Women on Strike

by Abigail Akavia

Photo by Rachel Segev Braun

Tuesday, December 4th, was a day of widespread women’s protests against gender-based violence in Israel. A general women’s strike was declared, which garnered the support of governmental departments, municipalities, unions and major corporations. Demonstrations were held across the country: roads were blocked; water in public fountains was dyed red; at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, an installation of red shoes inspired by the work of Mexican artist Elina Chauvet commemorated victims of domestic violence. The principal event was a mass rally in Tel Aviv Rabin’s Square. The vigils, protests, and marches, organized by dozens of feminist groups led by the Red Flag Coalition, gained an all-encompassing female empowerment vibe à la worldwide women’s marches, pussy riots, and the MeToo movement. The demonstrations were aimed specifically against the government’s with regard to the prevention of domestic violence, and its neglect to finance a multi-departmental program to address the issue—a program it had already principally approved a year ago.

A mere week afterwards, an honorary prize for “contribution to Israeli song” was given at the Knesset, the seat of Israeli parliament, to Eyal Golan. Golan, an immensely popular singer and performer, was investigated four years ago for (allegedly) repeatedly prostituting minor girls, with the help of his father. The criminal case against both of them was closed for “lack of evidence.” Golan was not the sole recipient of the prize, but his presence at the Knesset was controversial and sparked a protest of its own. (Some of the other prize recipients chose to absent themselves.) Though the prize and the ceremony were the initiative of one Knesset member and not an official event of the parliament, the Knesset Chairman is authorized to prevent such a ceremony from taking place. The fact that he didn’t, and that the Knesset as an institution—if not officially then at least by proxy—celebrated a man who casually abused girls, sends a perverted, corrupt message to Israeli women and the public at large. It proves the necessity of women’s disruptive activism in Israel today and, at once, its limited pragmatic effect so far.

According to police records, 25 women were murdered in Israel this year by a family member or acquaintance, almost all male, in acts that are now referred to in Israel as “gender violence” (or gender-based murder, for which a more common English equivalent would be femicide). Widely used by the organizers of the strike, the term stresses that these women were killed because they were women; that they are victims of a culture of systemic gender oppression which fails to protect women from their own partners or family members. It is a system which lacks both resources and motivation to penalize (and/or rehabilitate) violent men, a system where notifying the police often seals the victim’s fate. Half of this year’s victims were known to police or welfare officials, a horrifying fact attesting to the authorities’ impotence and to the fatal inescapability of abusive relationships.

The massive women’s protest was propelled by two unrelated and especially shocking murders which took place the previous week. 16 year old Yara Ayoub was found dead in Jish, a village in the Upper Galilee, three days after having gone missing. There is a gag order on the investigation, but a young man is prime suspect for murder. That same day, the body of a 12 year old girl, Silvana Tsegai, an Eritrean asylum seeker, was found in south Tel Aviv. She was likely beaten to death by her mother’s former domestic partner. One week after the nation-wide strike, Iman Ahmed Awad, a 29 year old pregnant woman, was murdered in Acre—by her husband, the police suspect. Awad is the 25th victim of 2018. In light of her murder, the call for disruptive action was renewed, now as a daily 25-minute strike at 10 am, until the government budgets the promised program to address domestic violence.

The last three female victims are paradigmatic of the state of gender violence in Israel, and of the sad reality of local intersectional politics. Both Awad and Ayoub are Israeli-Arabs, that is, they belong to the Palestinian minority who have been recognized as Israeli citizens since the state declared independence in 1948 (as opposed to the Palestinians of the territories occupied in 1967). This group has been historically and systematically discriminated against in all manners of state- and municipality-funded resources. Even though Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel’s citizenry, around half of women murdered by a family member in the last decade were Arab. The mainstream understanding of the relative prevalence of fatal domestic violence among Arab communities is that it is a symptom of the cultural differences between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Indeed, “murder in the name of family honor” was the traditional expression to describe acts of violence against women, sometimes by their own brothers or cousins and not necessarily their husbands, in various sectors of ethnic minorities of Israel. To be precise, the term is still in common use, current revolutionary talk of gender violence notwithstanding. The “family honor” expression casts such murders as part of a vendetta code among patriarchs, as retribution meted out by the clan against women who refuse to conform to their traditional role. Even if this explanation is not completely bogus, its vindicating ubiquity is dangerous. Understanding femicide as a societally sanctioned act of vendetta perpetuates both the helplessness of law enforcement and the local communities’ mistrust in the official system meant to protect and serve them. At the same time, the state’s embrace of the vendetta lingo a priori exonerates the police from failing to prevent these murders or solve the cases once they have happened; it has also served as cultural justification for light sentences of men convicted of femicide.

