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Institute Intent on Hiring Women Because of Their Merits, Not Gender

June 14, 2006
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The epic and incredible survival of Jewish civilization throughout history owes a great deal to the legendary Jewish mother. Women have been incredibly effective in keeping the Jewish people alive and in ensuring their future in every field of American endeavor. They have not only educated this generation of prominent Jewish personalities but have taken part in shaping the standing of the Jewish community.

Those facts have never been ignored by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.

The institute, which has been operational for just three years, is still in its start-up phase. It has always been understood that the institute needs to reflect the diversity of the Jewish community, taking into account pluralism and gender equality. We are making every effort to recruit the best professional and creative Jewish minds to fulfill these expectations.

Recent criticism of gender imbalance in an upcoming institute event is inaccurate. The Wye River Conference Center brainstorming session of “decision makers” is just one in a series of sessions we’re initiating in the context of a project called “Alternative Futures for the Jewish People 2025.”

The brainstorming process started a year ago, and has called upon men such as Irwin Cotler, Jehuda Reinharz, Stuart Eizenstat, Alan Dershowitz, Michael Steinhardt and Natan Sharansky. We also have called on women such as Hermona Soreq, head of Hebrew University’s Sciences Faculty; Judith Birk, head of Hebrew University’s Agriculture Faculty; and Rachel Fish, a promising young American Jewish scholar and activist.

Immediately after the decision makers’ gathering, we will hold a gathering of “thinkers” for additional brainstorming. Due to take part in that meeting are Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison and Nicole Geudj, a former French Cabinet minister.

Regarding the “decision maker” session, we found that the know-how and experience accumulated by heads of major Jewish organizations are very significant to our work. Perhaps we were mistaken in not looking at the gender problem inherent in this category of leaders.

If Deborah Lipstadt, who has criticized our invite list, had bothered to make just one phone call, many of her complaints could have been addressed. This is just a partial list of women who have been invited to our meetings but were unable to attend: Baroness Julia Neuberger; British legislator Louise Ellman; Ruth Dreifus of Switzerland; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; economist Orit Gadish; Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silverman Abella; Professor Rivka Carmi of Ben-Gurion University; Galia Maor, president of Bank Leumi; and Professor Ruth Lapidot of Israel. None of these women was invited in the name of gender equality, rather on their merits.

As for Lipstadt’s criticism of the composition of our staff, in this start-up stage we need to take advantage of windows of opportunity in our recruitment. Avi Gil was invited to join the institute on the day he stepped down as director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry; Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald was recruited soon after he retired as head of biotech for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and Professor Chaim Waxman of Rutgers University also was recruited just after he retired. They weren’t hired because they’re men, but on their merits.

In recent months, we have been negotiating with three impressive professionals, who happen to be women. They include a former brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and two highly qualified professionals, one an expert in Jewish sociology and the other an expert on the Russian Jewish community in North America. Their joining depends on their availability — and their merits.

Ahava Zarembski, an expert in the field of religious-secular relations and North American Jewry, was the first fellow to join the institute. She was hired on her merits, as was Ita Alcalay, our projects coordinator.

At the last Herzliya Conference, the institute’s founding president, Professor Yehezkel Dror, presented his work on the need to advance women in the Israeli defense establishment. He called to the stage Inbal Freund of the Legacy Heritage Foundation, a visiting fellow at the institute, as an example of a young woman entitled to advance in the Israeli establishment — on her merits.

Lipstadt mentions a list of women she hints were “ignored.” In fact, none of them was ignored, and at least two — Susie Gelman and Lynn Schusterman — have been invited to take a closer look at our work.

Are these efforts enough? They’re never enough. Gender equality is very important and we will continue to increase the presence of women at the institute. It won’t be based on the fact that they’re women, however, rather on their merits.

To blame Ambassador Ross — who really should be praised for the time, energy and thought he dedicates to the institute’s issues, all on a voluntary basis — as well as the other lay and professional people involved in the institute, is as unfair as Lipstadt’s final swipe, calling this important gathering of decision makers a “meeting on a plantation.”

Avinoam Bar-Yosef is director of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.

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