Israeli equality campaigner sets her sights on ‘gender-neutral Hebrew’

One of the nation's leading equality campaigners wants to abolish the male-female distinction in the language


One of Israel’s leading equality campaigners has set her sights on making Hebrew gender-neutral in law.

Law professor Shulamit Almog has already successfully influenced legal changes in dealing with prostitution and workplace harassment.

Now Prof Almog, head of the Diversity and Equality Unit at the University of Haifa and Presidential Adviser on Gender Equity, wants to abolish the male-female distinction in Hebrew, at least in legal and official documents.

On a recent visit to the UK, she explained to the JC why the issue is important. “In English, you can also always say ‘one’ for example, which is neutral. But in Hebrew, there’s a constant need to differentiate between male and female, while the male is the norm.

“For example, the Knesset subcommittee for the Rights of the Child. ‘Child’ in Hebrew is yeled for a boy, yalda for a girl, and if you translate it into English it’s called the Committee for the Rights of the Boy.

“Every time there’s a new chairperson of the committee, we write a letter with many signatures asking to change the name. We had already three chairpersons. One said, ‘It’s not important, I don’t want to do it’, two others said, ‘Yeah, it’s very easy, it doesn’t cost money, let’s do it,’ but didn’t manage politically to do it.

“So I’ve written a perhaps controversial paper about that and about the need for change, to change even the language of laws, of letters and notices at the university. And, again, I’m not the only one. There are many others, mostly women, who support it. There are also women that are against it.”

She acknowledges this is a disputed area: “It’s obviously a culture war, a power war. I think it’s convenient for men for the current situation to continue. They think that most men will not feel the need to change. Some women also will not feel it, but I believe that language determines consciousness.”

Prof Almog’s interest is in the intersection of law and literature: how narratives drive society, and the laws that result from those narratives.
It was a brand-new discipline when she started, and she credits Haifa University for taking a risk with her.

She was born in Haifa and raised in Acco. Her parents both survived the Holocaust.
“I got from my father a deep sense of human dignity and inability to understand some of the distinctions that people make between different ethnicities or religion,” she said

After a legal career that was unfulfilling, she moved into academia and activism in her 40s. She is interested in law and gender in ancient societies, a topic explored in her most recent book, Those Blessed Structures.

There are certainly barriers for women in Israel: “I’d say that it’s quite similar to the situation in any other Western country. The data speaks for itself, and the data is no different in Israel than in any other place -- most of the power in terms of wealth, political power and leadership is held by men.”

She believes that change takes time, but will happen: “Employing the law in order to achieve justice has been always a perhaps naïve purpose of mine.”

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