Challenge # 91
May - June 2005
Poverty: The Meeting Ground between Arab and Jewish
Women in Israel
THE WOMEN in Tel Aviv and Nazareth seem at a glance to be
poles apart. In Tel Aviv they dress to kill. They study and work in a wide
range of fields. They go “out on the town” till the wee small hours. They
seem, in short, liberated. By contrast, many women in Nazareth, especially
the married ones, cover their heads and wear traditional dress. Very few
work outside the home. Even fewer attend university. Their social life is
confined to family and neighbors.
Yet appearances are misleading. Recent measures taken by
Israel’s government to undermine the welfare state have harmed women first
of all, both Arab and Jewish. Of the Jewish, many who in the past had
gained a foothold in the middle class find themselves shunted to the
margins of society. The income supplements they depended on have been
whisked out from under them. The same cuts have worsened the plight of
Despite the fact that both groups, indeed the lower classes
in general on both the Arab and Jewish sides, suffer from an erosion in
living-standards – and often for identical reasons – there is an utter
lack of dialogue between them. Each camp closes up within itself, taking
pride in its superiority. The Jewish women see themselves and their
society as modern and democratic. Regarding their Arab counterparts, they
are quick to label them “primitive.” For their part, Arab women are
convinced that the Western life style exposes Jewish women to sexual
abuse. They are better protected, they feel, and morally superior.
Thus each side sees the mote in the other’s eye while blind
to the log in its own. The rift between the two groups of women helps
prevent the formation of a strong protest movement to combat Israel’s
globalizers, who are burying the welfare state. The rift is a boon, that
is, to the present government of Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and
The situation of women, both Jewish and Arab, is a function
of class. If we wish to understand this, we cannot ignore the historical
background of each group.
Until the 1990’s, Jewish women were lucky enough to live in
an industrializing society that encouraged their participation in the work
force (as well as the army). The Zionist movement cultivated the myth of
the Jewish woman as pioneer and warrior. It took the “conquest of labor”
as one of its guiding principles: Jews were to become again, as in
antiquity, a productive people – and women were to be part of that. The
State established an infrastructure of childcare centers that enabled them
to work outside the home. Even those who had immigrated from Arab lands
(“Mizrahi” women), after a period of adjustment, adopted the principles
that constitute a precondition for liberation: education, freedom of
movement, and financial independence. Mizrahi men who opposed the change
proved no match for the ruling ethos.
The history of Arab women in Israel is different. Until
1948, they were part of an agrarian society. They were locked into the
function that had imprisoned women for millennia: to produce hands to work
in the fields. They were also essential to the household economy (cooking,
cleaning, milling, baking, sewing, making cheeses and soap). After 1948,
however, the essential ingredient of an agrarian economy disappeared: the
State confiscated most Arab land. What little farming remained could not
compete with the scientific agriculture practiced by the Jewish
collectives (mostly on confiscated fields).
Until 1966, the Arabs were under military rule and could
leave their villages only by permit. Israel allowed no industry to develop
in their locales. When military rule was canceled, therefore, most Arab
men had no options except to become a commuting proletariat, working in
the Jewish cities (where they learned Hebrew). The Arab woman was
condemned to a life devoid of social or economic significance. The
shrinking of agriculture reduced the need for so many children, and her
household cheeses, bread, soap, and clothing were replaced by factory
products. She had become socially superfluous.
Israeli law provides compulsory free education between the
ages of 4 and 15, and it remains free through the twelfth grade. One might
suppose, then, that education would open doors for the younger Arab woman.
Here, however, she faces two impediments. One is the general
discrimination against Arabs. This is manifest in the lack of Arab
industry, jobs and organizational infrastructure (such as childcare
centers) that would enable women to work. The other great impediment is
Arab society itself, which subordinates women in all aspects of life.
Israel played a role here too. Instead of drawing the Arabs partly into
its society, as it did Jews from Arab lands, it took the opposite course,
strengthening the rule of the patriarchal clans. Discrimination has here
created two societies, one that belongs to the industrialized world and
another that suffers from underdevelopment.
