June 3, 2023

Mainstreaming Refugee Women’s Rights Advocacy

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

Asylum-Seeking Women as Women: Mainstreaming Refugee Women’s Rights Advocacy

For many years I’ve been working with asylum seekers, men and women, in Israel. A few years ago a client – an African asylum-seeking woman in her early 40s – came to our office. Her set of issues, not necessarily unique to her, highlighted the need for us to work differently to better serve this population.

She had kids, and was a victim of domestic violence. She was wondering whether she should report her husband’s abuse, fearing one the one hand for her children’s and her own safety, and on the other for the economic stability of the family. She was afraid that if she was to report her husband, he would be detained and she would have to support her family alone on her low wages. When she did eventually report him, the spiral she feared ensued, but it was even worse than she expected.

He was indeed detained and indicted, but the worst came after he completed his sentence. He was moved to a “residency center,” similar to an immigration detention facility. In theory, he was free to go in and out, however, he had to spend the night there, away from his children. The facility was remote and inaccessible by public transportation. Then, he was approached with a suggestion. He would receive $3,500 if he agreed to go to a third country with which Israel has an agreement to take African asylum seekers off its hands. Once he agreed to the deal, his wife – our clinic’s client – was left to provide for her children on her own, without their father. Additionally, she had no contact with her husband and no access to the bank account in his name (though her salary had been deposited in it for years), and she was unable to divorce him.

Our legal clinic was unsure what we could do for her. We were used to fighting for people’s status, but clearly this client needed so much more than that. Being undocumented was only one dimension of her personal drama. What could we do to treat the issues this woman confronted more holistically?

The life experiences of this client were not new to me.  A few years ago, I took part in a research project documenting the difficult lives of asylum-seeking women in Israel. Through that research, we concluded that the vulnerability of this population justifies their treatment as a discrete group within the asylum-seeking community, but they are rarely treated as such. That research also showed that feminist organizations are not inclined to engage with asylum-seeking women, and that advocacy to promote women’s rights is conducted within the confines of the “ghetto” of NGOs devoted to migrants’ rights and clinics. This renders asylum-seeking women unable to enjoy the rights feminism has achieved within Israeli society.

The Coalition on Asylum-Seeking Women and Children in Israel

The limits of our abilities to help such a client, together with the findings of that research, resulted in the creation of the Coalition on Asylum-Seeking Women and Children in Israel, which has been operating since September 2016. It consists of 15 NGOs and legal clinics with the main goals of promoting migrants’ and refugees’ rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights. The coalition focuses on providing legal services in different fields of law, including outside of our comfort zone of immigration and refugee law, in the unknown territories of family law. We also deal with issues of the social and economic rights of asylum-seeking women and children. This includes the submission of an amicus brief on behalf of a dozen women and children’s rights NGOs, on the constitutionality of the deposit law, a law that came into force in May 2017. According to the deposit law, 20% of the (already low) salary of asylum seekers will be transferred to a deposit made available to the asylum seeker when she leaves Israel. This economic measure had a dramatic effect on already-vulnerable women and children. Finally, the coalition’s member organizations have put together demonstrations against the recent plans to deport African asylum seekers from Israel to third countries. Such demonstrations included a demonstration on International Women’s Day attended by disempowered Israeli and asylum-seeking women and a protest march of Israeli and African children.

The Feminist Engagement with Asylum-Seeking Women

Over the years, feminist engagement with asylum-seeking women has centered on an effort to identify these women as a discrete category of asylum seekers, worthy of protection under the refugee convention. Such efforts have focused on demonstrating that the forms of persecution women typically endure are unique and that protection gaps within the refugee convention and within the definition of refugees heighten women’s risk. This is due to the absence of gender as a convention-recognized ground for asylum, and the general male-oriented convention grounds, both in text and interpretation. Feminist efforts have thus sought to argue that refugee law should protect women from acts of persecution carried out by private actors in the private sphere, often abetted by lax enforcement of state laws. Such efforts have proven to be somewhat fruitful. Since the mid-1980s, many Western democracies recognize practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, child marriages, trafficking, domestic violence, sexual violence and others as recognized forms of persecution. Women who seek asylum from these types of persecution in these specific countries are often given protection, even when said persecution is not directly attributable to the state.

