While a recent panel called Israel, Canada and Me in the Age of Trump covered many topics well, there was a noticeable omission – feminism.
Three of the four panelists at the Peretz Centre on April 9 were women – Dr. Shayna Plaut, Ofira Roll and Rabbi Susan Shamash, with Eviatar Bach. But most participating audience members were male, with moderator Stephen Aberle having to solicit a question from a woman near the end to provide a semblance of balance. Perhaps the aggressive tone coming from the floor, not to mention the police protection, was stifling for some women.
The event sponsor, Independent Jewish Voices, Vancouver, requested the police presence because of a threat by another Jewish political group to disrupt the event. Thankfully, while some of the other group’s members were in the audience and were quite outspoken, a stimulating, heartfelt and combative exchange between the panel and an audience of about 40 people took place without incident. Unfortunately, the emotionally charged atmosphere shut down exploration of two pressing questions regarding the rights of Palestinians in Israel: the two-state solution and the ongoing Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.
It was noted that, at the core of the tensions for Jews is a fundamental contradiction: the injustices experienced by the Palestinians in Israel go against Jewish values and teachings. As well, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s support of President Donald Trump may be politically expedient, it is morally questionable. Separate from the panel discussion, an American news commentator caught my attention with the suggestion that German Chancellor Angela Merkel now stands as the most seasoned and capable leader among Western democratic nations. I would add a third adjective to describe her – compassionate.
Perhaps just as practising Christians who voted for Trump in the American election last November were able to close their eyes to the “unChristian” aspects of his words and actions, so too has a segment of Jewish people who support “part” of what Trump stands for. All these diverse outlooks and allegiances fit with Plaut’s assertion: despite our conflicted and incongruent ideas, it is important to wade in and “engage in the messy.”
As hard as this is to do within ourselves, the difficulty is magnified when we try to maintain or reach a respectful dialogue. Tolerance is all good and well, but what happens when some voices become intolerable – that is, in denial of the truth and in support of racism, bigotry, misogyny? What happens when power – even democratically elected power – is used to exploit and oppress?
The panel fully addressed the fears many of us are feeling, including the danger of making decisions based on this emotion and the fact that fear can lead to a “them versus us” mentality. Surprisingly fascism, rooted in this negative feeling, was only mentioned once during the afternoon talk, when Bach used it to describe his view of Israel’s body politic as the left becomes more “lethargic.”
On the whole, we can’t afford to become lethargic and we can’t exclude women’s voices in favour of a “muscular” political agenda. The Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, held in conjunction with hundreds of solidarity marches elsewhere, gave us a taste of our collective power, as I personally witnessed by participating with about 15,000 women and men in Vancouver. We garnered praise for a day that was peaceful, inclusive, positive – and global.
That historic action has since faded into a grim reality, as women (along with LGBTQ people and visible minorities) witness Trump, who has a lengthy record of misogyny, working alongside his almost exclusively white male cabinet, take backward steps on human rights. Government actions have included an executive order to block funding to organizations that support abortion services, a travel ban targeting some Muslim countries and the appointment of a Supreme Court justice that could lead to legal changes regarding women’s reproductive rights.
In contrast, Canadian feminists and their allies’ success in decriminalizing abortion remains uncontested. To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $650 million in March for women’s sexual and reproductive health around the world, stating “a lack of choices in reproductive health mean that they [women] either are at risk of death, or simply cannot contribute and cannot achieve their potential.”
But, when Trump applauded Trudeau’s initiative to organize a joint women’s entrepreneur project in February, many questioned how sincere this “pro-women” gesture was. A diversity of board members not only benefits women, but expands business approaches and ideas. And women are underrepresented at this level, only holding 18.8% of Fortune 1000 company board seats in 2015 and 20.6% of the seats on Fortune 500 boards. The Trump-Trudeau roundtable with North American businesswomen may have raised awareness on women’s value in the workplace, but did the session result in a significant step toward equality or simply provide an image-boost for the male leaders involved?
Certainly in stark contrast to Trump’s male-dominated inner circle is Trudeau’s cabinet, with half of its members female, appointed from a caucus where women comprise 27% of Liberal members of Parliament. However, Canada only ranks 50th out of 190 countries on proportion of national-level female politicians. As well, five of the 15 women in Trudeau’s cabinet are in junior positions.
In Israel, women have also been elected in greater numbers over time but men are still at the helm. Economic equality also eludes Israeli women at every level. This appears to be the narrative for women in most democracies, Scandinavian nations providing some important exceptions.
Systemic, rather than cosmetic, changes need to be made within institutions – including provisions for harassment-free parliamentary debate so female politicians can thrive without being subject to intimidation and emotional abuse. Indeed, all forms of violence faced by women from all walks of life must be addressed, most urgently among indigenous women in Canada, a long-ignored and tragic reality.
When policies impacting the vast majority of women are implemented, the ramifications are significant. Consider that women continue to be the primary childcare provider: according to Statistics Canada, women comprise 80% of single parents with a child and three quarters of part-time workers are women.
So why, again using Statistics Canada figures, do women make 87 cents for every man’s dollar – a gap even wider for visible minorities and immigrant women? Pay equity legislation is a move in the right direction and provinces that do not have this, such as Alberta, are shown to have a wider gap.
The spread of part-time, precarious jobs affects all workers, but especially women, and has led to a groundswell of campaigns across North America to raise the minimum wage. In British Columbia, 63% of minimum wage earners are women, according to the B.C. Federation of Labour, and these are not only teenagers – 80% of all minimum wage earners are over 20 years old.
Malala Yousafzai was recently bestowed with an honorary Canadian citizenship by the Trudeau government, her bravery and powerful messages to girls and women inspiring global admiration. She would undoubtedly agree that, in these politically uncertain times, we must strive for a climate of respect and tolerance and ensure women are an integral part of dialogues and policies.
Janet Nicol is a teacher at Killarney Secondary School in Vancouver, freelance writer and local historian. She has written previously about an early-20th-century Jewish-Canadian human rights lawyer, Israel Rubinowitz, for the Jewish Independent.