The founder of the women’s rights advocacy group behind the Handmaid protests, said in an interview broadcast Friday that the government had galvanized women who realized their rights were at risk from the judicial overhaul.
“There are a lot of 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 with their lives as usual,” said Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women’s rights advocacy group Bonot Alternativa, or “building an alternative.”
“But this image of the block of red, which people treat as a gimmick, makes them stop. Then they ask why and when they get an answer, they say that 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 silently marching with their heads down and their hands clasped, wearing the red robes and white caps made iconic by the story.
Those participating are seeking to drive home the fear that the government’s plans to massively overhaul the judiciary will leave minorities and women unprotected, referencing the futuristic novel where subjugated women are forced to bear children for male leaders of a patriarchal society.
“What is happening now is huge, I call on all of you — women and men — to wear red. This government did not understand that they did the worst thing they could do to themselves — they made us angry,” Zer Katzenstein said while receiving an award this week.
Zer Katzenstein said that she maybe did not fit the profile that some would expect, raised in a religious home in northern town Migdal Ha’Emek.
“I grew up as a religious girl. I remember that the first time I read morning prayers it said the blessing ‘that I was not made a woman’ and I remember myself as a little girl getting very angry,” Zer Katzenstein recalled.
After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, Zer Katzenstein joined the Shin Bet, before working in marketing in large high-tech companies. She founded Bonot Alternativa after a teen was gang-raped in Eilat in 2020.
“The first time we did [the Handmaid protest], around 20 women marched in Jerusalem, but we did not understand the power of this thing,” she said.
The women attending the central Tel Aviv rallies gather at a warehouse near Kaplan Street that was donated by a supporter.
Zer Katzenstein said they have around have 8000 robes, which are “neither from Ali Express or the Iranians.”
“We finance them from our crowdfunding. Everyone contributes, including women who participate in the performances and men who cannot actively join. People from everywhere,” she said.
One of the participants, named only as Meital, told Channel 12 that she was joining the protests because she was worried for the future of her one-year-old daughter.
“It is sad that we have to come to this reality. There are so many burning issues here in Israel, so it seems very strange to me 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 elite.
“In the context of all the talk of everyone that this is a protest of privileged white women — no. I come from a right-wing family, I was right-wing in the past, I am Mizrahi,” she said.
Gaot said she was galvanized by the decision by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to block legislation allowing the electronic tagging of domestic abusers. A few days later, 31-year-old Darya Leitel, a mother of three, was murdered by her husband.
“In general, I’m not a political person, but I understand women’s rights. As soon as I saw Ben Gvir’s legislation, it already bothered me. As soon as Darya was murdered, I took to the streets,” said Gaot.
Far-right minister Ben Gvir said legislation on electronic tagging needs to go further to balance men’s rights against the needs of women in potential danger.
Professionals have described the use of GPS-backed monitoring of domestic abuse restraining orders as life-saving.
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author of the dystopian novel-turned-TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale,” has tweeted approvingly of women utilizing the themes of her book in mass anti-government protests across Israel.
Atwood’s 1985 novel about a futuristic patriarchal society where the robed handmaids are forced to bear children for leaders has reemerged in recent years as a cultural touchstone thanks to the popular TV series. Its themes of female subjugation and male domination have resonated with women today who see threats in limits on abortion rights, or in Israel’s case, in the rise of its conservative, religious government.
“I have never seen so many ‘Handmaids’ protesters marching like this except in the @HandmaidsOnHulu tv series!” Atwood tweeted in response to followers alerting her to such protests.
I have never seen so many “Handmaids” protesters marching like this except in the @HandmaidsOnHulu tv series! https://t.co/y5do2H4uls
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) March 18, 2023
Two days earlier, Atwood shared a video of hundreds of identically clad women marching uniformly in Tel Aviv, writing: “Astonishing.”
The 83-year-old author has also retweeted many messages of support for the protest movement in Israel as well as criticism of the government’s plans to her two million followers.
One message the author retweeted from a follower suggested that Atwood would be “astounded and proud at how your literary masterpiece is informing a generation of young and old as we continue to counter these very difficult days.”
Ahead of one demonstration last month, a group of women rode the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in costume, transforming the cars and the platform into what could have been a scene from the Hulu series.
Another time, they encircled a central fountain in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, a site that typically abounds with kids in strollers and dogs on leashes.
They have also blocked intersections, staying in character during the protests and keeping quiet as they walk in formation.
The government, Israel’s most hardline to date, is overwhelmingly male. Only nine out of 64 parliamentarians in Netanyahu’s coalition are women. Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are key components of the coalition, deny inclusion to women members entirely.
The handmaid costume, which has come to embody the threat to women under the patriarchy, has been used in protests elsewhere. American women opposing former US president Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominees have donned the garb, as have Iranian women demonstrating in Britain in support of the protests in Iran, and Polish women calling to preserve abortion rights.
Associated Press contributed to this report.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel