The Meeting Ground between Arab and Jewish Women in Israel


The women in Tel Aviv and Nazareth seem at a glance to be poles apart. In Tel Aviv they dress to kill. They study and work in a wide range of fields. They go “out on the town” till the wee small hours. They seem, in short, liberated. By contrast, many women in Nazareth, especially the married ones, cover their heads and wear traditional dress. Very few work outside the home. Even fewer attend university. Their social life is confined to family and neighbors.

Yet appearances are misleading. Recent measures taken by Israel’s government to undermine the welfare state have harmed women first of all, both Arab and Jewish. Of the Jewish, many who in the past had gained a foothold in the middle class find themselves shunted to the margins of society. The income supplements they depended on have been whisked out from under them. The same cuts have worsened the plight of Arab women.

Despite the fact that both groups, indeed the lower classes in general on both the Arab and Jewish sides, suffer from an erosion in living-standards - and often for identical reasons - there is an utter lack of dialogue between them. Each camp closes up within itself, taking pride in its superiority. The Jewish women see themselves and their society as modern and democratic. Regarding their Arab counterparts, they are quick to label them “primitive.” For their part, Arab women are convinced that the Western life style exposes Jewish women to sexual abuse. They are better protected, they feel, and morally superior.

Thus each side sees the mote in the other’s eye while blind to the log in its own. The rift between the two groups of women helps prevent the formation of a strong protest movement to combat Israel’s globalizers, who are burying the welfare state. The rift is a boon, that is, to the present government of Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres.

The situation of women, both Jewish and Arab, is a function of class. If we wish to understand this, we cannot ignore the historical background of each group.


Until the 1990’s, Jewish women were lucky enough to live in an industrializing society that encouraged their participation in the work force (as well as the army). The Zionist movement cultivated the myth of the Jewish woman as pioneer and warrior. It took the “conquest of labor” as one of its guiding principles: Jews were to become again, as in antiquity, a productive people - and women were to be part of that. The State established an infrastructure of childcare centers that enabled them to work outside the home. Even those who had immigrated from Arab lands (“Mizrahi” women), after a period of adjustment, adopted the principles that constitute a precondition for liberation: education, freedom of movement, and financial independence. Mizrahi men who opposed the change proved no match for the ruling ethos.

The history of Arab women in Israel is different. Until 1948, they were part of an agrarian society. They were locked into the function that had imprisoned women for millennia: to produce hands to work in the fields. They were also essential to the household economy (cooking, cleaning, milling, baking, sewing, making cheeses and soap). After 1948, however, the essential ingredient of an agrarian economy disappeared: the State confiscated most Arab land. What little farming remained could not compete with the scientific agriculture practiced by the Jewish collectives (mostly on confiscated fields).

Until 1966, the Arabs were under military rule and could leave their villages only by permit. Israel allowed no industry to develop in their locales. When military rule was canceled, therefore, most Arab men had no options except to become a commuting proletariat, working in the Jewish cities (where they learned Hebrew). The Arab woman was condemned to a life devoid of social or economic significance. The shrinking of agriculture reduced the need for so many children, and her household cheeses, bread, soap, and clothing were replaced by factory products. She had become socially superfluous.

Israeli law provides compulsory free education between the ages of 4 and 15, and it remains free through the twelfth grade. One might suppose, then, that education would open doors for the younger Arab woman. Here, however, she faces two impediments. One is the general discrimination against Arabs. This is manifest in the lack of Arab industry, jobs and organizational infrastructure (such as childcare centers) that would enable women to work. The other great impediment is Arab society itself, which subordinates women in all aspects of life. Israel played a role here too. Instead of drawing the Arabs partly into its society, as it did Jews from Arab lands, it took the opposite course, strengthening the rule of the patriarchal clans. Discrimination has here created two societies, one that belongs to the industrialized world and another that suffers from underdevelopment.