Resources for victims of domestic violence, both women and children, are sorely limited across the board. Police’s incompetence or deliberate neglect in dealing with complaints of domestic abuse is widespread. But minority women no doubt suffer from added biases and discrimination, and an even more acute mutual distrust, if they dare come forward. At all levels of public services, Arab women’s plights is worse. For example, there are very few female Arabic-speaking investigators in police departments; in Jewish cities in Israel, there are 14 women shelters, while only a mere two are designated for Arabs across the country. It is unconvincing to explain (man/white-splain) fatal domestic violence among Arabs as part of the higher rate of violent crime in the same community. For we must recognize the complex links between violent crime, cultural marginalization, and systematic discrimination, a constellation in which women—especially those who may try to break out of the cycle of a repressive society—unduly pay the price.

Silvana Tsegai’s devastating story exposes a different underbelly of Israeli society. Tsegai and her mother came to Israel as asylum-seekers from Eritrea, and settled in southern Tel Aviv’s HaTikva neighborhood. The area is home to a large refugee community, predominantly from Eritrea and Sudan, as well as other impoverished people such as work immigrants from the Philippines. Israel’s current right-wing government is doing all it can to make asylum-seekers feel unwelcome, including holding them in the infamous detention center Holot. Holot center closed in March 2018 as the government sought to execute a mass deportation of thousands of asylum seekers to Africa, a plan which eventually did not pan out. Even when they arrive and remain in the country legally, asylum seekers’ requests to be recognized as refugees are almost automatically rejected by Israeli authorities. They remain in Israel essentially without any civic status or rights; this population would be among the most dependent on social services to help them integrate and cope with the traumatic events they experienced, but they have no access to such services in Israel. Tsegai seems to have integrated fairly well, all things considered. She was a regular of Kuchinate, the African Refugee Women’s Collective, whose members design, create and sell crochet products, and hold lessons and workshops. Tsegai used to crochet with the older women after school. She helped make dozens of pink hats for the march held on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In a particularly cruel twist of fate, she was murdered the day after the march.

Needless to say, her murder also rekindled xenophobic sentiment against the asylum seekers among those who are wont to interpret their unfathomable misfortune as proof that they do not belong and should not be welcomed in Israel. But her especially tragic circumstances and her young age, as well as Ayoub’s, helped propel the Israeli women’s strike to its unprecedented dimensions. The December 4th protests were especially remarkable for the way Israeli and Palestinian feminist activists joined forces. In this context, the embrace of the term “gender violence” is meant to delegitimize the reasoning behind “family honor” as a cause of fatal violence, both within the Arab community and within the Jewish discourse about the Arab community. The blanket-term is also an attempt to crack the self-deceptive veneer of enlightenment of the Jewish Israeli community, and to make clear that domestic abusers are everywhere.

Nonetheless, there remains an essential unease among the Palestinian side regarding cooperation with Zionist activists. Some have spoken against the hypocrisy inherent in feminist activism that does not seek to overthrow the Zionist occupation, the state-sanctioned violence against Palestinian women. (We could think of the term “femicide”, again, and of how it is sometimes used radically to draw attention to the special form of sexist violence perpetrated on women in war-zones). Whether explicitly or implicitly, much feminist critique of Israeli culture is criticism against the militarization of society, which is in turn epitomized by the continued oppression of Palestinians—men, women and children—by the state of Israel. As Samah Salaymeh writes, Palestinian women in Israel are trapped in a cycle of violence between the “conservative Arab patriarchy and the Jewish militant dominance machine.” Salaymeh and other Palestinian activists have been fighting the feminist battle for years. Their choice to fight alongside Jewish partners is bold. Its courage lies in being essentially optimistic, in hoping that this fight may eventually lead to a recognition of the systemic ties between Israel’s pervading militance and its sexist oppression of women of all ethnicities and religions.