Shaking it up

Meet Merav Michaeli, the fiery feminist of Israel’s government

While visiting New York, the journalist-turned-politician weighs in on everything from conflict to cronuts

Merav Michaeli discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future of the Israeli Left at a New York conference in December. (Chandler West)

On the fifth day of Hannukah, the feminist firebrand of Israel’s parliament sat on a bench in a leafy corner of Central Park. Merav Michaeli had come to New York to speak at a conference run by the Israeli news agency Haaretz, during which she would discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future of the Israeli Left—topics that Michaeli can expound upon with equal parts deliberation and passion. But for a brief moment during our interview, she was side-tracked by that ever-enduring topic of the Hannukah period: donuts.

I had pointed out that Israel’s sufganiyot—filled donuts that are traditionally eaten during the holiday—are far more elaborate than the ones available in New York. “That’s because you have donuts on a regular basis,” Michaeli said. “And because you have cronuts. I’ll tell you something: I am not a person for sweets, but I can appreciate that it is very good.”

The true cronut fan, she explained, is her partner Lior Schleien, an Israeli television host whom Michaeli refers to as her “non-husband.” Michaeli, now 49, has been an outspoken advocate against traditional matrimony, which she views as disadvantageous and oppressive to women. In 2012, she gave a TEDx Talk urging nations around the world to “cancel marriage.” Presumably for the subversive fun of it, she walked onto the stage to the tune of “Here Comes the Bride.”

Since being elected to the Knesset in 2013, Michaeli has softened her statements on marriage, but only slightly. Not long after entering parliament, she made headlines by calling on Israeli women to refrain from getting married until family affairs are removed from the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts (civil unions do not exist in Israel). If the institution of marriage is going to persist, Michaeli wants it to be better. It is not an atypical sentiment. “I wanted to change the world since I was very little,” Michaeli tells me, simply.

Knesset member Merav Michaeli after speaking at the Temple Emanu-El during the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in New York April 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Allison Joyce)

Knesset’s Merav Michaeli after speaking at the Temple Emanu-El during the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in New York April 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Allison Joyce)

And so it seemed fitting that Michaeli had arrived in New York during Hannukah, a holiday rooted not only in oily confections, but also in metaphors of light and darkness, of hope in the face of adversity. Though Israel is currently embroiled in another surge of violence, Michaeli remains doggedly optimistic about her country’s future. At the time of our interview, she was getting ready to participate in a panel on the Two State Solution, a long-standing and often-maligned plan to divide Israel and Palestine into independent nations. Michaeli, who belongs to the Labor party of Israel’s Knessset, doesn’t pretend to have easy answers when it comes to resolving the tangled, knotted mess of a conflict that has gripped her country for more than half a century. But she is firm in her belief that peace is possible.

“When there will be—and there will be, at some point—political will on our side, in our leadership, and on the other side too, then there will be a way,” Michaeli said. She was wearing all black, as she often does, and her wide, hazel eyes were intent. “Whether it’s going to be two states, [or] a confederation … depends on the conditions, it depends on the partner we’ll have at the time, it depends on the situation in the region, and the other partners that we’ll have or not have. But until we have political will in power, the rest is not relevant.” 

Though Michaeli maintains that neither party has demonstrated sincere willingness to resolve hostilities, she reserves much of her criticism for those operating within her own sphere of influence — particularly Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected to a fourth term as Israeli Prime Minister this past March. Prior to the elections, Michaeli had been vocal about her confidence in the ability of the Zionist Union, a left-leaning coalition of parties to which she belongs, to upset Netanyahu’s tenure. “After March 17, when [leader of the Zionist Union] Yitzchak ‘Bougie’ Herzog forms the government, then we’ll be able to find out how much we’ll be able to do when you are the government and you are the ones who determine the policies,” she said in a television interview.

It didn’t happen. Netanyahu emerged triumphant after a close and bitter campaign, during which he insisted that his party was the only one that could “protect the State of Israel,” and urged Israelis to counter the votes of Arab citizens “streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.” It’s certainly not the election result Michaeli had hoped for, though she is adamant that the Israeli Left should not respond to Netanyahu’s win by preying on citizens’ fears about threats to their country, to their lives.

“We cannot compete, and we shouldn’t, and we needn’t compete with the right-wing on fear,” she said. “I think what we should offer is hope. Not only in terms of the political conflict with the Palestinians, but in terms of social, economical reality in Israel, which is not good for most of the citizens.”