The proximity of the two societies, however,
throws the Arab side into a state of constant self-contradiction.
According to Samya Nasser, Chairperson of the Workers Advice Center (WAC)
and women’s activist in Nazareth, “No one will stop an Arab woman from
getting a driver’s license, but once she has it, she will have to get
permission from her family-head, be it father, brother or husband, to
drive from one place to another. She can learn a profession, but once
she’s married, there is little chance she’ll be permitted to work in it.”
In the 1970’s and 80’s, Arab women (especially those who
had not yet married) managed to gain a foothold on the fringe of the
Israeli labor market, when textile plants shifted from the center of the
country to Jewish cities in Galilee. After the Oslo Accords in the 90’s,
however, most of the sewing passed to Egypt, Jordan and East Asia, where
the cost of labor is a tiny fraction – about a tenth, in most cases – of
Israel’s legal minimum wage ($4.00/hr). Thousands of Arab women lost their
jobs. (We have traced these developments in Challenges 40,
48, 60 and 66.)
Before the mid-1990’s, many Arab women also worked for the
kibbutzim in agriculture, as well as in house-cleaning and care-provision
for the disabled. In all these fields too, globalization hit them:
imported workers took the jobs. (See article, p. 12.)
An exception to this picture is provided by a minority of
educated Arab women with good family connections who have been able to
find jobs in certain government offices (Education, Welfare, etc.) or in
regional councils as teachers, welfare workers and clerks. In the 1990’s,
there was also a mushrooming of NGOs in the Arab sector. A small number of
female college graduates found work in them. But the vast majority of Arab
women lack higher education and remain without prospects.
The common foe
Despite the cultural rift between Jewish and Arab women,
the force of poverty should bring them into alliance. The Jewish State,
which once aspired to be a model of egalitarianism (for Jews), has adopted
the principles of globalization in their rawest and cruelest form. The
logic of pure capitalism spares no one. What happened to Arab women in
Galilee also happened to Jewish women in the southern development towns:
the textile firms moved their plants to Jordan, Egypt and China.
Although the traditional industries vanished, a high-tech
boom kept the economy growing in the 90’s, enabling the State to
compensate the victims of globalization, in part, with income supplements.
This cushion dulled their awareness of approaching danger. Jewish women
who found part-time positions could still maintain a lower-middle-class
standard of living. But then came the Nasdaq plunge in March 2000,
followed six months later by the second Intifada. The economy went into
In early 2003 a new Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu,
claimed that catastrophe sat at the door. His response was to make Israel
more attractive for the rich. The country, he said, had been spending
beyond its means. The solution? Cheapen the cost of labor and cut welfare.
Let the poor go to work in the jobs that would trickle down from the
investments of the rich!
Netanyahu cut into guaranteed minimum income, child
allowances, old-age benefits, supplements to single parents, and
unemployment compensation. Women made up 65% of those receiving this
money. They weren’t parasites or charity cases, as he made them out to be.
The vast majority worked, but their pay was so low that they needed the
supplements in order to get through the month. They were Netanyahu’s main
For example, before his Recovery Plan, a family earning
3000 NIS monthly (ca. $680) was entitled to an income supplement of 1700
NIS, and child allowances (assuming four children) came to 2000 NIS. The
total, then, was 6700 NIS. The Plan cut the income supplement to 700 NIS
and the child allowances to 1000 NIS.
Netanyahu also cut jobs in public services, where women
made up 65% of the workers (especially in local governments, social work,
To complete the picture: most employees of personnel
agencies (“manpower” companies) are women. Within a given industrial
sector, those who work through personnel agencies get less pay, less job
stability, and fewer social benefits. Women also make up the majority of
part-time workers, often receiving less than minimum wage.
The Vicki Knafo Story
There are 120,000 single-parent families in Israel today (a
tenth of the total), and 90% of them are headed by women. (Ynet, Miri
Hasson, March 8, 2005.)
