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Haredi feminist fights for political parity in Israel

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

No haredi women are currently serving in the Knesset. Esty Shushan wants to change that.

By TOBY TABACHNICKOctober 18, 2018, 3:49 pm

Esty Shushan addresses local Jewish women in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Esty Shushan addresses local Jewish women in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The 2017 IKEA catalogue delivered to haredi neighborhoods in Israel was notable not only for its pictures of challah boards and bunk beds — items that are of particular interest to the haredi-Orthodox community — but also for what was wholly missing from those photos: women and girls.

Instead, the Shabbat and breakfast table scenes illustrating the Swedish furniture giant’s wares showed only groups of men and boys, in yarmulkes and payot, going about their lives in a world seemingly devoid of females.

Ironically — and surely unintentionally — the impression the catalogue created was one of haredi men in happy, domestic same-sex relationships, noted Esty Shushan, the haredi feminist founder and co-CEO of the political activist group Nivcharot Organization.

Shushan was in town last week to speak as part of the Knowledge and Nosh series, a program created through a partnership between Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Women’s Foundation.

Pointing to the IKEA catalogue as an example of how extreme the marginalization of haredi women has become in Israel, Shushan, a filmmaker, described her journey in launching Nivcharot and the organization’s inroads into Israel’s political establishment.

Haredi-Orthodox Jews comprise about 12 percent of Israel’s population. A recent study by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that while only 52 percent of haredi-Orthodox men are in the workforce — with many spending their days studying in yeshivas instead — almost three-fourths of such women (73 percent) were employed in 2016. And yet, haredi-Orthodox women are entirely absent from government.

There are currently no haredi women in the Knesset; nor do they hold municipal offices, explained Shushan. Both haredi political parties in Israel — Agudath Israel and Shas — prohibit women from running for office.

Nivcharot began as a Facebook group, then progressed to secret meetings in a basement in Bnei Brak, and finally ventured above ground to hold conferences and workshops and to petition secular politicians for help in getting the voices of women heard.

Shushan, the oldest child in a large haredi family, married young and by the age of 20, already had a child and was teaching at a kindergarten. After her second child was born, she was out of work and desperate to find a new job.

“I thought the only thing to help was to pray,” she recounted. “So I made a deal with God. I promised to be more modest, to cover my hair even at home. God’s part was to send me a job.”

The bargain “worked,” she said, and she soon found a job as a secretary at an “an ultra-Orthodox organization,” where she worked for eight years “for starvation rates and no promotion.”

Haredi women in Israel “don’t have careers, they have jobs,” Shushan said. “And they have to keep those jobs, because it is a matter of bread and milk for the family.”

She eventually found work writing a column for a large haredi newspaper, but was told she could not be identified as a woman in print if she wanted to be taken seriously by men. She was also limited in the topics she was permitted to write about.

It was through the rise of the internet in her community that Shushan was finally able to find not only her own voice but the voices of other women who shared frustration with their lot. Although they were writing online under false names at first, it was “so exciting, such a joy and a relief to have freedom of expression,” she said.

Thanks to the internet, she and other women online could discuss topics like “racism, chauvinism and the rising of modesty demands in the public sphere and sexual harassment” without being censored.

“I realized I’m not alone,” said Shushan. “I had the understanding I’m not crazy, there are other people who think like me.”

On Facebook, she began to implore other haredi women “to stop voting for parties without women’s representation.”

“Slowly things began to happen in the open,” which eventually led to meetings with government officials, members of the Knesset and even Shimon Peres, to discuss issues of health, education and working conditions for haredi women.

Shushan compares her group to the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although she acknowledges that not all haredi women are on board with what the feminist group is aiming to accomplish.

“A lot of haredi women say they don’t need representation — let the men do the work,” she said. But like the suffragettes, she added, the rights achieved by the work of her small group will benefit everyone.

Nivcharot’s first win came last summer, when Israel’s High Court urged Agudath Israel to change the language of its bylaws to remove the word “male” from among its qualifications for candidates, thereby at least symbolically opening the door to women to run for office as members of that party.

Whether changing the language of the party’s bylaws will make a difference in practice is doubtful at this point. As reported by RNS after the High Court’s decision, “the party’s lawyer told a judge: ‘Just as you would not expect us to give representation to children, you would not expect us to give representation to women.’”

While the victory her group enjoyed last summer with the High Court’s ruling has not yet made a large impact on her community, Shushan is optimistic.

“This is a first step, a leg in the door,” she said.

Shushan’s visit to Pittsburgh was sponsored by the Rayah Fund created by Barbara Burstin, a longtime faculty member in the history departments of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, in memory of her Aunt Rayah. The mission of the fund, Burstin said, is to “bring exciting Israeli women’s voices to America in order to bring about better exchange and understanding between Israeli and American women.”

In attendance at the event was Nancy Kaufman, chief executive officer of NCJW, who praised the women of Pittsburgh for bringing Shushan to the community to share her story.

“We’re trying to move our Israel work to be more central to what we’re doing around the country,” Kaufman said. “We are thrilled Pittsburgh is taking this up.”

Shushan’s work, said Kaufman, “is very current and very important,” and NCJW will be working on the women’s agenda in Israel to help the Jewish state remain “a model for the world.” PJC


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