A delegation of Swedish members of parliament, headed by Deputy Speaker Susanne Eberstein, met with a group of Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset last Tuesday to discuss gender equality, immigration, human-trafficking and other issues.
MK David Tsur (Hatenua), co-chairman of the Knesset Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women and Prostitution, said that Israel has ”eliminated 99%” of the human-trafficking phenomenon by enacting harsher penalties for offenders, among other measures. Tsur said investigators heard tapes in which the leaders of human-trafficking rings are heard saying, ”Israel is a crazy country; let`s got to other places.”
Tsur, a former commander of the Israel Police`s Tel Aviv District, said his party is also looking to advance legislation that would outlaw prostitution, which is still legal in Israel.
MP Eberstein mentioned that prostitution, which is illegal in Sweden, has ”moved indoors” because of the Internet, making it much more difficult for police to arrest both male and female offenders.
Asked by Eberstein about gender equality in the Knesset, MK Tsur noted that the 19th Knesset has a record number of female lawmakers and that the two largest banks in Israel are headed by women. He said that while women still earn less than their male colleagues, ”the gaps are narrowing.”
MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), a member of the Lobby for Female MKs, was asked by Eberstein whether she felt discriminated against in the Knesset. ”This Knesset has a record number of female MKs, and it is still less than 25%,” she replied. ”So, I feel underrepresented. Many times, especially as a young woman, I hear during committee meetings that I don’t know what I`m talking about; that I don’t know enough.” In this respect, Zandberg added, the Knesset is no different from other arenas in Israeli society.
MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, recently returned from a conference in India during which she met women from Kurdistan, Iraq Afghanistan and other countries. The women, she said, complained that while Israeli and Palestinian women draw the attention of the entire world, no one knows about their own plight.
Eberstein said that compared to women in Iran and Afghanistan, Israeli and Swedish women ”are in heaven.” Those women, she said, are treated ”like animals that are owned by their husbands.”
Addressing marriage, divorce and burial in Israel, MK Zandberg said ”Israel is the only democracy, and one of the only countries, in which there is an ”Orthodox religious monopoly over personal law.” Israeli law, she explained, determines that people can get married and divorced only through the Rabbinate – the main ultra-Orthodox religious institution – which received a mandate from the State.
”If you are a secular, reform or conservative Jew you cannot marry in Israel, which is the Jewish state, [according] to your own beliefs,” she explained. ”That is absurd.”
”This policy is also very discriminatory against women because Orthodox law has an inherent advantage for men,” MK Zandberg added. The Meretz party member said she and her ex-husband married abroad because they were ”not willing to go through the Rabbinate.”
”The ultra-Orthodox and some of the other religious circles claim that this is the manifestation of the State`s Jewish character. We strongly disagree,” Zandberg said. ”We believe that the Jewish character is based on Israel being the homeland for the Jewish people and on the fact that Jewish people from all over the world can immigrate and the State of Israel will give them their national home – like the Zionist movement [envisioned] – but it has nothing to do with the rules and regulations that apply inside Israel and give an unjustified monopoly to one very narrow and very extreme Jewish stream.”
”I belong to a party that supports the separation of state and religion and having civil marriage and civil divorce – and leaving the religious law to personal choice,” she said.
The discussion also focused on immigration and the absorption of refugees. Deputy Speaker Eberstein noted that Sweden has taken in some 30,000 Syrian refugees and is now trying to convince other European countries to share the burden. She also said that over the past 10 years Sweden has absorbed some 500,000 people from Muslim countries. ”There is a new map” in Sweden, she said.
MP Gustaf Hoffstedt said that while Sweden has always been an ”open” country, many of those who arrive from Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan are illiterate, and this leads to higher unemployment rates. Immigrants can apply for Swedish citizenship after spending five years in the country.
”We have the exact same problem here,” MK Tsur told his Swedish counterparts. The African migrants in Israel work for lower wages, he explained, and this ”reduces salaries for others.” Tsur mentioned that most of the migrants are ”not recognized automatically” as refugees because the State assumes most of them made the journey to Israel in order to work.
”Israel is a small country with many problems, and we cannot deal with all of Africa`s problems as well,” he said, adding that Israel has sealed the border with Egypt to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country.
As for the illegal migrants who are already in Israel, Tsur said the government`s policy is to prevent them from working by placing them in detention facilities until a permanent solution is found. The MK said the government is also offering illegal migrants money to leave Israel voluntarily.
Tsur further told the Swedish lawmakers that the members of the coalition are largely in agreement on economic issues, but are divided over the US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians. He said that the negotiators have made significant headway over the past year, but the ”last 5% are the most difficult obstacle.” Tsur said the current government may not remain intact should the peace talks reach the point where difficult decisions will have to be made. ”Israeli politics are very dynamic,” said the MK.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the leader of Hatenua, is Israel`s chief negotiator.
Apart from MPs Eberstein and Hoffstedt, the Swedish delegation also included MP Tommy Waidelich. Swedish Ambassador to Israel Carl Magnus Nesser was also present at the meeting.