With the start of the new Knesset session in October, all eyes will be on the elections that must take place sometime between fall 2012 and fall 2013. Last year at this time, with the Israeli summer social protest movement in the streets and the establishment of an official committee to look at possible ways to make major changes to benefit the working middle class, there was hope that finally social change would become the number one issue for the upcoming elections.
Sadly, a year later, not much has happened. No new housing has been built, no help for students has been provided – just a watered down plan for early childhood options for working parents and a new tax hike. Attempts to bring people out into the streets again have failed and unemployment is rising. While the women’s movement has been steadily gaining strength and maturing and the High Court has condemned gender segregation in principle, such segregation is still on the rise.

The High Court issued two historic rulings – ordering bus segregation to end and, more recently, that Egged buses in Jerusalem must show women’s faces on their ads, yet the battle goes on. Most recently, an ad campaign for a new Israeli movie about a group of Jerusalem high school students, boys and girls, has been showing all over the country, but in Jerusalem, the girls’ faces were again blacked out on billboards.

One new solution is specially designed glasses now available that can blur out the faces of people so that when walking in the street, the men do not have to see women if they choose not to. The unofficially segregated buses still run, and now that the haredi (ultra- Orthodox) community may be forced to serve in the army, the question of how to prevent contact between the haredi men and women is still a major stumbling block to resolving the induction controversy.

Civil marriage and divorce is still unsettled, along with the plight of the agunot – women whose husbands will not grant a get or divorce – despite more than 27 organizations working in coalition on the issue for years.

It is clear that this election could become a tipping point. Either the opponents of equality will win or those who believe in women’s rights will prevail. Fighting back piecemeal is no longer a viable option. We have made great progress as more and more grassroots movements and advocacy campaigns have taken hold. Even more significantly, the mainstream Israeli voter now understands that gender segregation and other discrimination against women are not just “women’s issues,” but rather a symptom of a society that needs to redirect its domestic agenda to stay a viable state with a civil society that is healthy, strong and compelling to the next generation of Israelis.

Security needs are always a priority in Israeli elections. With a nuclear Iran looming, the lack of a peace process, and the possibility of regime change in war-torn Syria, security will continue to be a major issue in Israeli elections. This is nothing new. Since the establishment of the state, it has always been a major issue. But civil society issues such as the situation of women need to be at the forefront of the next election and cannot be sidetracked by the security concerns that have been and probably will be a major issue for generations to come.

Women must not only come out to vote but also run for office. All politicians, new candidates, and most of all voters must ensure that women’s status stays at the forefront of the election campaigns. And once they (whoever “they” may be) take office, a strengthened movement must see to it that those elected keep their campaign promises – not an easy task in a parliamentary system where minority parties hold sway out of proportion to their numbers in the electorate. But a task that needs the highest priority.

by Shari Eshet (www.jpost.com); photo: Marc Israel Sellem