By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
An article published on August 19 at the left-leaning US Magazine The Nation seemed to have high hopes for shedding light on discrimination Arab women in Israel face. Written by Samuel Thrope, a “Jerusalem based writer and translator”, its premise was that Arab women are “beset from all sides” by an Israeli legal system that fails them and a society that doesn’t empower them.
The issues confronting Palestinian women in Israel has been discussed from time to time over the years, most carefully in Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh’s 2002 Birthing the Nation. Over the years the thesis that Arab women in Israel, who often refer to themselves as Palestinian, face double discrimination. Some of these articles make outlandish claims, An article at ‘Fair Observer‘ by Sherihan Abd el Rahman in 2013, claimed “Palestinian men often take jobs in Jewish cities but are forced to spend nights outside their homes due to the poor transportation infrastructure in Arab towns. Women, however, cannot do so for cultural reasons and, therefore, have more limited job prospects.” The article noted that Arabs make up only 7.8% of public employees in Israel and women are only 2%.
An article by Jonathan Cook at Electronic Intifada in 2009 also claimed Arab women are “kept out of the workforce” due to discrimination. “Eighteen percent of Arab women work, and only half of them full time, compared with at least 55 percent of Jewish women,” he noted. Areen Hawari, of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Israel also wrote about the “double discrimination,” she and others like her face. Labor MK Merav Michaeli connected the discrimination to knee-jerk hatred of Balad MK Haneen Zuabi in a 2012 oped. “There is a distinct link between the attitude toward Zuabi and the view of women as chattel that can be given in marriage, at any age, without consideration for their needs and desires.” There are even reports from the ‘Working Group on the Status of Palestinian Women in Israel,’ which is made up of a dozen NGOs in Israel such as Adalah and Al-Zahraa.
So the latest article in ‘The Nation’ had promise but was also entering a field of existing expertise. From the very state it was clear something was wrong with it. “In 2009 a couple from the village of Taybeh in the West Bank were in the midst of a bitter separation…The husband’s appeal to Islamic law was not a sign of his or his wife’s piety. For Israeli citizens of all faiths, divorce, like marriage itself, remains almost exclusively the province of religious law and institutions.”
The village of Taybeh in the West Bank? This is an article about how “sexist laws and institutions threaten all women in Israel,” particularly Arab women. So why does the article start in the West Bank? Taybeh is a Christian village under the Palestinian Authority, and yet here the author is telling s about how a couple’s divorce was made more difficult by Islamic law courts for “Israeli citizens.” Were the couple Israeli citizens? If they live in Taybeh it is likely they are not Israeli citizens, they are Palestinians living under military rule.
***UPDATE: After about a day of being online, at 11:00am, EST, ‘The Nation’ corrected the article to reflect that they meant “village of Taybeh in central Israel,” they didn’t acknowledge the correction, and the fact is that Taybeh (Taibe) in Israel has some 50,000 residents, hardly a “village”, but the correction ends some confusion in this ***
The article goes on to claim that the “remedy that the husband from Taybeh sought has a long history in Islamic jurisprudence.” The article talked about arbitration. All this may be well and good, but the article couldn’t explain whether this was taking place at a Shariah court in Ramallah or under Israeli law for Israeli citizens. Did ‘The Nation’ not bother to check if the author was referring to Taybeh in Israel or Taybeh in the West Bank (See details on correction they now made above)? Taybeh in Israel (93 km from the other one), is a Muslim town. If the couple really was Christian, why did they go to an Islamic court? Perhaps because one of them converted to Islam to obtain a divorce? Christian family law courts don’t often grant divorces in Israel or the Middle East, and it is often easier to convert to Islam, a common practice in Egypt for some Christians trying to get divorces. (Now we know the couple were Muslims from Israeli Taibe, so this confusion is cleared up)
The article continues: “Little information has been publicly released about the couple; even their names have been withheld by a court order…she took her case to Israel’s Supreme Court, and in a 2013.” How did a case that made it all the way to the Israeli supreme court not have any of the petitioners names attached to it? Were they minors? The women in the case won the right to have a woman represent her in arbitration. The author notes, “there are few instances in which women’s rights are vindicated in the religious court system. Arab women citizens…face particular challenges that are distinct even from those of Palestinian women in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.”
