The year of the woman

‘What will happen this year basically depends on us,” said Matan-United Way Israel CEO Ahuva Yanai, reciting a line from the inspiring poem “Changing Seasons” by Naomi Shemer.

If that poem reflects reality, then this will be a year of women’s empowerment in Israel.

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Yanai was speaking at the Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF) event on September 4, where GPF and the Kahn Foundation announced the winners of the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality grant initiative. The two foundations named 37 winning Israeli nonprofit organizations that will receive $1 million in Genesis Prize grants. Matan administered the grant competition that received more than 220 applications.

Recipient organizations focus on socioeconomic participation and opportunity for women; gender equality, particularly in the areas of marriage and divorce; the rights and status of women from minority groups; and women’s empowerment, specifically to resist violence. They represent all sectors – socioeconomic and religious – of Israeli society. Of the grants, some 30% will serve Jewish women, 30% Arab, Bedouin and Druze women, and another 10% are specific to the LGBT community.

“I am so pleased and proud of the contributions that will be made to organizations that are… bringing together different communities – Arab-Israelis, Jews, Bedouins – all Israeli women,” said US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, who addressed event participants by video.

Ginsburg sat on the advisory committee that reviewed the grant recommendations, which are being funded by the $1m. annual Genesis Prize award, doubled to $2m. in 2018 by Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn.

“Nothing can stand in your way,” Kahn told the group of women leaders. “It is only a question of time.”

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Empowerment of women in all fields of human endeavor is this year’s philanthropic theme of the Genesis Prize.

This is especially important in Israel, where the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, ranked Israel 44th out of 144 countries, denoting a position nine places lower than a decade ago. Among the reasons were a persistent 40% wage gap between men and women, low levels of women’s participation in politics and senior government posts (19% of ministerial posts and 27% of Knesset members), as well as in top executive roles (33% women executives vs 67% men).

“Such a low ranking for such a progressive country as Israel is unacceptable,” said Stan Polovets, GPF co-founder and chairman.

Polovets noted that developed countries such as Norway, France, Germany and the UK rank higher than Israel. Israel is also surpassed by some developing nations such as Rwanda, Colombia, Costa Rica and Namibia.

“Over 70 years of its existence as an independent country, Israel has achieved enormous progress in the field of women’s rights and ensuring equal opportunity for its women,” said Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and member of the Genesis Prize Foundation Advisory Board. However, she cautioned that there is “so much more to be done before we can say that we have achieved true equality for all Israeli women.”

Gender on the agenda

GPF Deputy CEO Sana Britavsky said the Genesis Foundation is committed “more than ever” to advancing the cause of women’s equality. This year the foundation honored Ginsburg with the inaugural Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award, which Kahn said “celebrates Justice Ginsburg’s lifelong advocacy for human rights and the profound impact she has had on legal rights for women.”

Ginsburg traveled to Israel in early July to accept the award and meet with more than 50 leaders of Jewish and Arab women’s organizations. During that visit, leaders of Israeli women’s rights organizations, members of Israel’s Supreme Court and other prominent officials were inspired to intensify efforts to close the gender gap in their country.

“Justice Ginsburg’s visit reminded us just how important it is to emphasize women’s rights and equality as we deal with the other pressing challenges faced by the Israeli society,” said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the GPF Advisory Board and the former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut hosted Ginsburg at the court and awarded her a special commemorative medal.

“My colleagues and I were delighted to welcome Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a living legend for all of us,” Hayut said. “Her visit was an extremely important reminder of the commitment to gender equality we share with her.”

All sitting justices of Israel’s Supreme Court, as well as all living former presidents of the court, attended a July 4 ceremony honoring Ginsburg, who visited Israel for the first time in 23 years.

“It is an honor to bestow the Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak at that ceremony. “Without a doubt, she is one of the great legal minds of our time; an outstanding Jewish jurist whose fearless pursuit of human rights, equality and justice for all stems from her Jewish values. It is a privilege to celebrate her here in Israel.”

Also during that visit, Jane Lute, special coordinator on improving the United Nations response to sexual exploitation, and Dr. Sunitha Krishnan, a globally known activist and fighter against sex trafficking in India, spoke at a number of events organized by Genesis, including a conference on women’s rights and violence prevention, a lecture at the Tel Aviv University, and a meeting with staff and volunteers at the headquarters of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers of Israel.

The year of the woman

Britavsky said she expects this year’s grantees to have a systemic, across-the-board impact on the women’s movement in Israel over the next years.

Among the grantees is Achoti, which runs economic empowerment activities for women who face economic hardship and live in the geographical and social periphery. Similarly, Ajeec Nisped helps provide the tools to Arab high-school graduates necessary to succeed in universities and in the workforce. The Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status Lakia runs a program that combines lectures and course work to promote empowerment and employment of Bedouin women.

Other grantees include IGY, which will execute a project directed at the LGBTQ community. Kemach (also known as Movilot) promotes excellence and employment leadership among ultra-Orthodox women and strives to realize their potential as a force for advancement within the Israeli economy, while at the same time preserving their identity.

The Center for Women’s Justice uses creative public education tools and social media to reframe the discourse around state-prescribed Jewish marriage and promotes solutions to “marital captivity.” Bizchut identifies and discusses the barriers that prevent women with disabilities from having equal opportunities.

And Jasmine trains women from diverse backgrounds to serve as board members on corporate, public and NGO boards.

Prof. Aliza Shenhar, provost of the Max Stern Jezreel Valley College, said that in the Torah there are many examples of female rivalry – Sarah vs Hagar, Rachel vs Leah, etc. However, she said the model for women’s empowerment can be found in the story of Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth.

Shenhar noted that Ruth and Orpah, two Moabite women, married two sons of Elimelech and Naomi, Judeans who settled in Moab to escape a famine in Judah. The husbands of all three women died; Naomi planned to return to her native Bethlehem and urged her daughters-in-law to return to their families. Ruth refused to leave Naomi, declaring (Ruth 1:16–17), “Where you go, I will go,” becoming a symbol of abiding loyalty and devotion.

“This strong connection is what gave these women the ability to go on,” said Shenhar. “Only when women work together can they thrive.

Expanding the impact

Beyond Israel, The Genesis Prize and Kahn Foundations launched a matching grants competition for Jewish organizations in the US and Canada committed to promoting gender equality.

The North American competition is administered by Jewish Funders Network. Proposals are being accepted until November 16, 2018, and grantees will be announced in the winter of 2019. The North American program is expected to generate $1.5m. to $2m. in new funding for Jewish organizations, depending on the amount of matching funds attracted by applicants.

This article was written in cooperation with The Genesis Prize Foundation.

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