By Linda Hershkovitz, NIFC President

I’m always excited about opportunities to discuss a subject that’s very dear to my heart – NIFC’s role in the struggle for women’s rights in Israel and the occupied territories.

For over 25 years, I have worked with governments, international organizations, and NGOs in the field of international development, focusing on gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment. My work has taken me to China, Vietnam, Ukraine, Pakistan, Egypt, and more – all countries where women’s organizations and activists face huge challenges in advancing a feminist agenda.

When I first started, the study of “women in development” was in its infancy. On one hand, I’ve seen it grow and evolve in complexity, sophistication, and strategic impact. It’s also become more intersectional and less focused exclusively on women as a homogenous category. On the other hand, I’ve been disillusioned to also see it become more institutionalized and watered-down – what began as a feminist movement has all too often become an exercise in bureaucratic box-ticking.

So a decade ago when I became involved in the New Israel Fund of Canada and eventually joined the board, it was important to me to know how we dealt with the rights of women.

Always at the Forefront: Israel’s NIF-Funded Firsts

What I found made me very proud: we have championed women’s rights since our very beginning and remain cutting-edge to today.

In the 1970s and 1980s, NIF proudly founded and funded Israel’s earliest women’s rights organizations and networks. For example, our support established the country’s first Rape Crisis Center network at a time when Israeli society vehemently disbelieved that sexual assault existed within Israeli life. (Sound familiar?)

In the 1990s, NIF proudly founded groups responsible for a golden age of landmark legislation and court rulings that put Israel on equal footing with advances in women’s rights in the US and Europe, including Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunity law. During this time our programs – especially those of Shatil, our training and coalition-building arm – broadened to empowering economically disadvantaged women in inner cities, Palestinian communities, development towns, and unrecognized Bedouin villages.

In the 2000s and 2010s, NIF took the advancement of women and gender rights even further than any diaspora organization: we were the first to foster Israel’s young LGBTQ organizations, as well as feminists within the orthodox, ultra-orthodox, and Arab communities.

And I was so proud to discover that the New Israel Fund of Canada has been part of this work since our founding in 1986. Here is just a selected list of projects funded by Canadians like you during the past three decades:

  • Strengthening the voices of women’s organizations and feminist activists;
  • Providing legal aid to women denied divorces under orthodox law;
  • Empowering women in public housing;
  • Training Bedouin women advocating for better public services for their communities;
  • Promoting leadership by women in the orthodox community;
  • Helping Mizrahi women to create new economic opportunities;
  • Creating online employment resources for Arab-Israeli female university graduates;
  • Identifying and addressing gender-based wage gaps; and many more.

Keeping Pace with International Best Practices

I have observed that worldwide approaches to women’s rights issues have evolved: women are no longer treated as a “special interest” group. Rather women’s rights are considered to be fundamental to the fight for democracy and social justice – no matter what the specific context or issue

NIF in Israel also made this shift, integrating gender equality prominently into all six Issue Areas – that means not just funding, but also capacity building, coalition work, and advocacy. Today NIF, its operating arm Shatil, and their partner organizations are at the cutting edge of international good practices. We must ensure that women are fully included, that their rights are foregrounded, and that the challenges facing women in Israel and the occupied territories are fully recognized and addressed in all their complexity – be it religion, observance, race, ethnicity, citizenship, socio-economic status, disability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Over the last year, I led a process by the Board of Directors here at NIFC to update our own approach to selecting our Canadian-funded issues and projects. We did this partly to bring our categories more in line with “NIF ha-gadol”. This means we proudly espouse six issues that NIF branches around the world regard as the key ingredients of a vibrant, liberal democracy:

  1. Social and Economic Justice
  2. Religious Freedom
  3. Human and Civil Rights
  4. Shared Society and Combatting Racism
  5. Palestinian Citizens of Israel
  6. New Initiatives for Democracy

READ MORE: Our Canadian-Funded Projects in 2020 

Along with the larger NIF family, we recognize that the challenges and issues women are facing are still as critical as ever, while the NGO community has grown in size and sophistication, and thus new strategies and solutions are both needed and possible.

After a lot of soul-searching, that is why we removed women’s rights as a stand-alone category for funding. But we have not abandoned women – far from it! In keeping with NIF’s approach and international best practices, we’re now making sure that gender equality, women’s rights and empowerment are cross-cutting. And in addition we make sure that every year a certain number of our Canadian-funded projects deal directly with women and gender issues.

Women’s Rights and Gender Issues in Israel in 2020

So what do these issues look like in Israel today, especially during the pandemic?

Many of the issues facing women in Israel are particular to Israeli society. For example, Israel is unique among western-style democracies for handing religious courts (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze) a monopoly over personal status issues like marriage, divorce and custody. An extension of these blurred boundaries between religion and state are persistent attempts to erase women from Israel’s public sphere, such as advertising billboards, radio interviews, and public ceremonies.

In other areas, Israel’s gender equality situation reflects many worldwide trends, especially in the time of COVID-19. According to recent reports by NIF partners,

  • Women on average earn 35% less than men and are almost twice as likely to earn less than minimum wage;
  • Women, especially from certain groups, are far more likely than men to live in public housing, and rely on precarious, part-time or informal employment such as care-giving;
  • Women constitute 54% of poor people in Israel and 62.5% of those receiving rent subsidies; 47% of people living in public housing are lone mothers.

And like in the rest of the world – including Canada – the COVID-19 pandemic has widened these already troubling gender gaps in Israel:

  • 30% more women than men lost their jobs or were put on unpaid leave at the height of the crisis.
  • 20% of women placed on unpaid leave since March are among the lowest income earners, below the threshold for government grants provided to companies to reinstate laid-off employees.
  • Only 39% of self-employed people eligible for government aid were women, compared to men’s share of 61%.
  • In April, the government suspended measures protecting pregnant women and those on maternity leave from arbitrary dismissal. By the time the High Court reinstituted these protections, under pressure from NIF partners and others, nearly 10,000 women had already lost their jobs.
  • Domestic violence complaints increased significantly during the spring 2020 lockdown – an NIF partner reported that calls to a domestic abuse hotline increased by 44%! Particularly alarming was an increase in calls from young women under age 18.
  • 72% of health care workers and the majority of people classified as essential workers are women, making them more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
  • Women’s representation in government remains too low – despite the outsized impact of the virus on women, no women were members of the government’s COVID-19 response committee. This only changed after protests and petitions by NIF partners.

So what can we do about issues this large and pervasive?

Case Study: The Adva Center’s “Gender Audit” of Israel’s State Budget

One of NIFC’s perennial project partners whose approach to women’s rights issues has really impressed me is the Adva Centre, a progressive “think-and-do tank” that monitors social and economic developments and works to move forward public policy in the areas of budgets, taxation and social services for excluded or marginalized regions and groups, particularly women.

This year, we are working with them on a program that analyzes government budgets from a gender perspective and empowers everyday citizens with that information. Specifically, Adva organizes “gender lens” trainings for local and national officials, as well as local women activists, to identify budget gaps and to ensure women’s priorities are met.

This may sound dry, but I know from my own work that making this kind of analysis available not only to public officials but to the communities they serve is absolutely vital. It empowers women’s groups to monitor how public money is spent, who benefits, and more importantly who does not. It becomes the basis for better and more just public spending, and it’s a tool for citizens to hold public officials to account.

The Adva Centre is at the forefront of this work in Israel. Not only that, but they have been instrumental in organizing a national network of 80 Arab and Jewish municipal officials designated as Mayoral Advisors on Gender Equality. Their work has continued through the pandemic: despite the lockdown and being sent on unpaid leave, the participants continued to meet on line and operated joint and individual projects to support the women in their localities. And, impressively, they successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice to recognize their work as essential – leading the Interior Ministry to acknowledge that Mayoral Advisors on Gender Equality are statutory officials who must be returned to work.

READ MORE: The Adva Center’s reports on the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women in Israel.

Case Study: Shatil’s “Cross-Cutting” Coalitions and Empowerment

Funding great projects at NGOs is one important tool, but it’s not enough to achieve the Israel we dream of.

That’s why Shatil is so important. Shatil is a 50-person training, coalition-building, and advocacy operation that helps 1,000 organizations each year to act in coordination with each other. It’s not a separate organization: it’s a department of NIF itself.

In my own work in countries where women’s rights organizations are fragmented and weak, I have often wished they could have a Shatil of their own to help strengthen and empower these organizations, amplify their voices and create stronger networks for social change.

Practically speaking, Shatil is a key leader in several ways that we support in order to advance women’s rights and gender equality:

  • Shatil coordinates multiple coalitions of up to dozens of NGOs, such as the Forum Against the Exclusion of Women and the Coalition for Religious Freedom. These coalitions represent the full diversity of women in Israel. And Shatil runs dozens of other coalitions – on health access, Jewish-Arab shared society, fighting the occupation, ending racism, and more – where the inclusion of women, women’s organizations, and gender issues are ensured.
  • Shatil develops leadership in places where no NGOs exist yet. For years Shatil has been organizing among the 77% of public housing tenants who are women, mostly single mothers. NIFC has supported this work, educating these women on their rights and empowering them to confront policy makers in the Knesset. These women are a central force in another Shatil-run coalition – the Forum for Public Housing.
  • Shatil also improves the capacity of organizations themselves, providing over 1,000 hours of expert advice to women’s organizations every year. Throughout the pandemic, Shatil has been tailoring trainings to dozens of women’s organizations on adaptive strategy in these times of crisis.
  • Shatil also stays ahead of trends in civil society in order to constantly push the cutting edge. Right now, Shatil is specifically mapping the needs of women’s, feminist, and LGTBQ groups. This is how we always know where a relatively small amount of funding will make an outsized impact.

Without Shatil’s leadership, it is hard to imagine such a cohesive approach to women’s issues across Israeli civil society today.

Looking Ahead

Many other of NIFC’s partners are working just as hard to protect the rights of women in these unprecedented times. I am so proud of all of them, and so honoured to work with them in such smart and constructive ways to address gender-based inequities across all of NIFC’s priorities.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of blessed memory, a warrior for feminism if there ever was one, shortly before her death chose to share her prize from the US National Constitution Center with the New Israel Fund. She called us one of the organizations “that meant the most to her.” This news reassured me that we are on the right track.

As President of NIFC, I am determined that our commitment to gender equality and women’s rights will continue to be central to everything we do.

Linda Hershkovitz is a native of Toronto and president of the New Israel Fund of Canada. She has a BA from the University of Toronto, an MA from the University of California at Berkeley, and a PhD from the University of British Columbia in economic geography and development studies with a focus on China. She is a former faculty member of the Department of Geography and Program in Planning, University of Toronto, has lived and worked extensively in Asia, and served as Cultural Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. For the past two decades she has worked as an independent consultant in international development, specializing in gender equality and women’s rights. She has provided socioeconomic research, gender analysis, monitoring and evaluation, training and capacity development to the Canadian government, the UK government, the EU, UN agencies, international NGOs and the private sector. Through her work, she has become passionate about the role of civil society in holding governments accountable in defence of democracy, human rights and social justice.