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Scholar Yifat Bitton Discusses Religious Influence over Gender Equality in Israel

Professor Yifat Bitton

June 12, 2014

Arguing that orthodox Jewish religious policies heavily influence Israeli civil law and contribute to discrimination against females in the democratic Israeli state, Yifat Bitton, a professor at Israel's School of Management Law and a legal activist, presented "Feminist Challenges in a Jewish and Democratic State" at the law school on June 12. 

The Israeli democratic state was founded on the principles of equality for all people, but those ideals have not been entirely realized, said Bitton, who founded Tmura, the Anti-Discrimination Center.  Rigid Jewish laws that govern divorce can adversely affect the civil legal status of a wife and, potentially, her future children, if she chose to remarry, Bitton claimed.  Many male-biased religious laws create a hostile environment for gender equality in Israel, Bitton said.

Over time, various laws and Israeli Supreme Court cases have aspired to reduce gender discrimination, Bitton said.  However, many of those efforts and been "halfhearted" and been continually frustrated by religious influence. Recently, the emergence of ultra-orthodox Jews that previously did not intermingle with mainstream Israeli society has presented serious challenges, Bitton said.  Despite their desire to enter mainstream society, the ultra-orthodox have sought and received legal cover for discriminatory practices such as the segregation of men and women on college campuses throughout Israel, Bitton said. These kinds of policies, backed by Israeli civil law, thwart progress towards gender equality, Bitton argued.

Although the landscape for gender equality in Israeli seems bleak, activists can alter the course of gender discrimination there by "dismantling the discrimination mechanism" and looking beyond the basic civil rights established in Israeli law and using the tort system creatively to challenge discrimination.