Not Our Mothers' Feminism

By Marla Braverman

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as the “glass ceiling” been shattered? Judging by recent headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, the answer would seem to be a resounding “yes.” There was, for instance, American presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s near-miss candidacy for the Democratic nomination, followed by Republican candidate John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. And then, short while later, Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni eked out a narrow victory in her party’s primaries, bringing her a crucial step closer to securing the prime minister’s office—and the Jewish state to winning the distinction of being the only country in the world with a woman at the helm of its executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Whatever we may think of these particular women and their ideologies, personalities, or managerial qualities, there is no doubt that their meteoric rise to the top of their respective political hierarchies is an encouraging sign for proponents of women’s rights everywhere. Indeed, while their road to political ascendancy was forged, over the course of the last fifty or so years, by other female leaders—Golda Meir in Israel, Indira Ghandi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and Angela Merkel in Germany, to take just a few notable examples—each new name added to the list demonstrates just how far women have come in their fight for the recognition of female rights and abilities beyond the narrow confines of the family home.
And yet, it would be a mistake to abandon ourselves to unbridled optimism. For in most cases, a woman’s path is still beset with barriers and hurdles. And frequently, they are of the self-imposed kind. For proof of this fact, we need look no further than those places that raise the banner of equality the highest—and in whose attainment of this lofty ideal they seem to fall the farthest short.
A minor scandal that erupted this summer in the halls of Israeli academia provides a case in point. In July, Eyal Ben-Ari—professor of sociology at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and outspoken critic of Israel’s “ultra-militarized culture”—was arrested on charges of sexual harassment. In what a colleague in the sociology department called a “reign of terror” stretching back nearly a decade, Ben-Ari allegedly extorted sexual favors from female students in exchange for promotions, funding for research, and invitations to academic conferences. The news was greeted in Israel with much cynicism: For a public still smarting from the last high-profile sex scandals—the charges of sexual harassment and indecent acts leveled at former president Moshe Katsav; the conviction of former justice minister Haim Ramon for forcibly kissing a female soldier; and, in 2001, the indictment of former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai for sexual misconduct—this was merely the newest stain on Israel’s already sullied reputation as a place where powerful men’s libidos and disregard for women’s rights run both in tandem, and rampant.
Israeli feminist activists and organizations lost no time in seizing upon the Ben-Ari affair as proof that the Jewish state’s culture of male domination has taken root not only in the military and politics but in academia as well. And yet, however probable many feminists believe sexual harassment in the university to be, Ben-Ari’s students were, to all appearances, highly improbable victims. These were not, after all, fresh-faced first-year students, naïve to the ways of the world. Rather, they were master’s and doctoral candidates in a department known for its feminist leanings. They were well versed in feminist thought and frequently engaged in feminist-oriented, social-justice research. Surely, these are the women we might expect to be particularly sensitive to the possibility of harassment, and to protest the loudest should it occur. How is it, then, that these same women endured years of forced sexual relations in silence, complained only under protection of anonymity, and balked at cooperating with the subsequent police investigation—all this, despite the much-publicized existence in Israel of what feminist activists and legal scholars agree is the most progressive and broadly defined sexual harassment legislation in the world?
Understandably, most people are loath to ask this question. To do so, after all, seems distinctly callous: Sexual harassment is an attack on a woman’s sense of dignity and even, we might say, on her soul. Expressing an emotion other than outrage or disgust is thus to appear to blame the victim. Nonetheless, as the bitter irony of the Ben-Ari case makes clear, if we truly seek to address the problem of sexual assault and harassment in society, and to advance the cause of true and meaningful equality between the sexes in both personal and public life, we cannot be satisfied with the condemnation of perpetrators and their punishment. We must also attempt to determine why many women, among them feminism’s poster children, choose to behave in a passive, helpless manner in their dealings with men in positions of authority. We must ask why they allow these men to abuse them—physically or otherwise—without waging an all-out counterattack. Perhaps today’s generation of elite women has simply failed to internalize feminism’s message. Or perhaps, as a close look at that message reveals, the problem is that they have internalized it all too well.


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