By Ruth Mason
The Hon. Zehava Galon adores her job. And her job is nothing less than changing the world—one law at a time. "I see my job as a mission," says the traditional-looking member of Israel's Knesset with the untraditional views. "It fulfills a need I have to struggle for justice and equality. I love every aspect of my work, from drafting laws to giving interviews, to making a speech on the Knesset podium, to meeting people who come to see me. The other day, a group of battered women came in to tell me that a law we had passed wasn't being implemented. You should have seen what I did here in 45 minutes. I turned the world upside down."
Even though Galon is the first-ever female head of a Knesset faction (Meretz-Yachad, with 10 seats), has an impressive record of laws passed and was a founder of the human rights watchdog organization B'Tselem (which received the Carter-Menil Human Rights Prize), when asked what accomplishment she is most proud of, she says without hesitation, "my two sons."
"It's not easy growing up in a house in which the mother is so committed and involved, so busy," Galon says. "We all paid a price. When my sons were small, I was jailed for five days for staging a protest in a closed military zone. Try explaining to a child that his mom is an ideological criminal. It was very hard."
Inspired by hearing former MK Shulamith Aloni speak when she was 15, Galon developed a radical political consciousness early on, believing that Israel should leave the West Bank and Gaza and reach an accord with the Palestinians. A protest she led outside the one movie theater in Petah Tikva, where she grew up and still lives, led to the theater's opening on Shabbat and served as a symbol for the struggle to separate church and state in Israel. Eventually, she became secretary general of Aloni's civil rights party Ratz (a forerunner of Meretz)—the first woman to hold such a position since Golda Meir.
A dynamo of energy with a calm demeanor, Galon is renowned for her record on women's issues and human rights. (Haaretz's Gideon Levy called her the "Knesset guardian of human rights," and the Jerusalem Post Magazine entitled a cover article about her "Rebel Without a Pause.") As head of the Parliamentary Enquiry Committee on Trafficking in Women, she has initiated laws against human trafficking and persuaded the government to treat these women as victims rather than criminals.
She has passed many other laws safeguarding women's rights, including ones that provide mandatory prison terms for sexual offenders and abusive husbands; give women leaving battered-women's shelters financial assistance to help them start new lives; and require the representation of women in all sports organizations. She also initiated the opening of two centers in hospital emergency rooms to treat sexual-assault victims.
It was Galon who encouraged an aggrieved former defense ministry employee to bring charges of sexual assault against Transportation Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. (He was convicted.) "Perhaps what most characterizes me," she says, "is the willingness to speak my truth, even when it's an unpopular one."
It is unusual for a woman to be a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but Galon insisted on it. A strong voice against Palestinian house demolitions, she believes that entire families should not be made to suffer for the crimes of individual members.
Galon strives for balance in her life, though she admits she doesn't always succeed. "Some days I find myself exhausted from all the travel, the pressure, the struggle to influence, the need to answer dozens of calls and letters from the public every day [she answers her own phone and responds to every letter]and it's important for me to look nice and to dress nicely, so I have to find time to go to the hairdresser."
Her biggest hope? "That there will be peace here—and I believe it will happen. Then we will have time to address critical issues like education and the environment."
Ruth Mason is a freelance writer who lives in Jerusalem.