The proximity of the two societies, however, throws the Arab side into a state of constant self-contradiction. According to Samya Nasser, Chairperson of the Workers Advice Center (WAC) and women’s activist in Nazareth, “No one will stop an Arab woman from getting a driver’s license, but once she has it, she will have to get permission from her family-head, be it father, brother or husband, to drive from one place to another. She can learn a profession, but once she’s married, there is little chance she’ll be permitted to work in it.”

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Arab women (especially those who had not yet married) managed to gain a foothold on the fringe of the Israeli labor market, when textile plants shifted from the center of the country to Jewish cities in Galilee. After the Oslo Accords in the 90’s, however, most of the sewing passed to Egypt, Jordan and East Asia, where the cost of labor is a tiny fraction - about a tenth, in most cases - of Israel’s legal minimum wage ($4.00/hr). Thousands of Arab women lost their jobs. (We have traced these developments in Challenges 40, 48, 60 and 66.)

Before the mid-1990’s, many Arab women also worked for the kibbutzim in agriculture, as well as in house-cleaning and care-provision for the disabled. In all these fields too, globalization hit them: imported workers took the jobs.

An exception to this picture is provided by a minority of educated Arab women with good family connections who have been able to find jobs in certain government offices (Education, Welfare, etc.) or in regional councils as teachers, welfare workers and clerks. In the 1990’s, there was also a mushrooming of NGOs in the Arab sector. A small number of female college graduates found work in them. But the vast majority of Arab women lack higher education and remain without prospects.

The common foe

Despite the cultural rift between Jewish and Arab women, the force of poverty should bring them into alliance. The Jewish State, which once aspired to be a model of egalitarianism (for Jews), has adopted the principles of globalization in their rawest and cruelest form. The logic of pure capitalism spares no one. What happened to Arab women in Galilee also happened to Jewish women in the southern development towns: the textile firms moved their plants to Jordan, Egypt and China.

Although the traditional industries vanished, a high-tech boom kept the economy growing in the 90’s, enabling the State to compensate the victims of globalization, in part, with income supplements. This cushion dulled their awareness of approaching danger. Jewish women who found part-time positions could still maintain a lower-middle-class standard of living. But then came the Nasdaq plunge in March 2000, followed six months later by the second Intifada. The economy went into recession.

In early 2003 a new Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, claimed that catastrophe sat at the door. His response was to make Israel more attractive for the rich. The country, he said, had been spending beyond its means. The solution? Cheapen the cost of labor and cut welfare. Let the poor go to work in the jobs that would trickle down from the investments of the rich!

Netanyahu cut into guaranteed minimum income, child allowances, old-age benefits, supplements to single parents, and unemployment compensation. Women made up 65% of those receiving this money. They weren’t parasites or charity cases, as he made them out to be. The vast majority worked, but their pay was so low that they needed the supplements in order to get through the month. They were Netanyahu’s main victims.

For example, before his Recovery Plan, a family earning 3000 NIS monthly (ca. $680) was entitled to an income supplement of 1700 NIS, and child allowances (assuming four children) came to 2000 NIS. The total, then, was 6700 NIS. The Plan cut the income supplement to 700 NIS and the child allowances to 1000 NIS.

Netanyahu also cut jobs in public services, where women made up 65% of the workers (especially in local governments, social work, and teaching).

To complete the picture: most employees of personnel agencies (“manpower” companies) are women. Within a given industrial sector, those who work through personnel agencies get less pay, less job stability, and fewer social benefits. Women also make up the majority of part-time workers, often receiving less than minimum wage.

The Vicki Knafo Story

There are 120,000 single-parent families in Israel today (a tenth of the total), and 90% of them are headed by women. (Ynet, Miri Hasson, March 8, 2005.)

In the 1980’s and 90’s, 70% of the single mothers managed to work full- or part-time. The part-timers received an income supplement. Thanks to government aid in the form of tax breaks, rent supplements and grants, single mothers were able to support their families and maintain an almost middle-class standard of living.

The double blow of recession and Netanyahu’s Recovery Plan nudged these women and their families below the poverty line. On July 2, 2003, Vicki Knafo, 43, a single mother from the desert town of Mizpeh Ramon, began a walk to Jerusalem, demanding to meet Netanyahu. Knafo quickly became a symbol for the social struggle of Israeli women. In her footsteps arose the biggest protest movement among women in recent memory. Dozens of single mothers left home on foot, joining Knafo’s encampment before the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem. The movement arose independently of the Histadrut (National Labor Federation) and of existing women’s groups.

Under pressure, Netanyahu announced grants for mothers who managed to expand their jobs, grants to employers who created jobs, and a central job-information line. Knafo said she would put his proposal to the test. She took down her tent in September and returned to Mizpeh Ramon.

There would be no work. Globalization had seen to that. Netanyahu’s incentives were temporary, as were the few jobs that turned up - most of them part-time. Knafo put in several TV appearances under the aegis of various organizations. For example, she was invited to Geneva for the announcement of the accord between Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabo. In September 2004, one year after striking her tent, she appeared nude on “Butterfly One,” an Israeli porn site, which charged viewers 30 NIS to see her. On her back she displayed the words, “The establishment fucked me,” and on her chest, “You milked me.” In an interview on September 14 to Walla, another Israeli website, she said: “I want to get into people’s guts so they’ll feel the pain felt by me and women like me.” (www.walla.co.il)

Knafo is an authentic representative of a large under-class. But she disregarded the source of the problem: globalization. She waged her campaign as if still living in the era of “solidarity among Jews.” The new Israel is a country of, by and for the rich. Knafo thought she could get a direct deal with Netanyahu by confining the issue to single-parent families. Coming from a social class that traditionally votes Likud, she wanted to use her image as “one of the people” to persuade him to cancel the decrees. That explains the big Israeli flag she carried to Jerusalem. But this flag no longer signifies a bond. Netanyahu’s flag has a dollar sign.

By draping herself in the blue Star of David, Knafo also sent a message to Arab women: “Your place is not with me.” She opposed the consequences of Netanyahu’s conservative economic ideology but refused to confront that ideology itself. She ignored potential allies in other damaged sectors. The costs of the Occupation, for example (the bad name it gives Israel, its constant destabilizing effect, the drainage of resources by the settlements) accounts for much of the deficit that spurred Netanyahu’s cuts. But the Occupation never became part of the public dialogue around Knafo.

One reason was this: the leftist organizations supporting her were aware of her followers’ right-wing views and feared to alienate them. Thus they missed the opportunity to show these women the link between Netanyahu’s economics and his politics.

The Labor Party and Meretz, for their part, had nothing to offer Knafo. They long ago sacrificed their social agenda by espousing globalization. Having lost their birthright, they remain without inheritance. For Knafo and her friends, these tinkling cymbals of the Left could not replace the Likud that had let them down. With nowhere to turn politically, they went as a teen to papa, asking for an allowance. Papa had other priorities.

Arab women: prisoners in their own homes

Arab women in Israel suffer from twofold oppression, as Arabs and as women. The ethnic oppression shows up in figures: 14.1% of the Arabs in Israel are officially unemployed, compared with 9.3% of Jews. The poverty rate among Arab families is 33%, compared to 15% among Jewish. The average wage among Arabs is 30 NIS per hour; among Jews it is 42. (Shehadeh Matanes, Haaretz May 11, 2004.)

To this ethnic oppression is added that from within Arab society. Only 17% of Arab women work outside the home, compared to 50% among Jewish women. (Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2003) Yet work is a basic condition for ensuring a decent social status. When 83% of women do not have jobs, they are deprived of all influence - social, political and domestic.

In addition, Arab businessmen take advantage of the fact that so few jobs are available to these women. They maintain an illegal economy beside the official one. The last research on this topic, by the Arab Institute for Human Rights, dates from 1988, but our impression, based on recent interviews with women in Nazareth, is that the situation has only worsened. The Institute reported that 61% of the Arab women who worked full-time did not make the legal minimum wage (often they made about half of it). 28% worked without a contract or pay slip. (See Challenge 80, “Exploitation in Nazareth.”)

We have seen that the Oslo process, after raising hopes among Israel’s Arabs, only deepened their poverty while the Jewish economy thrived. Rage produced the internal Intifada of October 2000, when Arabs paralyzed much of the country (and Israel’s police gunned down 13 of them). The disappointment with secular solutions fueled an Islamic revival. The Islamic movement encourages Arab society to close in on itself. It downplays the things of “this world” and feeds the hope for pie in the sky. Women now find it harder than ever to get permission from their patriarchs to work. More and more are married off as minors.

The question arises as to why no feminist movement has arisen among Arabs in Israel. A principal reason is that the women have always made common cause with the men against Israeli oppression. For many years, Hadash (the Arab-Jewish party led by the Communists), as well as the national parties, raised the banners of “Jewish-Arab equality” and “an end to the Occupation.” Throughout the national struggle, the status of women remained a side issue. In many respects, to stand up to one’s family and demand personal emancipation is more difficult than to join the fight for equality within a national framework. If an Arab woman rebels against her family, insisting on her right to marry whom she pleases, or to work outside her village, or to divorce her husband, she will be ostracized from the society. Where then she go? To Jewish society, the enemy, which rejects her on racist grounds?

Today, when Arab society finds comfort in Islam, there is again little chance that a feminist movement will arise. Instead there is only a sprinkling of NGOs doing important work on particular issues.

A triangle of forces

Israeli society lives in denial. Its faade of democratic openness conceals a backyard of Occupation, violence and exploitation. Within its borders there is undeclared apartheid. Where Arabs are concerned, state policy ordains unemployment, underdevelopment, and discrimination. Arab society is indeed conservative and patriarchal - in a word, backward - especially in its attitude toward women, but much of the responsibility for the lack of change falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders.

Yet Arab society too lives in denial. Its answer to discrimination is to enclose itself in traditional values. Since there are no jobs for Arab women in any case, the society sanctifies the notion that their place is in the home. Exclusion spurs hatred of Western values - including the positive ones, such as acknowledgment of women’s rights.

So bleak a situation requires long breath. Two non-profit associations, Sindyanna of Galilee and the Workers Advice Center, offer a small but important example of what can be done. A principal purpose in the creation of Sindyanna, which markets olive-oil products on a fair-trade basis, has been to open jobs for women. WAC has focused for the last three years on the construction industry, where it has organized Arab men. This effort has included a major educational program emphasizing women’s rights, for in order to get women out to work, it is important to persuade the men. Recently WAC has been finding jobs for both women and men in agriculture.

The struggle against unemployment requires response from the whole working class. That class is unorganized today. The Histadrut defends only the upper levels among the Jewish workers. It has abandoned the lower levels in both groups. Social protest has passed into the hands of small NGOs or individuals like Vicki Knafo, who are hardly able to wage the long bitter struggle against Israeli capitalism.

To wage that struggle, we shall need a triangle of forces. One must be the Arab population as a whole. Another must be the population of women, Jewish and Arab, who suffer from government policy. The third force must be the working class, which has fallen prey to gloves-off globalization. These three groups will have to forge a common strategy against the Occupation, against sexism, and against capitalism. The challenge is great and the work is long, but experience shows that there are no short cuts.

Michal Schwartz

From: Challenge N91

May - June 2005

Challenge A magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Photo from: Radio Feminista www.radiofeminista.net

Women manifestation against the wall, organized by Women in Black.

During: Women in black international Conference: "Women Resist War and occupation" Jerusalem, 12-16/08/2005


28th December 2005


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