Written by i24NEWS - AFP
Despite her infectious enthusiasm, Zernowitski's chances of getting elected on April 9 are slim
The wig and long skirt she wears are not slowing Michal Zernowitski down in her race to become the first ultra-Orthodox woman MP for the Labor party in Israel's April polls.
The 38-year-old mother of four said with a smile that if she had run in an election a decade ago "people would have found it weird".
But nowadays she is asked by members of the ultra-Orthodox community not why she is running, but why she is doing it for the center-left secular Labor, the former computer programmer told AFP.
"The majority ask me, 'Why in the Labor party, why not the right?'," she said, speaking in English.
"But they don't disapprove," added Zernowitski, dressed in the customary garb of ultra-Orthodox women, who are forbidden to show their hair or display their legs in public.
The ultra-Orthodox community, known in Hebrew as haredi (God fearing), constitutes about 10 percent of Israel's population and strictly adheres to Jewish religious law.
Representing the main haredi streams are two political parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), which together hold 13 seats in the outgoing parliament.
Neither Shas nor UTJ have ever had a women MP.
"According to their interpretation of Jewish law, women are not allowed (to take part in governance)," said Gilad Malach, director of the ultra-Orthodox research program at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank.
Some of the haredi had even called for women to be banned from voting, he said.
"It's not in the laws of Judaism, it's conservatism; social, cultural norms," Zernowitski argued.
"When there is something that I don't know, I will ask (a rabbi) and sometimes ask for a blessing, but I'm not asking if I should go into politics, this is not a religious issue!"
The Agudat Israel party, a partner within the current coalition member United Torah Judaism party, said it had removed the current ban on women running on its list.
But last week the Agudat Israel party, a partner within the current coalition member UTJ, said it had removed the ban on women running on its list after a high court decision passed earlier this month that put a legal end to a battle between the party leadership and women's rights activists.
On January 17th, a five-justice panel headed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut gave the party 21-days to change the clause which states that “a member of the party can be: any Jewish man aged 18 and older, who observes the mitzvot mandated by the Torah.”
The removal of the ban was approved unanimously, but it will not have any effect, according to party sources.
- Rabbi's daughter -
In her cramped apartment near Tel Aviv, Esty Shushan said she had consulted many religious scholars, including her father, a rabbi, and nothing in the religious texts prevents women from engaging in politics.
Six years ago she launched "Nivcharot", a movement to encourage haredi women to get involved in public life.
Shushan, a 41-year-old mother of four who was married at 19, says it took time for her to realize that "unfortunately, I am a feminist".
She said she opened a Facebook page, calling on women to "stop voting for those parties that ban women from running" and that the first response she received was from Michal Zernowitski.
"I told myself, 'I'm not the only crazy woman'," Shushan said.
Since then she has successfully petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn a UTJ ban on accepting women as party members and has been training ultra-Orthodox women who wish to enter politics.
But UTJ says it has no intention of allowing women to run for office in the foreseeable future.
"Not placing a woman on the list (of candidates) stems from a historical decision by the most prominent rabbis," the party said in a written response to a request for an interview on the subject.
"Even that handful of women who speak of the lack of representation for women in the party know that is not going to change in the coming decades."
Shas did not respond to requests for comment.
The majority of haredi women are the wage earners in their families while the men spend their days studying holy texts and praying.
They are often exploited by their employers and neither their own parties or the non-haredi politicians speak up for them, said Zernowitski.
- Slim chances -
Zernowitski was a once a UTJ supporter but realized she had no political future there and in 2010 joined Labor because she found it was closer to her own political views.
She founded a section within the party for the ultra-Orthodox of both sexes which now has "hundreds" of members.
At first some Labor members disapproved of her and questioned her on several issues, including public transport on the Jewish sabbath and homosexuality -- two subjects considered anathema by the haredi.
"I am a religious woman but also a liberal," she reassured them. "I don't want to force people to do what I choose to do."
She said she has the backing of her husband and her community and believes there is a new haredi generation more open to women in politics.
Malach disagreed saying they were only "a tiny minority".
Despite her infectious enthusiasm, Zernowitski's chances of getting elected on April 9 are slim.
Labor has been grappling with internal disputes and its veteran MPs have been fighting to secure their re-election in the 120-seat parliament.
Recent polls indicate the party could secure between five and eight seats compared to 18 in the outgoing Knesset.
The first hurdle will be the party primaries on February 11, when Labor's 60,000 members will pick candidates for the handful of slots likely to get them into the legislature.
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