Women’s sense of security and the Israeli state’s institutions
State institutions are meant to serve the public, thereby providing both men and women with a sense of security and protection and guaranteeing their human rights and their ability to access a just judicial system. Among the indicators measuring the efficiency of a state’s institutions are the quality of public service, the degree of justice and security which the state provides for its citizens and the degree to which the citizens’ rights are protected.
The research project “Women’s Security Index” handles many of the issues related to the security of women in Israel. In 2013, a decision was made to focus on the issue of state institutions. During the research project, a survey was conducted, which included interviews which 562 women (a representative sample), in Arabic and in Hebrew. In addition, six focus groups were held. In order to illustrate the statistical data, this position paper also includes quotes form the discussions in the focus groups. The research focused on two categories of institutions: the so-called security institutions – the ones that are supposed to provide physical protection, such as the police, the army and the border police; and the civil institutions, which are supposed to provide legal, social and economic protection, such as the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi), the Employment Bureau and the civil and religious courts.
The survey’s results and the discussions held in the focus groups paint a troubling picture. Positive examples aside, many women suffer from inaccessibility to the state’s institutions or feel that the latter hurt and weaken them. Among the recurring feelings brought up during the focus groups were humiliation, lack of control, helplessness, despair and anger, as well.
This paper deals with the problematic dynamics that that exists between women residing in Israel and the Israeli state’s institutions. Although these institutions are supposed to provide citizens, in general, and women, in particular, with protection (be it legal, physical, economic, etc.), this study clearly shows that women also view these institutions as sources of fear and tension.
Jewish women citizens of Israel
41.4% of all Jewish women that participated in the survey reported fearing civil institutions, such as the National Insurance and the Employment Bureau, while 33% reported fearing security institutions, such as the police, the border and immigration police and the army.
38.3% of Jewish women reported that the police evoked in them a severe sense of insecurity. Tatiana: “the mere thought of encountering the police evokes terror in me. I feel I will always be a suspect, that the burden of proving that I am fine will always lie with me. I have no one to support me; I am a single mother, so this is even scarier.”
The army and the border police evoke a sense of insecurity among a smaller percentage of women (4.1% and 9%, respectively).
68% of Jewish women feel that the army provides them with a sense of security. Osnat: “Yes, the army gives a sense of security in the face of our neighbors in the Middle East. The IDF protects us from destruction.” This requires scrutiny and elaboration. Women suffer more harm than men in every zone of national conflicts and wars around the world. Additionally, Israel’s history shows that its army does not prevent wars and conflicts from happening, but rather the opposite. As soldiers, many women suffer from sexism and sexual violence during their military service. Why is it, then, that Jewish women still perceive the army as an institution which provides security? It is probable that the existential fear felt by Jewish women is real and authentic. In the absence of any other clear alternative, they can only count on the army to alleviate this fear. If that is indeed the reason, and considering that the consecutive governments of Israel have cynically abused this existential fear, 68% might not seem that high…
30% of Jewish women expressed fear of the National Insurance and reported feeling insecure when dealing with that institution. Dana: “I feel I am so dependent on the National Insurance. Every small decision of theirs can have a grave effect on my life; this makes me feel helpless and scared.” Marina: “When I go to the National Insurance, it is like going to a battlefield. They take from me of as much as they can, but when it comes to receiving – they will do anything to prevent me from getting what I am entitled to.” The National Insurance is supposed to provide economic security in the direst moments in life, but this same institution is perceived as that which most threatens and undermines women’s sense of security, more so than any other civil institution.
17.6% of the women reported that civil courts make them feel insecure. 22.4% feared the religious courts. Mira: “They have a great deal of control over our lives; this is not favorable for women. How can this be: my husband has left me and they have the power to decide whether or not I am to be considered an ‘aguna‘?!” This percentage is not surprising, considering the fact that the rabbinical courts are patriarchal institutions that control the Family Law.
A relatively small percentage of women reported a sense of insecurity when dealing with the social services and the Employment Bureau (9.5% and 6.3%, respectively).
Palestinian women citizens of Israel
60% of the Palestinian women that participated in the survey fear security and civil institutions.