In the 1980’s and 90’s, 70% of the single mothers managed
to work full- or part-time. The part-timers received an income supplement.
Thanks to government aid in the form of tax breaks, rent supplements and
grants, single mothers were able to support their families and maintain an
almost middle-class standard of living.
The double blow of recession and Netanyahu’s Recovery Plan
nudged these women and their families below the poverty line. On July 2,
2003, Vicki Knafo, 43, a single mother from the desert town of Mizpeh
Ramon, began a walk to Jerusalem, demanding to meet Netanyahu. Knafo
quickly became a symbol for the social struggle of Israeli women. In her
footsteps arose the biggest protest movement among women in recent memory.
Dozens of single mothers left home on foot, joining Knafo’s encampment
before the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem. The movement arose independently
of the Histadrut (National Labor Federation) and of existing women’s
Under pressure, Netanyahu announced grants for mothers who
managed to expand their jobs, grants to employers who created jobs, and a
central job-information line. Knafo said she would put his proposal to the
test. She took down her tent in September and returned to Mizpeh Ramon.
There would be no work. Globalization had seen to that.
Netanyahu’s incentives were temporary, as were the few jobs that turned up
– most of them part-time. Knafo put in several TV appearances under the
aegis of various organizations. For example, she was invited to Geneva for
the announcement of the accord between Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabo.
In September 2004, one year after striking her tent, she appeared nude on
“Butterfly One,” an Israeli porn site, which charged viewers 30 NIS to see
her. On her back she displayed the words, “The establishment fucked me,”
and on her chest, “You milked me.” In an interview on September 14 to
Walla, another Israeli website, she
said: “I want to get into people’s guts so they’ll feel the pain felt by
me and women like me.”
Knafo is an authentic representative of a large
under-class. But she disregarded the source of the problem: globalization.
She waged her campaign as if still living in the era of “solidarity among
Jews.” The new Israel is a country of, by and for the rich. Knafo thought
she could get a direct deal with Netanyahu by confining the issue to
single-parent families. Coming from a social class that traditionally
votes Likud, she wanted to use her image as “one of the people” to
persuade him to cancel the decrees. That explains the big Israeli flag she
carried to Jerusalem. But this flag no longer signifies a bond.
Netanyahu’s flag has a dollar sign.
By draping herself in the blue Star of David, Knafo also
sent a message to Arab women: “Your place is not with me.” She opposed the
consequences of Netanyahu’s conservative economic ideology but refused to
confront that ideology itself. She ignored potential allies in other
damaged sectors. The costs of the Occupation, for example (the bad name it
gives Israel, its constant destabilizing effect, the drainage of resources
by the settlements) accounts for much of the deficit that spurred
Netanyahu’s cuts. But the Occupation never became part of the public
dialogue around Knafo.
One reason was this: the leftist organizations supporting
her were aware of her followers’ right-wing views and feared to alienate
them. Thus they missed the opportunity to show these women the link
between Netanyahu’s economics and his politics.
The Labor Party and Meretz, for their part, had nothing to
offer Knafo. They long ago sacrificed their social agenda by espousing
globalization. Having lost their birthright, they remain without
inheritance. For Knafo and her friends, these tinkling cymbals of the Left
could not replace the Likud that had let them down. With nowhere to turn
politically, they went as a teen to papa, asking for an allowance. Papa
had other priorities.
Arab women: prisoners in their own homes
Arab women in Israel suffer from twofold oppression, as
Arabs and as women. The ethnic oppression shows up in figures: 14.1% of
the Arabs in Israel are officially unemployed, compared with 9.3% of Jews.
The poverty rate among Arab families is 33%, compared to 15% among Jewish.
The average wage among Arabs is 30 NIS per hour; among Jews it is 42. (Shehadeh
Matanes, Haaretz May 11, 2004.)
To this ethnic oppression is added that from within Arab
society. Only 17% of Arab women work outside the home, compared to 50%
among Jewish women. (Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2003) Yet work
is a basic condition for ensuring a decent social status. When 83% of
women do not have jobs, they are deprived of all influence – social,
political and domestic.
In addition, Arab businessmen take advantage of the fact
that so few jobs are available to these women. They maintain an illegal
economy beside the official one. The last research on this topic, by the
Arab Institute for Human Rights, dates from 1988, but our impression,
based on recent interviews with women in Nazareth, is that the situation
has only worsened. The Institute reported that 61% of the Arab women who
worked full-time did not make the legal minimum wage (often they made
about half of it). 28% worked without a contract or pay slip. (See
Challenge 80, “Exploitation in Nazareth.”)
We have seen that the Oslo process, after raising hopes
among Israel’s Arabs, only deepened their poverty while the Jewish economy
thrived. Rage produced the internal
of October 2000, when Arabs paralyzed much of the country (and
Israel’s police gunned down 13 of them). The disappointment with
secular solutions fueled an Islamic revival. The Islamic movement
encourages Arab society to close in on itself. It downplays the things of
“this world” and feeds the hope for pie in the sky. Women now find it
harder than ever to get permission from their patriarchs to work. More and
more are married off as minors.
The question arises as to why no feminist movement has
arisen among Arabs in Israel. A principal reason is that the women have
always made common cause with the men against Israeli oppression. For many
years, Hadash (the Arab-Jewish party led by the Communists), as well as
the national parties, raised the banners of “Jewish-Arab equality” and “an
end to the Occupation.” Throughout the national struggle, the status of
women remained a side issue. In many respects, to stand up to one’s family
and demand personal emancipation is more difficult than to join the fight
for equality within a national framework. If an Arab woman rebels against
her family, insisting on her right to marry whom she pleases, or to work
outside her village, or to divorce her husband, she will be ostracized
from the society. Where then she go? To Jewish society, the enemy, which
rejects her on racist grounds?
Today, when Arab society finds comfort in Islam, there is
again little chance that a feminist movement will arise. Instead there is
only a sprinkling of NGOs doing important work on particular issues.
A triangle of forces
Israeli society lives in denial. Its façade of democratic
openness conceals a backyard of Occupation, violence and exploitation.
Within its borders there is undeclared apartheid. Where Arabs are
concerned, state policy ordains unemployment, underdevelopment, and
discrimination. Arab society is indeed conservative and patriarchal – in a
word, backward – especially in its attitude toward women, but much of the
responsibility for the lack of change falls squarely on Israel’s
Yet Arab society too lives in denial. Its answer to
discrimination is to enclose itself in traditional values. Since there are
no jobs for Arab women in any case, the society sanctifies the notion that
their place is in the home. Exclusion spurs hatred of Western values –
including the positive ones, such as acknowledgment of women’s rights.
So bleak a situation requires long breath. Two non-profit
associations, Sindyanna of Galilee and the Workers Advice Center, offer a
small but important example of what can be done. A principal purpose in
the creation of Sindyanna, which markets olive-oil products on a
fair-trade basis, has been to open jobs for women. WAC has focused for the
last three years on the construction industry, where it has organized Arab
men. This effort has included a major educational program emphasizing
women’s rights, for in order to get women out to work, it is important to
persuade the men. Recently WAC has been finding jobs for both women and
men in agriculture.
The struggle against unemployment requires response from
the whole working class. That class is unorganized today. The Histadrut
defends only the upper levels among the Jewish workers. It has abandoned
the lower levels in both groups. Social protest has passed into the hands
of small NGOs or individuals like Vicki Knafo, who are hardly able to wage
the long bitter struggle against Israeli capitalism.
To wage that struggle, we shall need a triangle of forces.
One must be the Arab population as a whole. Another must be the population
of women, Jewish and Arab, who suffer from government policy. The third
force must be the working class, which has fallen prey to gloves-off
globalization. These three groups will have to forge a common strategy
against the Occupation, against sexism, and against capitalism. The
challenge is great and the work is long, but experience shows that there
are no short cuts. n