Recently there has been a call to further deepen the engagement of refugee law with feminist theory, to promote a feminist reading of core concepts in refugee law, such as the concept of exclusion or surrogate state protection. Such cases highlight the fact that these concepts not only disproportionately affect women, but also influence women and men differently and can thus benefit from application of feminist methodologies.

The Current Research Project

In my current research project, I draw from the work with refugees and asylum-seeking women in Israel to argue that international refugee law would benefit from an additional form of engagement with feminism. In particular, I argue that refugee law should not remain at the level of status, or even at the level of the International Refugee Law framework. Instead of simply introducing feminist theory into International Refugee Law, I suggest that the underlying commonality among all women, regardless of status, would benefit from conjoining advocacy efforts on behalf of refugee women with those on behalf women more generally.

Such a legal perspective, arising from more fundamental human (women’s) rights would encourage the development of a legal framework that would allow the promotion of a deeper protection for asylum-seeking women, changing the legal focus from questions of status in determining whether someone, male or female, qualifies for protection as a refugee, to a broader focus on an entire set of necessary civil, social, economic and cultural rights. It also creates opportunities for solidarity between asylum-seeking women and other women, including other immigrants, citizens and residents, national minorities, and general feminist and women’s rights groups. Moreover, such a linkage will allow asylum-seeking women to benefit from the progress already achieved by feminist movements regarding women’s rights, rather than marginalizing them and confining them to seeking rights exclusively as refugees.

The call for mainstreaming the discourse of refugee rights into the discourse of women’s rights offers an important theoretical contribution that goes beyond the discussion of asylum-seeking women’s rights. The overarching question is this: Is it strategically preferable to advocate for the rights of refugees via instruments of International Human Rights, rather than via International Refugee Law?

In examining this question, I find significant arguments in favor of abandoning the prevailing view that International Refugee Law is a separate branch of international law to be applied and interpreted according to its own fundamental concepts, and separately from other areas of international law. Since the adoption of other human rights instruments, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966, as well as regional human rights instruments, and, in this context, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, this tendency to view refugee law separately from international human rights law has been questioned. These international conventions on human rights should be applicable to refugees, as they apply to “all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction,” (ICCPR) or “everyone” (ICCPR, ICESCR). In other words, their applicability is not limited merely to citizens, residents, lawfully staying persons, etc., and they apply not just within a state’s territory but also along its borders and in other areas where states apply coercive force.

While there have been calls to interpret International Refugee Law in light of International Human Rights Instruments (as well as International Humanitarian Law), this argument goes further by asking, what would be the benefits of advocating for refugee rights – not just for refugee women’s rights – through a Human Rights framework, rather than a Refugee Rights framework? Put differently, which legal approach would be more beneficial in protecting refugees’ rights?

The exploration of this question is essentially a theorization of the work of the aforementioned coalition on asylum-seeking women and children in Israel. By embedding a theoretical legal question in the lived experience of women asylum seekers and women’s rights advocates, the expected outcome of this research stretches beyond its theoretical value to a reflection on the advocacy effort and raison d’être of the coalition.

Finally, in light of the recent shifts in the Israeli policies towards asylum seekers, the focus on asylum-seeking women and children and their integration is of high importance. This is ultimately the population that will not be resettled or deported from Israel, and thus their integration – and ability to enjoy the fruits of the feminist struggle in Israel – is an effort worth making for their own sake as well as for the sake of other women.


Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is a scholar-in-residence at HBI and a senior lecturer of Immigration and International Law at The College of Law and Business in Israel. She is a visiting fellow at The Human Rights Program of Harvard Law School.

