Founder of group behind Handmaid protests: Women are realizing danger of the overhaul

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The founder of the women’s rights advocacy group that was behind the Handmaid protests, said in an interview broadcast on Friday that the government had galvanized women who realized that their rights were at risk from the judicial overhaul.

“There are many women who are not interested in politics on a regular basis, and many of them are not even aware of what is happening in Israel and the danger and threat – they were continuing their lives as usual,” a said Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women’s rights advocacy group Bonot Alternativa, or “building an alternative.”

“But this image of the red block, which people treat as a gimmick, stops them. Then they ask why and when they get an answer, they say they want to come next time. They want to participate,” she said.

Over the past 12 weeks, many of the protests across the country have included an eye-catching display of dozens of women marching silently with their heads down and hands clasped, wearing the iconic red robes and white caps.

The participants are trying to promote the fear that the government’s plans to carry out a massive reform will leave the minority judiciary and women unprotected, referring to the futuristic novel in which oppressed women are forced to bear children for the male leaders of a patriarchal society .

“It is a big thing that is happening now, I ask you all – women and men – to wear red. This government did not realize that they did the worst thing they could do to themselves – they made us angry,” Zer Katzenstein said while receiving an award this week.

Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women’s rights advocacy group Bonot Alternativa, accepts an award in March 2023 (Screen grab is used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Zer Katzenstein said she may not have fit the expected profile, raised in a religious house in the northern town of Migdal Ha’Emek.

“I grew up as a religious girl. I remember the first time I read the morning prayers that he said the blessing ‘I was not made a woman’ and I remember myself as a little girl getting very angry,” recalled Zer Katzenstein.

After serving in the Defense Forces, Zer Katzenstein joined the Shin Bet, before working in marketing in large high-tech companies. She founded Bonot Alternativa after a teenage gang-rape in Eilat in 2020.

“The first time we did [the Handmaid protest]about 20 women marched in Jerusalem, but we didn’t realize the power of this thing,” she said.

The women who attend the central Tel Aviv rallies gather at a warehouse near Kaplan Street that has donated supporters.

Zer Katzenstein said that they have about 8000 robes, which do not come from Ali Express or from the Iranians.

“We fund them from our crowdfunding. Everyone participates, including women who take part in the performances and men who cannot take an active part. People from everywhere,” she said.

File: Protesters supporting women’s rights dressed as characters from the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” attend a protest against government plans to reform the judicial system, at a train station in Jerusalem, March 1, 2023. (AP/ Ohad Zwigenberg)

One of the participants, named only as Metal, told Channel 12 that she was joining the protests because she was worried about the future of her one-year-old daughter.

“It’s sad that we have to come to this reality. There are so many burning issues here in Israel, so it’s strange that the first thing this government does is sort itself out,” she said.

Gaot, who was joining the protest for the first time in the coastal city of Netanya, wanted to dispel the myth that the demonstrators were part of the so-called Ashkenazi minority.

“In the context of all the talk that everyone had that this was a protest against privileged white women — no. I am from a right-wing family, I was right-wing in the past, I am Mizrahi,” she said.

Gaot said she was encouraged by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s decision to block legislation allowing electronic tagging of domestic abusers. A few days later, her husband murdered Darya Leitel, a 31-year-old mother of three.

Darya Leitel, who allegedly murdered her husband on March 17, 2023 (Courtesy)

“In general, I’m not a political person, but I understand women’s rights. As soon as I saw Ben Gvir’s legislation, I was already impressed. As soon as Darya was killed, I went to the streets,” said Gaot.

Distance minister Ben Gvir said the electronic tagging legislation must go further to balance the rights of men and the needs of women at risk.

Professionals have described the use of GPS-supported monitoring of domestic abuse restraining orders as life-saving.

Itamar Ben Gvir speaking from the Knesset podium on March 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author of the dystopian-turned-TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale,” has tweeted approvingly of women using her book’s themes in mass anti-government protests across Israel.

Atwood’s 1985 novel about a futuristic patriarchal society where robbed wives are forced to bear children for bosses has emerged in recent years as a cultural touchstone thanks to the popular TV series. Its themes of female subjugation and male dominance resonate with women today who see threats in limits to abortion rights, or in Israel’s case, the rise of its conservative, religious government.

“I’ve never seen so many ‘Handmaids’ protesters march like this except on the TV series @HandmaidsOnHulu!” Atwood tweeted in response to her fans informing her of such protests.

Two days earlier, Atwood shared a video of hundreds of identically clad women marching in uniform in Tel Aviv, writing: “Astonishing.”

The 83-year-old author has retweeted many messages of support for the protest movement in Israel as well as criticizing the government’s plans for his two million followers.

One message the author retweeted from a follower suggested that Atwood would be “extremely proud of how your literary masterpiece continues to inform generations young and old as we continue to face these difficult days.”

Israelis dressed as characters from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ protest against the government’s planned judicial reform, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Before one show last month, a group of women rode the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in costume, transforming the cars and the scene into a scene that could have been from a Hulu series.

Another time, they visit a central fountain in the seaside city of Tel Aviv, a site usually crowded with children in strollers and dogs on leashes.

They also blocked intersections, staying in character during the protests and remaining quiet while walking in formation.

Protesters supporting women’s rights dressed as characters from the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” attend a protest against government plans to reform the judicial system, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 11, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The government, Israel’s most hard-line so far, is overwhelmingly male. Only nine out of 64 parliamentarians in Netanyahu’s coalition are women. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are the main parts of the coalition, refuse full inclusion of women members.

The wife costume, which came to embody the threat to women under the patriarchy, was used in protests elsewhere. American women who are against the nominee of the former president of the United States Donald Trump of the Supreme Court have been jealous, as Iranian women are demonstrating in Britain supporting the protests in Iran, and Polish women who want abortion rights conservation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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