The Dogged Optimism of Merav Michaeli, a Liberal Feminist in the Israeli Knesset


“I have to say, as an Israeli politician coming to the States this time, I feel less uncomfortable than I usually do,” Israeli parliament member Merav Michaeli told me last month during an interview at Gawker Media’s offices, referring to the orange-tinged radioactive cloud currently looming over the United States presidential election. “What has become permissible in this primary…” she said, trailing off. “We are complex animals.”

Michaeli, 49, was in New York speaking with the media and with members of the Jewish community here, a conversation that has become increasingly strained as Israel’s ruling party sinks the country deeper and deeper into a frenzy of ultra-conservative ideology, building settlements and bombing hospitals and toying with censorious policies that have been referred to as fascist. “Israel used to be the thing that brought Jewish communities together, and it’s now unfortunately the thing that’s dividing and polarizing the community,” she acknowledged.

Michaeli, a member of Knesset since 2013, serves as faction head and Opposition Whip for the Labor Party, which is part of the center-left Zionist Union, the largest opposition bloc in the Israeli Parliament. Her substantial role involves recommending votes to the party and coordinating between the various other parties that make up the opposition to Netanyahu’s ultra right-wing Likud party; she also serves as Chair of the Caucus for Female Knesset Members and is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

A former broadcast journalist and TV anchor, Michaeli is the granddaughter of Dr. Yisrael Kastner, a journalist and lawyer who lobbied Adolph Eichmann to save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. After the war, he became a hated figure in Israel for his so-called Nazi collaboration and was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957.

In her maiden speech to the Knesset in 2013, Michaeli drew a parallel between early Israel’s widespread disgust with her grandfather’s pragmatic form of bravery and its warped priorities today, framing Netanyahu’s right-wing government as one seeped in toxic masculinity. “Instead of grasping [its] advantage and offering real peace [to the Palestinians] based on trust and cooperation, Israel hunkers down in a defensive-aggressive posture,” she said in Hebrew during the speech, suggesting that Israel stop posing as the “victim.”

“I’m here,” she added, “because I believe that feminism and feminist thinking can change the entire way we think about society and state.”

Michaeli has long lobbied for action against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and has urged Israeli women to refrain from getting married until civil marriage is an option (in Israel, the rabbinate has jurisdiction over such matters; women married under Jewish law cannot get a divorce unless their husband agrees to it); she recently passed legislation creating alternative dispute solutions for couples seeking divorce. Perhaps most interestingly, she has had a remarkable influence on the Hebrew language itself.

“We are educated from a very early age to talk about ourselves in a general plural male form,” which “disturbed me from a very early age,” she told me. As a TV anchor, she began using both the masculine and feminine plural pronoun to address groups; she continued doing so in the Knesset, to the chagrin of certain prominent male voices. “But ever since then, it’s been spreading,” she said. “Now, there’s hardly anyone who will publicly speak without turning to both sexes in the language.”

Michaeli is a progressive, feminist lawmaker in a country that cannot claim either label (although on the latter point Israel may have the United States beat, with the Knesset being 27.5 percent women and Congress only 20 percent). Fittingly, her presence in a room is both serenely warm and a little bit unnerving, a persona that one can imagine is quite effective in the tense, unpredictable, male-dominated landscape of Israeli politics. We spoke about the substantial issues facing Israeli democracy, her surprisingly optimistic take on the growing ultra-Orthodox community, and the possibility of a Clinton presidency.

The following interview excerpts have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

On the possibility of a progressive future for Israel, and a recent poll that showed young Israelis moving increasingly to the right politically:

This poll is not surprising. Think of young people who grew up in Israel over the last 20 years—there was no serious movement for peace, only failures. Only the Intifadas, the terror, the failed negotiations. During their time, ISIS began, and they saw 9/11; for most of their lives, we’ve had a right-wing government in Israel with a right-wing ideology, and with Netanyahu as prime minister, who is concerned with the security and well-being of the Jews versus the Arabs, as if it’s a zero-sum game.

I do not see it that way at all. When I was growing up, I was a witness to the peace agreement with Egypt, to the peace agreement with Jordan, to the successful first stage of Oslo and the huge hope it brought with it. And then came a lot of failures. Now, I haven’t lost my hope—and as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I know about the opportunities that we have. Peace is good for everyone. There is more security for everyone. We cannot achieve security only for the Jews; I don’t believe in this kind of equation. But this is what Netanyahu believes, and what he has been telling [Israelis] for 20 years.

So it’s not surprising that young people lean to the right. But it does not mean that you can’t bring them to the progressive side, because when they realize that the rights that they believe in—as gay people, as women, as economically underprivileged people—are all connected to progressive politics, sooner rather than later it will be turned around.

