Gender Equality in Israel
Friday, March 14, 2008 3:45 PM

Because of the dichotomy between religious and secular values in Israel, gender equality in the law has not developed uniformly. While the Israeli Constitution does not provide explicitly for equal rights for women, its Declaration of Independence and the 1951 Women’s Equal Rights Law (WERL) do guarantee political and social non-discrimination.


Family law, however, is governed by each religious community’s courts (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian). Thus, patriarchal religious values preempt the equality guarantees of the WERL.


Attempts to amend the constitution to include a specific gender equality clause have been thwarted. Instead, the Israeli legislature (the Knesset) passed the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Some courts have interpreted gender equality as falling within the rubric of the right to human dignity.


From the beginning of the State, working women have been entitled to many benefits, particularly working mothers. Women have also participated in the military, politics, and the pioneer organizations. But in the 1970’s and 1980’s, feminist organizations brought awareness that participation or female presence does not equal power. And so in 1987, a series of laws and amendments were passed improving women’s status and equal rights. These included equal retirement age, equal pay for equal work, sexual harassment laws, equal participation in the military, etc. In 2000, WERL was amended to incorporate equal opportunity, affirmative action and accommodation for women.


Laws addressing violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, were passed in the 1980’s. Protective orders can be issued, marital rape is now illegal, and broader protections for sexual assault victims at trial were implemented.


The High Court of Justice contends with the clash between religious and secular law. Religious law has a larger impact on the private sphere. Abortion, for example, is legal only in certain circumstances, and religious parties have successfully lobbied to curtail the approved circumstances. But in the public sphere, a large body of gender equality jurisprudence has developed. In addition to pushing the boundaries between public law and private or religious law, the Court has introduced affirmative action and non-discrimination legal principles and practices. So, divisions between radical judicial and legislative policy promoting gender equality and having nothing to do with religion, continue to exist with traditional and patriarchal religious influence over the law. 

Compiled from: Frances Radday, “A Free People in Our Own Land: Gender Equity in a Jewish State,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1 April 2005.