32.9% of the Palestinian women citizens in Israel fear religious courts, whereas 37.7% feel these courts provide them with a sense of security. Nisreen: “I got divorced in a religious court. It really depends on the case – on some issues, such as child custody, the judges in religious courts really support women, but on some other issues, they can cause lots of troubles.” The survey paints an interesting picture regarding religious courts. It seems that these courts are very significant for Palestinian women and that they play a double role in their lives. The numbers reflect the ambivalence Palestinian women feel regarding these courts.
On the one hand, the religious courts’ stance is a patriarchal one that harms the interests of women and undermines their sense of security. On the other hand, religious courts provide a sense of national autonomy – indeed, they are among the only institutions whose reins are held by the Palestinians themselves. Moreover, the participants in the focus groups reported that they perceived religious courts as being friendlier, more accessible and less alienated than civil courts.
5.7% of Palestinian women fear the National Insurance, while 15.9% said it provided them with a sense of security. Many Palestinian women suffer from the inaccessibility of the National Insurance, due to difficulties in reaching the offices, and the difficulty of navigating the complex bureaucracy of this institution. Many prefer to rely on the men of the family in everything that has to do with the National Insurance. In addition, the focus groups brought up the fact that many Palestinian women lack information about their rights, or are unaware of them; this is why they do not approach the National Insurance Institution in the first place, rendering it irrelevant to their lives.
5.7% of Palestinian women fear the army, whereas 6.4% feel that it gives them a sense of security. The army is not perceived as a source of fear or security. It is worth noting that we have interviewed Palestinian women citizens of Israel, living within the green line, which is why their contact with the army is limited.
44.3% of Palestinian women fear the border police. The interviews have brought up several reasons for that: a fear of being perceived as a “terrorist threat” and a fear of humiliation and strip searching. Rana: “I am married to a man from the West Bank. We have been living in Israel for years and we have two kids. When we decided to go on a family vacation in Turkey, the border police insisted on accompanying my eight-year-old daughter to the toilet. I felt they were treating the four of us as some kind of a terrorist family. It was a traumatic experience for me and for the kids.” Rula: “… they snooped around in my stuff, and strip searched me. I really cried there. They have the power, and it is as though I have no worth at all as a human being.” The encounters with the border police are one of the most difficult experiences for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Both men and women feel helpless and suffer from humiliation and invasion of their private space. Women find this experience especially grave when it comes to strip searching, which they view as highly abusive. Najwan: “When a friend of mine traveled abroad, they asked her to take off all her clothes and remain in her underwear. She burst into tears on the spot.”
The interviewed women also pointed to the fact that when dealing with civil institutions, it is easier for them to approach Arab clerks, because of the common language and because they feel these clerks might be of more help to them than non-Arab clerks.
The economic status
50% of low-income Jewish women fear the state’s civil institutions, compared to 31.5% of high-income women. 10% of low-income women have gone through humiliation or abuse at the hands of workers in these civil institutions, compared to 3.5% of high-income women.
37% of high-income women fear the state’s “security” institutions, compared to 27% of high-income women.
Thus, we can clearly see that, among Jewish women, the degree of fear felt when dealing with the state’s civil and “security” institutions rises with the decrease in the women’s economic status.
70% of low-income Palestinian women fear the state’s civil institutions, compared to 43.9% of medium- or high-income women.
Regarding their fear of “security” institutions, differences were also registered between low-income and medium- or high-income women (69.5% and 47.5%, respectively).
Thus, the data show that, among Palestinian women, the economic status has an even stronger effect on their sense of security, in comparison with Jewish women.
Institutions often profess that they serve the common good, while what they do, in reality, is reproduce unequal power relations or completely deprioritize the issues of certain groups, such as ethnic minorities, elderly women, etc.
Oftentimes, and compared to women from other groups, women who belong to marginalized group suffer from more difficulties in various areas of their lives, including dealing with the state’s institutions. Specific issues regarding these difficulties are often an additional source of fears and tensions. For example, 20.3% of Jewish women who were born in Israel fear rabbinical courts, compared to 36.4% among women who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Katia: “In Israel, I divorced my first husband. The experience was horrible. It is one of the last places in which I would like to find myself. The whole issue of Jewishness was also problematic; they are also against women. As far as they are considered, I am a second class citizen.”