A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS

By Janet Freedman

The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.

FreedmanWhen I am determining how to work in solidarity with those who are seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I start with a question.

Do you think that the state of Israel should continue to exist?

My support for any action on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is predicated on knowing that those involved are committed to the continued existence of the state of Israel.

I am equally committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The divide between the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis has deepened to the point of despair on both sides and throughout the world.

When I read the BDS resolution proposed for endorsement by the NWSA, and the supporting FAQs, I am deeply offended. The material in support of the resolution states:

“What is really anti-Semitic is to define all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”  

I am angry to have my Judaism defined for me and to be told by NWSA what is “really anti-Semitic.”

While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA, which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,” the theme of two recent conferences.

But, in spite of this proposed resolution, there has been little dialogue about Israel and Palestine. I am aware and saddened that the zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history, or a respect for the accuracy of the information brought to their advocacy.  Although I have read a good deal about Zionism and about the countries and political struggles in the Middle East, this has not yielded clarity, but an acknowledgement of myriad complexities and contradictions.

I feel it is important to bring knowledge, understanding and careful reflection to every action, and that it is particularly important to learn from people who are affected by the conflict every day – the Israelis and Palestinians whose familial, spiritual, economic and political pasts, presents and futures are involved. Tourists, and even those who regularly spend some periods of time living in the area cannot speak from the personal experience of Israelis or Palestinians.  From my relatively secure environment in the United States I can only imagine the terror that affects them.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.  It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies. Terms such as “imperialism,” “colonizing” and other tropes distort actual history.  The rhetoric turns a complex issue into a two-sided one that erases many narratives. It equates supporting BDS resolutions with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine while placing those who question that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.  Organizing efforts have become ends in themselves, unintentionally – and sometimes intentionally – based on the spreading of rumors and misinformation to the detriment of the people who are actually involved in the daily struggle. It is anti-Semitic. I would ask those who villainize Israel while insisting they do not hate Jews to consider Audre Lorde’s words: “I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.”

Jews recently celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the ending of the last reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle, and invites Jews to rejoice in the source of their religious identity. I remember the time as a young child when my father and other males in the synagogue marched around the sanctuary taking turns holding the holy scrolls close to their hearts. Israel had just become a state and much of the world – including the progressive community – rejoiced with our congregation. Last month I celebrated the holiday once again. We formed a circle; now women and children as well as men held the hand-lettered sacred scroll, slowly unfurled to reveal the ancient texts that underscore the Jewish values of Torah, avodah (prayer and service to the community) and gemilut chassidim (acts of loving kindness).

My granddaughter, soon to be a bat mitzvah, joined other children also marking that milestone this year. They stood before the portion they will read on their special day and summarized their parts of the stories that shaped my life and values, the Jewish commitment to social justice – and my granddaughter’s legacy. It is the story that took the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I am inspired by my tradition, but know that a complex history followed the events recorded in the Torah that have brought us to the present, very difficult moment.

Like other religious and political communities, the Jewish community includes fundamentalists and extremists, but it is diverse and inclusive, too. It is not always easy, but I can bring a progressive voice to Jewish settings. I can find personal affirmation, a welcoming community with whom to pray in my own way, and to express and be respected for my efforts to be progressive, feminist, pro Israel/pro Palestine/pro peace and to acknowledge and explore commitments and contradictions with other Jews.

I cannot allow the words of this resolution and these FAQs to tell me whether a “good” Jew is one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity or to imply that if I do not, I do not deserve to be heard, to be seen, perhaps even to live.

I am not among those who feel that they can be Jewish without supporting the existence of the state of Israel. I know too many people who would have no home without that home.

I am shocked and offended that an academic organization that prides itself on “difficult dialogue” would adopt any sort of boycott of ideas.

We can do better than this. We must do better than this. If we do not the search for justice will devolve into a call for vengeance.

I hope you will join me in opposing the endorsement of the BDS resolution.