And so Michaeli continues to operate as a member of the opposition. She describes her job as “sometimes frustrating, and sometimes impossible, but sometimes amazing in what you can actually do”— and Michaeli has done plenty. She was instrumental in repealing laws that jailed Israelis for private debts, and helped enact arrangements that erase the debts of certain disadvantaged citizens. She has been a vocal supporter of women fighting to be included in the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties, and crafted a law that will improve the handling of divorce cases in Israel. Michaeli wavered for a moment when I asked if she feels she can represent the needs of Palestinian women (“Feminism mostly does not succeed in rising above national differences,” she said after a pause), but stressed that her work as a politician impacts a broad spectrum of Israeli citizens — Jewish, Arab, and otherwise.

“MK Zouheir Bahloul is the Arab member in the Zionist Union,” she said, as an example. “We held a conference in the Knesset about the need to put a lot of effort into helping Arab women be able to go out and work.”

Michaeli entered into politics less than three years ago, but she has long been involved in advocacy, particularly when it comes to the rights of women. She began working as a journalist when she was only 19 years old, and quickly became one of the best-known radio and television personalities in Israel. Later, she worked as an op-ed writer for Haaretz. Michaeli likes to say that for twenty years, she had a “parallel career in feminism.” In 1996, during what she has deemed the height of her television career, she began lobbying for rape crisis centers, hoping to bring sexual assault to the forefront of national attention.

“In Israel, the subject was always taboo,” Michaeli said. “I used my publicity and the fact that I was really a well known personality in television, radio et cetera, to talk about it everywhere in the media. That made me immediately an address for other organizations and causes, and very soon I found myself an enterprise of one person dealing with women’s rights, minority rights, workers’ rights, peace.”

Michaeli also started making adjustments to her speech patterns. Like many other languages, Hebrew is deeply gendered: pronouns take on male and female formulations, and verbs are conjugated based on the gender of the person performing them. Male pronouns are used to collectively describe a group of men and women. But in 2001, Michaeli decided that she was going to chuck these conventions of the language. When she addressed mixed groups, she often used the female plural pronoun, or alternated between the masculine and feminine.

“I think language is one of the most prominent things that create consciousness, and consciousness creates reality,” Michaeli said. “Hebrew is hyper-genderized and hyper-patriarchal. And we women are supposed to be included in the male form … I don’t want to be included. I want to be present.”

When describing the public reaction to her politicization of Hebrew’s grammatical functions, Michaeli dropped her mouth into an “O” and gasped. A more verbose opinion was given by Haaretz political columnist Yossi Verter; when Michaeli was elected to the Knesset, Verter wrote that she should immediately put a stop to “her silly and childish habit of speaking in the feminine gender.”

But Michaeli did not stop. She went further. Within moments of commencing her maiden speech to Knesset members, Michaeli proclaimed herself a feminist, and proceeded to lambast the meagre representation of women in high-ranking governmental positions. “Despite your determined efforts to exclude [women] from decisions on war, on peace, on how we define ‘security’ and how to achieve it, we are still part of the conversation,” she said. “I’m not here to beg on behalf of the minority I represent. I’m here because I believe that feminism and feminist thinking can change the entire way we think about society and state.”

I asked Michaeli to elaborate on that point—on how a feminist perspective can be broadly applied to matters of governance. “I think the most fundamental thing is to realize that state, society, economy, the justice system, all the things that we’re used to look[ing] at as forces of nature are not forces of nature, and were made by human beings—who are men,” she said. “This is not the only option of how things can and should look like.”

The mutable nature of the status quo is something that Michaeli has learned from personal sources, too. She is the granddaughter of Rudolph Kastner, a Hungarian journalist who bribed Adolf Eichmann to spare thousands of Jews from certain death at Auschwitz. Kastner saved more lives than Oscar Schindler, but after the war became reviled as a Nazi collaborator. He was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957. Kastner’s legacy remains controversial, but Michaeli sees her grandfather as an emblem of defiance—as a man who refused to accept that the colossal, terrible machinery of the Nazi regime was impervious to his influence. 

“The number one lesson that I’m taking from him … is this choice of not being a victim, even when the role that was written for you was really the ultimate victim,” she said. “It’s very easy [to fall into that role], especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the Palestinians and us are fighting over the ultimate victim role … I feel like it’s a trap, and [my grandfather’s] story keeps showing me that there is another alternative: that you can always choose not to be the victim.”

Every now and then, as we chatted in Central Park, Michaeli glanced down at her phone. Her family in Israel was celebrating Hannukah together, and they sent missives from the party via WhatsApp. Michaeli has grown accustomed to the all-consuming nature of her job, which had taken her thousands of miles from home. “Ever since I am in politics, very seldom do I not work,” she told me. “It’s amazing how much work it is.”  Michaeli doesn’t have as much time as she once did to spend with her “beloved” friends and family, to watch her favorite TV shows (The Good Wife, Masters of Sex). But for her, it is a worthwhile trade-off.

“I feel very, very privileged to be able to make [legislation] happen,” she said. “It’s a change in reality. It changes people’s lives.” 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *