Women in Israel: Race Gender and Citizenship

Rayah Feldman reviews Nahla Abdo’s book (Zed Books, £18.99)

Women in Israel contains of plethora of facts which demonstrate the high levels of inequality between Palestinians and Jews, and particularly between Palestinian and Jewish women.

In 2008 the average wage of Arab women in Israel was 46% lower than that of Jewish women. Over half of Arab women earn the minimum wage or less compared to one third of Jewish women. Palestinian children constitute 26% of all children in Israel but only just over 5% of those receiving government-subsidised daycare. Only 2% of Israeli civil servants are Palestinian Arab women, and Palestinians comprise just 6% of all civil servants.
Standard statistical data such as these, which the author, Nahla Abdo, has gathered from a wide range of secondary sources, give a picture of inequalities in employment, levels of family poverty, educational attainment, as well as disparities in the provision of government funding and services between not only Palestinians and Jews, but also between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewish citizens. She also provides some fascinating examples into how these inequalities are played out.

We learn that no Palestinians work in the Ministry of Media and Communications. Abdo claims that ‘exclusion from this arena has left them excluded from public discourse’ – though she doesn’t address the question of whether that is the real line of causation. She provides examples of how differentials in state funding for education and welfare, both for Palestinians and for Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, contribute to gross inequalities.

Abdo shows that Palestinians are excluded from all official decision making processes in education, that Palestinian teachers are subjected to security vetting and that they lack of control over the curriculum. There is an age barrier of 20 for qualified Palestinian high school graduates wishing to study health courses such as nursing or occupational or physical therapy, ostensibly because such courses require greater maturity. However, the Israel Defense Force allows its recruits, most of whom are Jewish, to defer their military service and enter university at 18 years of age. Abdo also shows that there continues to be a wider gender gap among Mizrahis in university access compared with Ashkenazis, although overall the numbers of Mizrahi women obtaining higher education are increasing.

The theoretical framework of the book is explicitly anti-Zionist, focusing both on the settler-colonial and racist character of Zionism which has shaped its currently diverse population, and on Israel’s current racialised exclusionary policies and practice. By using this framework the author is able to explore the gender impact of the transformation of Palestinian pre-capitalist family-based agriculture after the end of Ottoman rule. A poor peasant population was proletarianised and further impoverished. Abdo shows how the loss of traditional agricultural work for both women and children ‘reduced – and in some cases entirely eliminated – women’s public productive role, making them heavily dependent on male wage labour.’

But the author does not take this kind of analysis into the post-state period. The historical material – clearly drawn from her own research –is much more richly textured and more nuanced than much of the rest of the book, which seems too bitty to provide a comprehensive account of the groups it discusses. It would have been fascinating to read a much more detailed historical ethnography of Palestinian and Jewish Ashkenazi and Mizrahi women within a unifying context that shows how their differential positions have shaped and been shaped by the Israeli state.

Ultimately it is unclear who the author was writing for and what her main purpose was. Is this is a book for general readers interested in a critical account of Israeli society and the position of women in it? Or a contribution to an ongoing polemic with Ashkenazi feminist academics? Or a case study on citizenship and the state? It falls between all these stools. Neither the feminist polemic nor the discourse on citizenship are carried through or effectively linked with its overall subject matter. And despite the focus on citizenship, she does not explore at all the complex and varied politics of the groups which are its subject. Notably she ignores the rise of Mizrahi influence in Israeli politics, Jewish and Moslem religious fundamentalism, and women’s relationship to all these processes.

Reproduced with kind permission from Jewish Socialist No.64 Summer 2012. For more information seewww.jewishsocialist.org.uk

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