Dr. Janet Freedman is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice.

Value Us, Don’t Discriminate

By Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein


I am proud to be an Ethiopian-Israeli black woman, yet I am angry and disappointed at what is going on with Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Israel is my home and I owe my life to Israel and the Jews around the world who enabled me to be airlifted, in 1985, from the Sudan desert by the Israeli Air Force.

As Ethiopian Jews, our ancestors dreamt of going to the “Promised Land of the Jews” for 2,500 years. To get there, we crossed the desert on foot, sacrificing our lives to be with our fellow Jews in the Holy Land.

Yet, now in Israel, we find ourselves in a different fight. In the Ethiopian village, we knew whom we were fighting against. And, we had solutions. We could insulate ourselves as a community. Our family could work on our own fields; use our own Jewish community blacksmiths, weavers and potters. If our neighbors didn’t like us, we could live in a Jewish village.

In Israel, we are all in the same region, but we, the 135,000 Ethiopians in Israel, are a different color. It seems that a difference in color is what makes it different for Ethiopian Jews to live in certain places, get certain jobs or ride a bus proudly without stares.

We feel surrounded by injustice and discrimination. Like a pressure cooker under a rug, it burst out in an aggressive protest last month, triggered by an event caught in the lens of the camera where an innocent Ethiopian soldier in uniform, serving his country, was beaten brutally by Israeli police officers. How could this happen?

What is most painful for me is that the young generation of Ethiopians, born and raised in Israel, educated and serving in the Army like everybody else, needs to go through this unacceptable discrimination.

These young people are assets who can empower Israel to deal with its many challenges, but instead young Ethiopian Israelis are waging their own war of survival. Instead of using young people as a driving force for the State of Israel, young Ethiopian Israelis are fighting for basic justice. This kind of discrimination should not happen in any country, but certainly not in Israel, a state that was created by and for the Jewish people.

Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein is a Research Associate at HBI and Senior Research Associate at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis University. Her research areas are cross-culturalism, gender, immigration, knowledge and cognition in context. 

Let’s Talk About Israel’s Blacklist

By Susan Weiss

It’s time to talk about Israel’s blacklist. This state sanctioned registry of “untouchables” — the last public accounting of it in 2004 lists 5,305 Israelis — is a motley crew who fall under three general categorizations:

  1. People who can’t marry any type of Jew (2,835)
  2. “Unkosher” Jews who can’t marry “kosher Jews” but can marry other “unkosher Jews” or converts (235)
  3. “Kosher Jews” with issues that limit who they can marry (2,235)

Included in the first group are: Gentiles; those suspected of being Gentiles; “lapsed” converts whose conversions were repealed because of conduct deemed “wayward” by Israeli state rabbis, and the children of those lapsed converts. In the second category of “unkosher Jews” are mamzerim and suspected mamzerim — children born of their mother’s adulterous relationships, or of their incestuous relationships, even if coerced. These include children born of “consanguineous” incestuous relations (among blood relatives) like a father and daughter, as well as “affinal” incestuous relations (non-blood relatives) like a woman with her sister’s ex-husband, or a widow with her brother-in-law if she had had children with her husband. In the third category of “kosher Jews” whose options are limited are, among others: Cohanim or priests who live with divorcees or converts and whose daughters are not permitted to marry other priests; divorced couples who slept together after divorce and need to redo the get ceremony if they want to marry other people; as well as women suspected of adultery who are barred from marrying their ex-husbands or lovers.

All of the above kinship rules are based on ancient, Biblical and rabbinic laws and have been incorporated into the operative, family law of the land in the State of Israel by way of the Rabbinic Court Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law of 1953. In 1976, then Attorney General, and later Chief Justice, Aaron Barak, approved the blacklist, implicitly and prospectively expanding the rabbinic court’s jurisdiction in a matter on which law was silent. In 2003, Barak’s opinion was reviewed by the new Attorney General and re-confirmed.

