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What the Radicalization of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Community Looks Like From the Inside

Haaretz Contributor, Ayelet Shani, interviewed Esty Shushan, founder of Nivcharot, following the Israeli Supreme Court request of Agudath Israel Party to change a discriminating clause in its by-laws preventing women from participating the in political activity of the the party. 

Esty Shushan, perhaps you’ll explain why we’re meeting.

Our struggle, to get ultra-Orthodox women into the Knesset, has gone to the High Court of Justice. The court gave the Agudat Israel party a one-month extension to examine its regulations and decide if it’s capable of amending the clause that discriminates against women.

What does the clause say?

It says, “A party member can be: any Jewish man, 18 and above, who observes Torah and precepts.” There’s another clause that reinforces this one, stipulating that the place of women is in a separate organization – the Women of Agudat Israel organization.

Let’s explain that you didn’t just get up yesterday and rush to the High Court. This is one station, apparently the most significant, in a battle you’ve been waging for more than five years. What made you embark on this path?

The trigger was the 2013 [Knesset] election campaign, which was very emotional for me. It dredged up many issues, and in the end made me understand that I had to start translating my thoughts into deeds. Having grown up in the Haredi mainstream, I’d started long before to notice phenomena that indicated to me that Haredi society was undergoing a very problematic process. There was serious radicalization.

What does it look like from the inside, this radicalization? When Haredi women square off against Haredi men?

The separation on buses, for example. A woman who gets on a bus with her husband has to sit in the back. She knows that if she dares do something else, people will talk about her and complain about her, so she doesn’t presume to behave otherwise.

You said once that women are spat on in the street. What does that mean?

It just happens. It’s enough if someone doesn’t like the way a woman is dressed. Just anyone at all who’s passing by in the street. Ultra-Orthodox women could tell you a great deal about experiences like that. In certain neighborhoods, there are separate streets, separate sidewalks. The complete erasure of women and girls is increasing. Even in Haredi comic books for children. I read them as a girl, and they had modest, pious female characters, as you would expect. Today those characters are just not there, and I can’t understand why.

We should say that you didn’t grow up in just any Haredi home, but in the home of a Haredi public figure. A home in which strict standards were applied and which served as an example.

My father is the rabbi of the Upper Galilee Regional Council. He’s a public figure. To set an example is a very meaningful part of the education I received. A rabbi’s house is a house of Torah, and I have breathed Torah from the moment I was born. The large library in my home consists exclusively of holy books. The library in the children’s room contains only Haredi books. Only the Haredi press enters our house. Television and a computer are out of the question, of course. So my window to the outside world was clips from secular newspapers, the ones used to stuff new backpacks, or even some that I found in the garbage.

You poked around in garbage bins?

Yes. I was a very curious girl. I was interested in what was going on in the world, and I would actually keep newspapers that I found.

In a home like that you would have been expected not to scrounge for forbidden newspapers in the garbage.

A great many things were expected of me. There were times when I was angry about these very particular expectations, but at a certain stage I understood that I could do many things and still not lose my place in the society. I did what was expected of me – I married and raised a family immediately after I completed my studies at the [teachers] seminary – but it was actually after my children grew up that I went to study film. In my generation, it wasn’t done to undertake academic studies. Nowadays it’s happening more and more. The internet is also wreaking havoc in the community.

Which is reacting with insularity and extremism.

The extremism is a response to the opening up, and the opening up is a response to the extremism. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: It’s not clear which came first. That’s essentially the experience of Haredi society today. It’s a constant struggle between openness and a desire to preserve the status quo, possibly even to regress. In the fall of 2012, I decided to open a Facebook page under my own identity. That too wasn’t acceptable at the time, of course. On the page I declared the initial name of the campaign: “If we’re not elected, we won’t vote.” I used my knowledge as an advertising person to design the page and formulate the content.

Of all the battles, and there are so many fronts, why did you choose this particular one? Why the fight to get a Haredi woman into the Knesset?

