To mark International Women’s Day, we have compiled a list of Israeli women (listed in alphabetical order), who have led the way globally in their area of expertise. There were dozens of candidates in every category, showing the important roles so many Israeli women play. Like many liberal democracies, gender equality in Israel is not perfect. Men still earn significantly more than women, despite more women completing higher education, but Israeli women are leading the way in boardrooms, classrooms, court rooms, sports grounds, concert halls and parliamentary chambers.
1. Lucy Aharish
Lucy Aharish, together with Gadeer Mreeh, is a trailblazers, not because of her gender, but because her and Mreeh and among the first non-Jewish Israelis to anchor Hebrew language news programs.
Aharish, an accomplished Muslim Arab-Israeli journalist, became tabloid fodder in 2018 after marrying Jewish Israeli actor Tzachi Halevy. It was touted as the first Israeli celebrity marriage between a Jew and Muslim, and by Aharish’s own admission, the couple received plenty of hate mail, but also many supportive comments from their fans, both Jewish and Arab.
Mreeh is a Druze Israeli and was the first non-Jewish, Hebrew speaking news anchor in Israel. The Druze are a 140,000-strong community in Israel whose culture is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Mreeh has said her appointment is “a success model of successful integration of minorities” in Israel, adding “it is a model of a success story for women”. Mreeh is now set to enter politics. She will run for the Blue and White Coalition in a winnable position on the party’s ticket.
2. Adina Bar Shalom
Adina Bar Shalom is an ultra-Orthodox feminist, two words not often seen together.
The daughter of key Jewish spiritual leader and political leader Rav Ovadia Yosef, she was awarded an Israel Prize in 2014 for her services to advancing higher education among the ultra-Orthodox. In 2001, she established Haredi College in Jerusalem to allow ultra-Orthodox men and women to separately study secular topics, such as IT and social work. While the college closed in 2016, it sparked a continuing debate about the importance of facilitating ultra-Orthodox students to receive an education so they can go on to earn a living, without compromising on key religious practices. It also led to other Israeli higher education providers developing ultra-Orthodox-friendly courses
Bar Shalom has since moved into politics. She was offered a slot on a number of party tickets at the upcoming Israeli elections, but announced she would lead the Achi Israeli ticket. She has since withdrawn from the frenetic race, but continues to be a strong voice in Israel in favour of bringing secular and Orthodox Israelis together.
3. Orly Castel-Bloom
The winner of Israel’s most prestigious literary prize in 2015, Orly Castel-Bloom is one of Israel’s most acclaimed female authors. She won that prize, the Sapir Prize, with her 14th book: An Egyptian Novel. Castel-Bloom, whose family is of Egyptian heritage, undertook extensive research to complete the book.
Four of her books, including An Egyptian Novel, have been translated into English. A previous book, Dolly City – available in English – was nominated in 2007 as one of the 10 most important books since the creation of Israel and included in a UNESCO list of important reads.
While she may not yet have received the worldwide acclaim of older authors like A.B. Yehoshua or Amos Oz, Castel-Bloom is one of Israel’s most important modern literary voices.
4. Lee Falkon
There are so many Israeli sportswomen who could have made this list. Lee Falkon is a member of Israel’s national football team at a time when women’s football is on the rise. She may be known to Australian audiences because she spent a year with W-League team Western Sydney Wanderers in 2017-18. During that time, she was named the first ever Israeli Female Footballer of the Year. Falkon said of the honour: “The award means a lot to me as it is the first time the Government has done this type of award. In previous years the award was only available to men.”
Israeli women have been making waves across international sport, from the first – and, so far, only – Israeli woman to play basketball in the United States’ WNBA, Shay Doron, to Judo competitor Yael Arad, who won Israel’s first Olympic medal.
5. Esther Hayut
Of the four Israeli Supreme Court presidents appointed since 2006, three have been female.
Esther Hayut is the latest and has a reputation as a centrist who is not afraid to assert herself on matters of principle. Recently she has condemned political attacks on Israel’s judiciary from both the left and right, and discussed the difficulties in Israel on ruling on defence matters, particularly those involving non-state actors.
“The challenges facing Israel in maintaining the rule of law in times of war, and not only during times of calm, are becoming increasingly complex over the years, in light of the changing strategic environment in our region, which is characterized by the weakening of the state framework,” Hayut said.