On the (liberal) face of things, it’s pretty bad. Ancient laws infringe on Israeli citizens’ rights to marriage, freedom of conscience, and privacy. But when you watch it operate up close, which has been my professional lot as the director of the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) where we represent people on the list and others, the picture gets even more daunting. It is more than just the state offering up a few unfortunate souls for the sake of the Jewish polity. It’s about how state secular actors like the Attorney General’s Office, the Justice Department, and the Israeli Supreme Court sacrifice, again and again, the democratic heart of the Jewish State, allowing state actors with the violent power of the state behind them to aggressively enter into our bedrooms, kitchens, and the private recesses of our consciences.

Take for example “Miriam”, a recent CWJ client who “found” herself on the blacklist after she was divorced from her husband. When the get was being arranged, her soon-to-be ex-husband told the rabbis that he suspected that she had had an affair with “Yossi”. That suspicion was enough for the presiding rabbi to put “Miriam” on the blacklist. Though she did not want to marry “Yossi”, “Miriam” wanted her name off the (offensive) list. CWJ petitioned the rabbinic court to remove her name. We claimed both that the procedure by which “Miriam” had “found” herself on the list had been flawed and that the court had no jurisdiction at all to put her on the list in the first place. Since “Miriam” had gotten divorced by agreement (i.e. the divorce was not contested), we argued, the issue of whether she had, or had not, slept with “Yossi” during her marriage was not relevant to the divorce proceeding and hence not within the parameters of the Rabbinic Court Jurisdiction Law. The District Rabbinic Court disagreed but was willing to conduct a retrial on the matter. Our client did not want to undergo such a demeaning trial— where her sex life would be discussed— and we appealed the decision to the High Rabbinic Court on both procedural and substantive grounds. When we lost, we appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Asher Grunis, was not sympathetic. The Court wasn’t willing to help out “Miriam” since she had refused to undergo a retrial. And it also wasn’t willing to accept our principled claim that the rabbinic court had no jurisdiction at all to conduct sex trials in uncontested divorced proceedings, rejecting our request that it examine the Jurisdiction Law with “strict scrutiny.” Instead, the Court deferred to the opinion of the Justice Department attorney appointed to represent the State against us on the matter. That attorney, in response to our substantive jurisdictional claim, referred the Court back to Barak’s 1976 opinion with regard to the blacklist. As for our procedural claim, the Court sent me to the negotiating table to draft regulations with the government attorneys to make sure that blacklisting and sex trials would meet the standards of fair trial and due process. I used the time, unsuccessfully, to try to convince the public servants that they should be working to protect my and my clients’ human rights, not the state’s interest. They used the time, unsuccessfully, to try to get me to lend my hand to the regulations. About 10 days ago, after the Chief Rabbi approved of the draft regulations, the Supreme Court threw out our case, leaving us a somewhat ambiguous opening to challenge the newly minted regulations with another concrete case.

Bottom line: “Miriam” is still blacklisted. We have official regulations authorizing sex trials drafted by the Justice Department and more or less ok’d by the Supreme Court. Ex-husbands are dragging their ex-wives to state rabbinic courts if they apply to marry persons that their ex-husbands suspect that they had slept with during their marriage. Rabbinic courts are hearing these cases and women, sometimes years after their divorce, are bearing the burden of disproving their, often vindictive, ex-husband’s suspicions.

Everything is wrong with this picture. It is a picture of a theocracy gone wild, financed with tax-payer money, regulated and bureaucratized, and supported by a shortsighted, unimaginative, and unfocused secular democratic arm of the state. Max Weber, Ben Gurion, John Stuart Mill, Ahad Ha’am, God Himself, and many others are all rolling over in their graves. This is not what a Jewish State should look like. And it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time for both Israelis and those interested in Israel’s future to call on the Israeli government to set up a civil rights division in the Justice Department.

susanweiss_smSusan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center of Women’s Justice in Jerusalem and is the Estanne Fawer scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. This blog first appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of The Forward.

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