Since its establishment, the State of Israel has been working towards achieving gender equality, a principle which is central to all democratic societies. According to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” In 1949, the Israeli Knesset declared, “full and complete equality will be granted to women – equality of rights and obligations in political, social, and economic life and in the entire system of law.” According to a report published by the Israel Democracy Institute, since that time, Israel has “worked towards establishing full equality between men and women through legislation and regulatory actions in the public realm and the private realm.”

In 1951, the Knesset passed the Women’s Equal Rights Law, which asserted that all female members of Israeli society have a right to equality in employment, education, health, environmental quality, and social welfare. The Women’s Equal Rights Law also reinforces the Jewish religious belief that a woman has a right to be protected from violence, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and human trafficking. Judaism has traditionally taught that sex is the right of the woman, not the man, and that a husband is forbidden from abusing or mistreating his wife. In 1954, Israel passed the Employment Women Law, which makes it illegal for employers to refuse to hire pregnant women and for employers to fire women who take maternity leave or need to take off time from work during their pregnancies.

The Equal Opportunity in Employment Law was passed in 1988, which bars employers from discriminating against women in the work force. In 1993, the Knesset amended the Government Companies Law in order to compel equal gender representation on boards of directors of government-owned companies. In 1995, the State Service Law was amended in order to encourage female representation in government jobs. In 1996, the Equal Pay Law was passed, which ensured that women receive equal pay for equal work. Two years later, in 1998, the Sexual Harassment Law was passed, which is considered internationally to be among the most progressive legislations’ in the world when it comes to barring sexual harassment against women. And in 2000, Israel passed the Equality in Service Law, which grants women full equality during their service in the Israel Defense Forces.

Yet, legislation is not the only area in which Israel has made strides in order to promote women’s rights. In the last elections, an unprecedented number of women were elected into the Israeli Knesset. While only 21 women were serving in the last Knesset, a total of 27 women were elected to serve in the present Knesset in 2013. These women represent all sorts of political perspectives, from Labor (4) and Meretz (3) on the left, to Hatnua (1) and Yesh Atid (8) in the center, to Likud-Beyteinu (7) and Bayit Ha-Yehudi (3) on the right. Additionally, three political parties, Hatnua, Labor, and Meretz, are currently led by women. Yet this is not surprising, for Israel was the third country in the world to elect a female prime minister, had female signatories on her Declaration of Independence, and the Jewish National Council, which predated the Knesset, had women active within its ranks and voting for representatives from its establishment in 1920.

One of the reasons why Israel is progressive when it comes to promoting women’s rights is because the Jewish religion itself holds women in high esteem. Miriam, the sister of Moses, is considered to be one of the liberators of Israel from bondage in Egypt. One of Israel’s judges, Deborah, was a woman. In fact, seven out of the fifty-five prophets in the Tanakh were women. The Talmud speaks of the wisdom of Berurya, the wife of Rabbi Meir, and accepted her halakhic opinions in several instances over those of her male contemporaries.Women are also believed to have refrained from participating in the Golden Calf sin. Furthermore, Jewish law granted women the right to own, buy and sell property, as well as write their own contracts, rights which didn’t even exist for women in America one hundred years ago.

The proud Jewish tradition of honoring and respecting women, accompanied by a long history of Jewish women contributing towards helping society, is what has made Israel a country that has respected women’s rights from its inception.

By Rachel Avraham