Similarly, while only 7.5% of Ashkenazi women fear the border police, the percentage of Mizrahi women who fear the border police rises to 11.1%. From among Russian-speaking women, the percentage is threefold – 22.7%.
Extremely marginalized groups
The more marginalized women suffer from a greater deal of hardships when dealing with the state’s institutions. Oftentimes, women who are disabled, lesbians, women of Ethiopian origin, women without an Israel citizenship (work immigrants, refugees) and victims of human trafficking have no access to the most basic of rights.
The percentage of disabled women who have been abused at the hands of the state’s institutions is four times higher than the percentage among women without disabilities (33.3% versus 8.5%). These women report that their encounters with the institutions deepen their feelings of weakness and dependency. Hannah: “I have a disability, and my situation is getting worse. I submitted some documents asking them to raise my percentage of disability. I went through many sleepless nights because of the stress. In our meeting they told me: ‘What you have is nothing.’ So, I suffer from an illness, and at the same time have to be apologetic.”
Lesbians encounter difficulties when trying to get non-biological mothers a parents’ status. Nina: “Our daughter is already one-and-a-half years old, but the partner I have been with for 15 years is still not defined as her parent.”
Eritrean women, for example, think that the combination of being non-Jewish and black, along with their status as asylum seekers and refugees, is an important factor contributing to their sense of insecurity. Butania: “When I was having my baby boy, they refused to help me in the hospital” . She adds: “The renewal of my residence permit is completely arbitrary and depends on the mood of the guy dealing with my case in the Ministry of Interior.”
The women who participated in the focus groups spoke of the humiliation and the feelings of terror they experienced when dealing with the state’s institutions. In order to avoid such experiences, they do their best to avoid seeking the services offered by these institutions. The institutions’ practices, strategies and policies have a grave psychological effect that can make women feel helpless and excluded from the services to which they are entitled. Limor: “We are often entitled to receive a certain service (from the social services or the National Insurance), but the institutions’ policy, in practice, is to withhold these services from us; it is as though their role is to decide who is entitled and who is not, as though if a woman comes in and asks to receive a service, she is definitely a liar.”
The failure of institutions which do not function properly are not limited to withholding services they are supposed to provide; they also weaken – and even silence – women, and prevent them from accessing their rights and benefits.
In the focus groups, many women claimed not to have high expectations from the state’s institutions and that they do their best to avoid turning to them. Reem: “I prefer not to contact the social service. I do not like going there; I feel like a beggar. I try to avoid them.”
Another issue that has emerged in the focus groups is that some women feel a complete dependency on the institutions to which they turn. There is a feeling that the institutions control the lives of the women seeking their help. Shirley: “It is a fear of how fast these institutions can undermine your daily, safe existence. They have a great degree of control over my life. This is very undermining.”
The study shows that the problem does not lie with the conduct of the clerks, but rather with the way the system functions as a whole. Anna: “I have also met clerks that would try and help me. But when faced with the whole system, I feel like a small cockroach going around in a vicious circle of despair.”
Summary: a demand for protection
From a civil point of view, the state was created to provide its citizens with services and protection. Thus, there is a contract fashioned between the citizens and the state, according to which the citizen commits to paying taxes and keeping to the state’s laws, and the state commits to providing the citizen with physical protection and to satisfying her social needs, such as education, healthcare, housing and livelihood. An additional group is the group of non-citizen women living in Israel, who are entitled to rights under international law. The findings of this study show that women do not perceive that the state is fulfilling its commitments.
The findings must raise fundamental questions before the policy makers. They also require the state’s institutions to conduct a process of self-inspection regarding their practices and their accessibility to all those who need their services. Women often feel they have no power to change the way the state’s institutions work (where the police and the National Insurance are the most striking examples of institutions who evoke fear instead of providing security). The answers to these questions lie, above all, in the way women perceive the reality of the matter, and in understanding what they experience when dealing with the state’s institutions.
The status quo must be changed.New alliances must be forged between the governments’ institutions, at all levels, and civil society organizations. Women have a right to live with dignity and to receive respectful and just treatment from the state.
 An agunah is a woman who, according to Jewish law, is “chained” to her husband if he refuses to grant her a divorce; she is not free to marry anyone else even if she no longer lives with him.