply equally to them.

The recent developments threatening women's status, while quite different (until recently) from our experience in the United States, are not unique to Israel, but exist in even greater degree in most of the Middle East. The state empowers religious authorities to determine matters of divorce and personal status, so that all those living in Israel must adjudicate such matters before rabbinical courts, if they are Jewish, or before other appropriate religious bodies if they are Muslim, Druze, or Christian. This system has worked to the detriment of women, particularly (and ironically) of Jewish women since a man's consent must gained for a divorce to be granted. If the husband refuses, the woman may not remarry and any children she has thereafter will have a lesser status. Such women are referred to in Israel as agunot, or "chained." A vigorous movement exists to reform the divorce process in order to address the status of such women so they can be free to move on with their lives.

The more recent uproar over attempts by ultra-Orthodox groups to enforce gender segregation on some public buses has brought to light other efforts to diminish women's participation in the public sphere. In the last two years, reports of efforts to keep women off sidewalks, out of government conferences (on gynecology of all things!), to ban their pictures from billboards, and to disrespect them even as they serve in the military have provoked a backlash in support of women's equality. The courts have sided with women; yet the struggle to implement their decisions continues, waged by an array of women's organizations and allies in civil society.

"Freedom is a constant struggle," was a byword of the U.S. civil rights movement. It's the operating principle of all the movements to uphold, preserve, and expand human dignity everywhere. Those of us in the U.S. who celebrate Israel's birthday must also help uphold its pledge of gender equality made 64 years ago. For me and for the National Council of Jewish Women, which I have the honor to lead, that means moral and material support for the movements and organizations that strive to keep Israel's promise to women.

As we celebrate the modern miracle which Israel, today, is and hope that women in other states in the region will one day enjoy the same freedoms that Israeli women have, we also support the Israeli government's attempts to ensure that even absent a strict separation of religion and state, women will not be treated like second class citizens in any public space now or in the future.