So here we get back to the confusing part. The author seems to know there is a difference between Israeli citizens and Taybeh in the West Bank. Soon after the author claims “Muslim legal authorities are divided on the issue and women can serve as religious judges elsewhere in the Islamic world (including the Palestinian Authority).” This is an interesting assertion, but is it true there are Muslim religious court judges in the Palestinian authority? It would be interesting if the author had confirmed that and interviewed one.
ONCE ONE gets passed the Taybeh problem, the article enters a new maze of confusing problems. The interviews with Aida Touma-Sliman, who is a member of Knesset, are enlightening. Touma-Sliman has blazed some trails in the Knesset after taking up her role and leading a permanent Knesset committee. She has been fighting for gender equality. The author also interviewed Nabila Espanioly, another Arab feminist who I profiled last year.
It is perhaps ironic that the article complained The War on Women in Israel did not include Palestinian female voices, and then in this article on Arab woman focuses mostly on Christian Arab women from the Communist party (Hadash). The article notes that: “Israeli feminism is dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry.” But Christian Arab women who tend to be among the higher educated in Israel, are in a sense the Ashkenazi feminists among the Arabs. Speaking to Muslim Arab women would round out the picture.Elana Sztokman’s
That doesn’t discount the views of Sliman and Espanioly; both of these women are important figures in Israel and have a unique viewpoint, having been at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights for decades. But in terms of a narrow sector, Christians in Israel are only 1.5% of the population. The private Christian schools are the best in Israel and unemployment among Christian women is very low.
But instead of mentioning any differences between Christian and Muslim Arab women, Bedouin or Druze, the article charges onward. “Even though Arab women only make up some 10 percent of Israel’s population, according to police figures 25 percent of the 71 women murdered by their partners from 2009 through 2013 (the latest year for which data is available) were Arab, as were some 15 percent of the victims in cases of domestic violence overall.”
Here the data is presented badly and with a false comparison. Arab women are only 10 percent of the whole country, but when it comes to statistics relating to the murder of women, they are 20% of the female population. So the author purposely tries to make it seem like “25 percent…were Arab” as if this is disproportionate. But it isn’t. The figure 15 percent is in fact disproportionately low. Why didn’t the author ask whether there is under-reporting of domestic violence among Arabs? When an author can’t figure out statistics and data, their conclusions are going to be problematic.
Then the article dips its toe into an important case. “In 1997 and 1998, activists provided the police with a list of women in the town of Ramle.” Eight women from the Abu Ghanem family were murdered between 1990 and 2007, a major issue explored in numerous reports, including one I wrote about the murder of Alla Daher. So why not discuss actually what happened in Ramle. Why not discuss the killing of Abir Dandis’ children, or the killings in Daburiya? There are so many examples of police failures to deal with killing of women, and there are many outspoken voices on this issue in Israel, and yet the article just scoots around it.
Next Thrope moves to look at unemplyment. Unemployment among Arab woman in Israel has long been claimed to be among the worst in the Middle East. This is an astounding failure of Israeli society. It was a major feature article I wrote about in 2011. But this article fails here too: “For decades, Palestinian women have been left behind in the Israeli workforce. In 2014, according to government figures, about 31 percent of Palestinian women in Israel were employed.” Employment among Arab women has increased from around 20 percent a decade or more ago to the current figures. You wouldn’t know it from this discussion. Also it would be good to know the differences among Arab women, such as unemployment among Bedouin women or Christian women, why not mention this difference?
There is a great deal to be written about Arab women in Israel. This article made a butchery of the issue. It should have started with basic fact checking on its first story about the couple from Haifa. It should have correctly analyzed statistics and questioned its sources and had a more diverse view of the community. It should have admitted there are major differences affecting the Christian Arab community verses segments of the Muslim community, such as Bedouin women. When it looked at discrimination related to “Honor” killings, it should have discussed the famous cases and how Israeli society has debated this issue.
This is yet another article that shows how failure to demand basic information from articles about the Middle East, allows Western audiences to get half or less than half of the picture, leaves basic questions unanswered, and does not deal critically with the subject material.