Women in Politics: America and Israel


Women in Politics: American and Israel

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University


As a political scientist, I am supposed to have answers. But sometimes I am stumped by strange phenomena that I perceive in my bailiwick.

           Let’s take the issue of women in politics, especially those running for the highest position in the land – and compare the two close allies, America and Israel. I am not making any news by noting that the U.S. has been going through a trying period these past several months with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, her eventual close defeat, and the recent, surprising (shocking?) nomination of Sarah Palin as the VP candidate on the Republican ticket. Hillary’s campaign was especially instructive – while no one suggested that she does not have enough experience to run, and certainly she presented an extremely knowledgeable front in her command of the issues, the media were rife with the question of whether America was ready for a woman president. While Obama’s racial mix was a very quiet subtext of the media’s take on the campaign, Hillary’s gender constituted quite a lot of the actual media text in their coverage.

           Sarah Palin is in some ways an even more interesting candidate from this perspective, for Mrs. Palin’s constituency wouldn’t be caught dead voting for Hillary because of her perceived “feminist” agenda. But if it’s a five-child mother, then that’s OK for the “conservatives”. How many Hillary supporters will cross the line and vote for Mrs. Palin is another issue the media have taken up. In short, America has been caught up in a gender-campaign frenzy.

           And then there’s Israel. Here the leading candidate in the Sept. 17 primaries for the new head of the ruling “Kadima” party is a woman, Tzippi Livni. Indeed, it is clear that whoever wins this primary will have an excellent chance of being Israel’s next Prime Minister – whether before or after the next Knesset elections (which have not yet been called). Who and what is Tzippi Livni? Although she had spent a few years working for the Mossad (Israel’s CIA), no one views her as a gun-toting, shoot from the hip, female John Wayne. Indeed, it is hard to think of a leading Israeli politician in recent history whose demeanor is so quiet and tranquil – shall I say it, even “feminine”? The only one to hint that her gender might be a problem was her chief opponent in the primaries, former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz – and he was promptly excoriated by the media for suggesting that an Israeli PM had to have serious army experience in order to lead the country. And all this, of course, without mentioning the fact that Israel already has had a female PM: Golda Meir, 40 years ago!

           But if we forget about these elections for the moment, and ask ourselves (the proverbial Man from Mars) based on the type of society America and Israel have, which would have the most trouble with a female candidate, it is clear that the answer would be “Israel”. It is still quite a male chauvinist society, not to mention large pockets of religious, patriarchal sectors where women are hardly seen and never heard from. America, on the other hand, is the Land of Liberty, of equal opportunity, of Feminism (with a capital, ideological “F” and small, practical “f” too). And yet, what we see on the micro-personal level in Israel (men running the show; little feminist support) does not translate onto the macro-political plane; and what we see in daily life in America (women in important positions in all walks of life) somehow is perceived as a “problem” when transplanted to the macro-level of national leadership.

           How to explain this? As I said at the start, I can’t. What I can state is that this is not the only area of life where such anomalies exist in the U.S.-Israel comparison. I’ll return to those ever so often in future posts.


Sept. 8, 2008

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