By Emily Schrader
Last week, Israel made headlines for the selection of a man, MK Oded Forer (Yisrael Beytenu), as the head of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality, only the second man ever to hold the position. At a time when issues of domestic violence and femicide are increasing, and women’s representation in leadership positions (especially in government) is far from progressive, Israeli political parties continue to send a clear message to the public: that women’s representation, indeed even women’s issues, are not something they take seriously.
MK Forer receiving this committee posting is yet another manifestation of the problem of unequal representation for women in Israeli politics, both in the Knesset and within the parties. Forer’s appointment was not a malicious or necessarily even intentional slight against women. It came as a result of the number of mandates Yisrael Beytenu had in the government, which gave them “first dibs” on heading up the committee. While the position could have been assigned to a female MK from Yisrael Beytenu, the party chose Forer, once again demonstrating how skewed the system is against women.
The announcement of Forer’s new position did not come without controversy, with multiple women’s rights groups condemning the action, and with reason far beyond the fact he is a man. Israeli women’s rights group Kulan stated, “this is someone who has never experienced life as a woman in Israel and whose life will not be affected in any way whatsoever by the committee’s actions and decisions. We call on Knesset member Forer to realize that this is a slap in the face of all women in Israel and to forgo the appointment of his own volition.” Other women’s groups and public figures condemned the appointment as well.
Indeed, Forer has no experience or involvement with women’s issues. In fact, he previously voted against proposed bills advancing women’s rights, including voting against an amendment of the Women’s Equal Rights Law mandating appropriate representation for women in the workplace. When interviewed about his new position and the controversy, Forer awkwardly stated “I’m someone for whom equality is important, I don’t know what a feminist is. I’m for sectoral equality.” MK Forer’s statements about women’s issues are the equivalent to the “all lives matter” response to systemic racism against blacks. Someone who “doesn’t know what a feminist is” has absolutely no business leading the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women in Israeli society.
Forer also told the press he was glad his appointment to the committee was grabbing headlines, “even if it’s because of the surprise that a man can also lead in this sphere in the Knesset.” Setting aside the fact that this position has already been held by a man, is MK Forer under the impression we have a problem with men being in specific positions of leadership?
What about the fact there has never been a female Minister of Defense, Finance or Interior? What about the fact that the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense has only two female MKs, much less a female leader, and has never been led by a woman? Or how women lead only two of 22 Knesset Committees, are eight of the 35 ministers and hold none of the most senior posts?
Despite having a record number of female MKs this Knesset with 30, Israel ranks 27th out of 36 countries in the OECD for female representation. Israel still has no laws requiring quotas for female representation at the party or Knesset level, and allows explicit gender-based discrimination by religious parties, which ban women from running for office. I think it’s safe to say that no one is “surprised” that a man can be in yet another position of government power.
Outspoken feminist MK Merav Michaeli, a fellow committee member, came to Forer’s defense in a long Facebook point pointing out that there’s no reason to disqualify him because he’s a man, nor because he has little experience in the field.
“We have said for years that men must join the feminist struggle, the struggle for equality,” she wrote.
She also emphasized that in many committees, the members (or committee leaders) don’t have a particular expertise or history in the field.
“Politics does not work according to expertise, it works according to political power. A faction that has more mandates will get more roles, more seniority.” She’s certainly not wrong, but that also doesn’t make it acceptable in this context.
MK Forer, despite his track record and his comments, may still do well in this position, just as Gideon Sa’ar did as the only other man to hold the position. But the fact that he has already demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues at a time when women’s rights and equality are actually deteriorating is very concerning. After all, if we examine the track record of men in leadership and how effective they have been in putting items on the agenda that affect women, it’s pretty much a spectacular fail across the board. That is not to say that women always act in the interest of women either, but the lack of a decision-making voice does make a difference, whether in Israel or abroad. Forer’s appointment is more than likely just another step in the wrong direction.
Instead of Israel’s elected officials elevating and promoting women leaders (even internally in the political parties), women are consistently pushed aside for the top positions of leadership. We should be celebrating women taking on leadership roles in committees where there has never been a female leader – instead we see people making excuses for why men should not only be in the positions they are always in, but should also be in one of the only positions consistently held by a woman in Knesset. When most Knesset committees are actually just men’s committees, it’s no surprise that the women’s committee is, too.