A Liberal’s Dilemma

Is Bringing Israeli Labor Law to the West Bank a Feminist Move?

Sigal Samuel examines the feminist case for MK Orit Struck's new bill, which would apply the Israeli Women’s Labor Law to Area C of the West Bank.

At first glance, Israeli parliamentarian Orit Struck’s new bill—passed for preliminary reading by the Ministerial Legislative Committee in a 7-1 vote on Sunday—seems glazed with the attractive sheen of liberal and feminist values. If passed in the Knesset, the proposed legislation would extend the Israeli Women’s Labor Law to Area C of the West Bank, preventing Israeli employers there from discriminating against women who become pregnant, go on maternity leave, and the like. It would protect both Jewish and Palestinian women. It all sounds good, and it all sounds like something any self-respecting liberal or feminist would support.

There’s just one problem: this bill can be legally interpreted as extending Israeli law to territories beyond the Green Line—territories that are not currently under its jurisdiction—and so can be read as a de facto annexation of part of the West Bank. That could set a problematic legal precedent, further tarnish Israel’s international reputation, and endanger U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s fragile peace push.

Though MK Struck has explained that her goal is simply to safeguard women’s rights, and that she formulated the bill after receiving a request from a West Bank woman who’d been fired because of her pregnancy, there’s good reason not to be too credulous about her motivations here. Struck is a pro-annexationist, right-wing leader of Hebron’s Jewish community. She’s a member of Habayit Hayehudi, whose chairman, Naftali Bennett, regularly advocates annexing Area C—that is, 60 percent of the West Bank. None of this was lost on Israeli reporters this week; Israel Hayom noted that the bill has “right wing diplomatic undertones” and The Jerusalem Post warned that “all moves to extend Israeli law into Area C have also been part of the de facto battle waged by right wing legislators to annex that portion of the West Bank to Israel—one legislation at a time.”But even if you give Struck the benefit of the doubt—even if you don’t assume she’s using a liberal issue like women's rights as a cover for annexation—this bill should still raise a red flag, because it can be used by the annexationist crowd down the road regardless of her original intention.

Israeli Health Minister Yael German, a member of Yesh Atid, was the only one to oppose the bill at Sunday's vote. In a phone call Monday, she explained that there are two legitimate ways for a change like this to come into effect in the territories: either the IDF general in charge of the area must issue an order, or the Justice Ministry must advance a comprehensive plan for addressing all the social ills plaguing West Bank residents. “But you can’t take Israeli laws one by one and apply them,” German said.

Surprisingly, MK Merav Michaeli, a left-wing feminist activist, endorsed Struck’s bill. “First and foremost I think every country should regulate companies owned by its citizens to protect human and workers’ rights wherever it operates,” Michaeli explained. “Both international law and human rights organizations agree today that rights should be protected as much as possible, also under occupation.”

There’s a strong liberal appeal to Michaeli’s logic—a logic echoed by Struck, who argues that laws protecting human rights should be applied everywhere, regardless of the debate over annexation. “Approval of the law is an appropriate and normal step that finally recognizes that human rights in general, and women’s rights in specific, should not stop at the Green Line,” Struck said. And it’s hard to argue with that, because, well, who wants to counter the notion that women deserve to have their rights protected, wherever they might find themselves?

What’s more, there’s a good feminist argument to be made that it’s important to ensure West Bank women enjoy legal protections in the short term—particularly if you don’t believe Kerry’s peace push is going anywhere anytime soon. While politicians engage in a lot of abstract talk about negotiations that may or may not come to fruition, here we have a chance to improve women’s lives in a very concrete, immediate way. Is it really fair to withhold that from them?

But there’s a problem with these arguments: What does it even mean to talk about protecting women’s rights—even Palestinian women’s rights—if extending those rights amounts to giving annexationists a leg-up and thus undermining the sovereignty of the Palestinian people writ large? There’s also a worryingly paternalistic undercurrent here: the Israeli assumption is that, by imposing this law on Palestinian women, it will be helping them. And certainly, in the short term, it will be. But in the long term, might it not serve to further their disenfranchisement?

The thing to remember when trying to defend a move like this on feminist grounds is that feminism can’t just be boiled down to particular concrete gains, though it certainly includes those, too. Feminism is also about the larger project of deconstructing all systems of oppression and of standing in solidarity with all oppressed groups. Given that overarching goal, it’s not at all clear there’s a strong feminist case to be made for a bill that lends itself to oppression the way this one does.

Struck is fond of arguing that “the reality that the Green Line is a barrier to basic rights that every Israeli citizen deserves, is immoral and lacks all logic and justice.” What she misses is that that immoral, illogical, and unjust situation is a direct byproduct of the occupation—which includes the Jewish West Bank settlements she holds so dear—and can’t be considered in isolation from it. If she really wants to bolster women’s rights, she should work on dismantling the system of oppression that abrogates them in the first place.