May 28, 2024

Shalem Grads Fight Invisible Battle: Rights for Reservists’ Wives

Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich meets with Reservists’ Wives Forum co-founders (from left to right) Sapir Bluzer ’18, Merav Lemberger ’18, and Sagit Bechner, together with Sapir and Merav’s infant children.

As with so many things in Israel, this too began as a WhatsApp group. “A bunch of women whose husbands had been drafted since October 8th began sharing the challenges that come with wearing ‘invisible’ uniforms,” recalled Merav Lemberger, a graduate of Shalem’s Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought, a lawyer, and a mother of three children, the youngest just half a year old. “A month after the Hamas attack, much of the country had returned to a routine not that different from the pre-war reality. But for the reservists and their families, that return to normal was a mirage. In truth, a small number of Israeli families was shouldering a huge part of the burden involved in fighting this war, but without the help needed to get by.”

Lemberger, together with fellow Shalem graduate Sapir Bluzer, is co-founder of the Forum for Reservists’ Wives, an advocacy initiative on behalf of the families whose husbands and fathers have been drafted into Israel’s war. Like many of the women the initiative represents, her own husband served for four and a half months after October 7th, in his case as an operation sergeant at the paratroopers’ forces headquarters; he is scheduled to return to serve in the coming months in the military prosecution’s legal team. As she explained to Koret Distinguished Fellow Dr. Daniel Gordis on his popular Substack blog Israel from the Inside, the war revealed how, despite the equal role women play in the country’s economy, Israel’s government and business sectors alike have failed to reflect that reality in their policies.

“We’re no longer living in a reality in which the vast majority of wives and mothers stay home,” said Lemberger. “Most Israeli families need mothers to go out to work, and fathers also assume large responsibilities within families. Why, in addition to the burden of single parenting and the constant fear of ‘what if,’ must these families also be harmed financially? Why must these women’s careers be harmed while their husbands are fighting a war for Israel’s existence?”

At the height of the draft in the fall and early winter, more than 100,000 “reservist” households were being managed solely by women, often for months without reprieve. In Bluzer’s case, her daughter was just a few months old when her husband was called to Israel’s northern border on October 8th. By the time the first reservists were released in January, he had served for more than 80 days straight. As she explained in a television interview for Channel 12, the resulting challenges faced by their wives fall into three categories.

First, there is the loss of income, whether that of a drafted partner who was a small business owner or of a wife who herself runs a business or works outside normal business hours. Second, many reservists’ wives also noted a lack of accommodation from the business sector, such as more paid sick days and flexibility with regard to hybrid work arrangements. She points, in this regard, to the phenomenon of “quiet firing,” in which reservists’ wives were placed on unpaid leave on account of childcare duties, only to find, when their husbands returned from the front, that their positions had been made obsolete. In addition, many women reported being asked at job interviews if their husbands were serving in the reserves; if the answer was affirmative, they rarely proceeded to the next round.

Reservists’ Wives Forum members meet with finance ministry representatives at the Knesset in November.

Finally, wives noted the lack of support for their and their children’s—and also their husbands’—mental health. “This was a situation in which fathers disappeared from one day to the next,” emphasized Lemberger. “Young children who don’t understand the context are confused, scared, and suffer from serious anxiety.” Many husbands, she went on, also return from the front with PTSD. They need help readjusting to family life after the things they’ve seen.

Given the severity of the problems and no formal address to which to turn, it’s no wonder that a WhatsApp group of a few dozen women grew to nearly 900 within just days. And then, two weeks later, into several thousand more. While at first, the group’s leaders planned to try and organize grassroots support, it quickly became clear that the solutions would require vastly more resources.

“When we started to map our members most urgent needs, we found that nearly 15 percent of wives were asking for help with basic food supplies,” Bluzer said. “That is an intolerable situation. Our leaders had sent people to the fight at the front lines, but they hadn’t thought to protect the ones who are holding down the home front.” Bluzer, Lemberger, and other Forum leaders quickly established a work plan and committees; shortly thereafter, they began to reach out to members of Knesset.

Thankfully, within a matter of weeks, the answers began to come.

“When we met with [Minister of Finance] Bezalel Smotrich, the first thing he said was ‘Thank you for bringing this to my attention, so that I can address the issue,’” recalls Bluzer, who, together with Lemberger and other Forum representatives, met first with Smotrich in December and then spoke to various Knesset committees about the situation. Almost immediately, the finance ministry put together a plan based on the Forum’s detailed proposals. “They didn’t implement all of our proposals, but they did accept the most significant of them,” Bluzer noted, pointing out that thanks to the Forum, the Knesset passed a 9 billion shekel package to provide subsidies to all reservists who had served for a minimum number of days, and is poised to pass a law that forbids businesses from firing women whose husbands served in the reserves for more than 60 days after October 7th. She also noted that as the Forum gained traction, many female MKs proactively reached out to express their desire to help, and that the movement has started to garner the support of business leaders, as well. The head of Business Roundtable Israel, for example, a network dedicated to strengthening Israel’s economy in wartime, released a formal statement of support for reservists’ wives on behalf of top company CEOs.

Now, as Israel begins to call many released reservists back in, their efforts will allow reservists’ families to face the uncertainty ahead from a position of strength.

“Ultimately, the true test of a healthy and resilient country is whether you’ve addressed the situation of its most vulnerable citizens,” said Lemberger. Bluzer agreed: “We realized that as long as this war continues and our husbands are fighting at the front, we need to strengthen the home front, too. We therefore determined to turn the Forum into a nonprofit that will always take care of the families that are taking care of all of Israel.”

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