On political parties around the world becoming increasingly right-wing and nationalistic:

I look at the big picture. There will always be backlash—as feminists, we know that. Whenever there is progress, the backlashes are so powerful. The world as we know it works in waves. Rather than saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s all going down the drain and we’re going backwards and it’s all gone”—no. It’s two steps forward and one step backward. Just keep it in proportion, and deal with it, as opposed to just being appalled and contributing to polarization in a non-constructive way.

On the idea of “canceling marriage”:

The marriage issue in Israel is, for women, to a large extent the equivalent of the abortion issue in America. It’s a matter of choice. Can you or can you not get a divorce when you want a divorce? In Israel right now, because we only have religious marriage—there is no civil marriage at all—it’s a big deal. And there’s a huge majority in Israel, by the way, that supports civil marriage. But we can’t get it because of the government’s political dependency on religious and ultra-orthodox [communities].

On Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox community:

I think it was true for a long time that the ultra-Orthodox community was pulling Israel in a less progressive direction, but I think it’s now changing.

The ultra-Orthodox community is indeed growing dramatically, and it has become much too big for its rabbis to be able to contain it in the ghetto which they were used to in the past. It’s become a vibrant, very diverse, bubbling community. More of its people than ever are working, more ultra-Orthodox women are working than ever before, more and more are getting higher education that is non-religious. More of them are serving in the army. They are becoming more engaged in the general society, which means that their political [role] is changing, too. It’s not what it used to be. I see a lot of opportunity in the ultra-Orthodox community for us progressives.

On the decline of freedom of speech in Israel:

Israel’s freedom of the press grade has deteriorated because of Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, and because the Prime Minister insists on holding, among other ministries, the Ministry of Communication, in which he has direct bearing on channels. There’s an effect of self-censorship, unfortunately.

I hope I’m making it clear that this is not Israel as a state—it is a political battle that is going on within Israel. So yes, [the leading party] is right-wing right now, but that’s not Israel. It’s a part of Israel, just as, unfortunately, President Obama alone is also not all of the United States.

On Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian women:

For most of the last 20 years I have been partnered through many initiatives and organizations with Israeli-Palestinians on women’s issues such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, representation of women, education for women, etc. And also, of course, in peace organizations. Israeli-Palestinians are, after all, citizens of the state of Israel. I do not claim that there is actual equality for Arabs in general, but the Arab society in Israel is gradually and rather rapidly becoming more and more engaged within this general society and workforce and academia and, of course, politics. So women within the Israeli-Palestinian society are making huge progress towards the kind of equality that we know.

In Palestine, it’s a whole different ball game, of course. The physical conditions are so much worse, in every possible way, and everything that is problematic in Palestine is of course more problematic for women. The Palestinian Authority is a more conservative society than Israeli society. The status of women within the Palestinian Authority is better than it is in most Arab countries—maybe Lebanon [is better]. But within the Palestinian Authority there are also a lot of feminist initiatives and organizations.

What am I doing to help them? Unfortunately, there’s not really a lot I can do. I’m a member of the opposition, not the government; it’s the government that has the power when it comes to Palestinians. But I think the most important thing that I do within my capacity is to keep voicing this belief in future peace with the Palestinians and voicing this recognition in their right to self-determination.

On the potential impacts of feminist thinking on the state:

[Societal] structures were created by men and solely by men, back in the days where only men had the power to create such structures and decide what it looks like, how it operates, who’s in, who’s out, at what costs, what the state pays for and what it does not. The economy does not include the value of household work and childrearing at all; the economy that men created took that for granted because women were commodities which came with this embedded in them. Now we have to change the economy.

Of course in Israel this is also relevant for Israelis and Palestinians. I deeply believe that we will reach a point when we will have a political settlement with the Palestinians, and when we will get there, there will have to be some kind of process between the two entities that is not only about borders and security and tangible things. It will have to involve a mutual recognition of the two narratives.

On Hillary Clinton:

I have to admit that I was kind of surprised to see that young women in America do not necessarily support Hillary Clinton. For me, Hillary’s campaign is to a large extent my campaign and our campaign, as women. Even if I’m not 100 percent on the same page with her on everything, it’s so important for me that someone as accomplished as she is, as competent as she is can be elected.

The Knesset has 33 female members. In American politics it’s even less, which has direct bearing on the wage gap, on the fact that household and childcare work is not recognized for its economic value; it has direct bearing on sexual assault and sexual harassment. It’s not that when we have a female president there [will be] peace and equality on earth. But it’s so important. Hillary Clinton is a feminist who has always been a feminist, and she paid all the prices.

One of our traps as women is that we scrutinize one another much more critically than we do men, because we are still a minority in politics. Every woman that gets out there, it’s as if she is speaking for each and every one of us personally. It’s, “Does she represent me fully enough, because she’s a woman?” We are so much more critical, and it’s so fucked up. I don’t think you ever had a candidate so experienced and so capable, who will actually know what they’re doing if and when they get to the White House! This can be so incredibly interesting! [Laughs]

Photo by Michal Fattal.

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