Hayut follows in the footsteps of Miriam Naor and Dorit Beinisch, who both held the prestigious office. Beinisch, who held the position for six years, was the first woman to preside over Israel’s highest court.
6. Shiri Maimon
From reality TV to Broadway, Israeli singer and personality Shiri Maimon has covered the full gamut of show business.
A runner-up in Israeli TV talent show Kochav Nolad in 2003, Maimon went on to represent Israel at Eurovision in 2005 finishing fourth overall. She has continued releasing pop songs and appearing on Israeli TV and the Israeli stage. In 2018, she appeared on Broadway, playing Roxie Hart in the long-running hit musical Chicago.
She told journalists she was proud to bring an Israeli presence to Broadway: “I didn’t even think it was an option to do Broadway,” she said. “Look, I’m a dreamer. Since I was a little kid, I always dreamt about all those things that are actually happening to me right now, but I always thought of Broadway as unreachable.”
7. Or Na’aman
Women have been an integral part of the Israel Defence Forces since the establishment of the state in 1948. In recent years though, more women have been permitted to take combat roles.
One such woman is Captain Or Na’aman, who in July 2018, shot down a Syrian fighter jet that boldly flew across the northern border into Israel.
Captain Na’aman’s 138th Battalion fired the Patriot missile that hit the jet, ensuring the safety of Israelis and sending a clear warning to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to not violate the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement signed following the Yom Kippur War.
8. Kira Radinsky
We live in an age of “big data”. Computers are gathering immense amounts of data, which can then be used to inform everything from medical breakthroughs to our supermarket purchasing preferences. One person who knows more about this area than anyone is Israeli Kira Radinsky.
The 33-year-old is a pioneer of data technology, selling her hi-tech data mining start up to eBay for a reported US$30 million. She took up a role with eBay Israel as director of data science and chief scientist. She has also been appointed to a United Nations panel, together with Ali Baba founder Jack Ma and Melinda Gates, husband of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, to make recommendations on future digital challenges.
Radinsky is one of many Israeli women making a name in science and technology. It would be remiss to not mention Ada Yonath, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. In a different sphere, Havazelet Bianco-Peled pioneered medical adhesive technology that was sold to a British healthcare company for US$25 million earlier this year.
9. Merav Michaeli, Ayelet Shaked, Shelly Yachimovich
Like many similarly vibrant democracies, Israel has strong female leaders, but there is still room for many more women in Israeli politics.
Today, Israel’s leading political women include Ayelet Shaked (formerly Jewish Home, now New Right), Merav Michaeli (Labor) and her party colleague Shelly Yachimovich.
Shaked, the Justice Minister until the April election, has been under fire in recent months for her alleged involvement in a scandal surrounding the appointment of judges. She has also clashed with the judiciary over the amount of power vested in Israeli courts. Nevertheless, Shaked’s supporters consider her a future prime ministerial candidate.
Yachimovich and Michaeli are some of Shaked’s fiercest critics accusing her of “destructive leadership” and of damaging “the justice system for political ends”. It is all part of the rough and tumble of Israeli politics.
Before winning a seat in the Knesset, Michaeli was a prominent Israeli journalist and social justice advocate. She founded a centre to assist victims of sexual assault and has participated in programs to advance peace.
Following the resignation of Tzipi Livni early this year, Yachimovich became Israeli’s Leader of the Opposition. She too was a journalist prior to entering politics and was first elected to the Knesset in 2005. She is best known for her fierce advocacy on issues of social welfare, labour rights, and economic social justice.
10. Hemdah Shalom
Two Orthodox women spending time preparing kosher food may not seem newsworthy, but Hemdah Shalom, together with her colleague Avivit Ravia, were Israel’s first female kashrut supervisors.
A court ruling in 2017 broke the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on issuing kashrut certificates to Israeli restaurants, caterers and cafes. The ruling also paved the way for women to become supervisors.
Before the ruling, Shalom and Ravia worked for an organisation called Hashgacha Pratit, which allowed food businesses to operate in a kosher fashion, but their supervision did not allow the business to call itself “kosher”. That changed with the 2017 decision.
“I don’t understand who decided that kashrut supervision is a man’s job,” Shalom said. “With all due respect, I know a little bit more about cooking.”
Shalom’s trailblazing efforts have seen the Israel Defence Forces, one of Israel’s biggest institutions, begin to use women to supervise the preparation of kosher food.