Because I think that the change needs to be systemic. I look, for example, at the campaign of the suffragettes. They too were told, “Why the right to vote, of all things? There are so many important other struggles that should take priority.” But they understood that through the legislature and the decision-making centers, they would be able to change not only your reality, the reality of your mother and your friends, but everyone’s reality. That far deeper and broader distresses would be addressed. Look, I admit that my thinking is a bit ambitious. Five years ago, when I simply dared to utter the words “women in politics,” I was told that I needed to be institutionalized. I was referred to as a madwoman.

Did you understand then what you were getting into? What the price would be?

I knew there would be a price, I knew more or less in which areas it would be exacted. And even so, to experience it was something else entirely. I got back home after the High Court hearing and I just couldn’t get out of bed. The number of reactions simply crushed me, physically. One of our friends, Racheli, received threats to her life. I’m already familiar with it, but it was so hard that she was undergoing it.

You have also been subjected to quite a bit of verbal violence.

A great deal of verbal violence, all along. Censure. Vilification. Threats. A rabbi delivered a lecture about our struggle and called us schizophrenic women who need to be put away. A Haredi journalist came out against us and called us “Breaking the Silence” and traitors.

What about your children? Aren’t they used in order to get at you?

I won’t go into that, but I will say that… today my children are in a safe place. Listen, I have already learned how to cope with all this violence. But recently a new trend started, which I also find very painful – simply to make us disappear. Now that we have at least made this achievement, it’s alleged that we have nothing to do with it.

How can that be?

Actually, we are not the petitioners in this High Court case. The petition was launched in the wake of our activity. Estee Rieder-Indursky spoke at a parlor meeting in Herzliya. There were many female jurists there, including [attorney] Tamar Ben-Porat, and when she heard for the first time that women’s exclusion was enshrined in regulations, she decided to take action. In fact, it was only after things started to move that she brought us into it. I said to Estee: No High Court. We will not get involved in that. Obviously we won’t go to the High Court.

Why is it obvious? Because it’s also obvious that it won’t happen any other way.

To the ultra-Orthodox community, the High Court is like a red flag, and we live in the Haredi community, and there is a limit to how far we can allow ourselves to act against it. It was clear to me that this was a line that must not be crossed. But when Tamar sent us Agudat Israel’s response to the petition, that decision [not to go to court] simply dissolved, because they wrote, and I just couldn’t believe my eyes: “Just as you do not expect us to give representation to children, you should not expect us to give representation to women.” Just like that. In the face.

That certainly shows the depth of the disdain and dismissiveness. They didn’t even make an effort to come up with a genuine argument.

It struck me that if they allow themselves to write this in a legal document, then it’s also something that’s said every day, the whole day, to so many women. That it’s absolutely imprinted in them as a form of thought.

As dogma. And this was new to you?

Listen, sometimes things have to be thrown in your face for you to understand their true meaning. That’s what it felt like to me. Like a slap. At that moment I simply decided that we would go to the High Court on this. I decided that we would not be petitioners, but something I hadn’t known existed until then – shadow petitioners. We will do all we can to help Tami and the petition. And because the petition wasn’t thrown out, as usually happens in such cases, women’s organizations such as Women Lawyers for Social Justice and additional jurists, such as Prof. Neta Ziv and Avinoam Cohen also joined the struggle.

And everyone is working on a voluntary basis.

We don’t pay anything.

Let’s talk about this delicate tension, of maintaining a cautious protest within the limits of the community. Without strikes. Without threats. Without tents on Rothschild Boulevard. Only meetings. Conversations. Some distribution of flyers. Cautious protest.

Very. And even so, just yesterday I had a response from a woman who claimed that she identifies with our goal but not with the aggressive way we’re conducting it. I tried to understand what’s aggressive about what we’re doing – after all, we [only] write, meet and give interviews. We haven’t smashed any bank windows. It’s the gentlest protest in history, and even so, according to the Haredi code, it’s an inconceivable provocation.

Don’t you have qualms? Don’t you think about whether you went too far?

I know that I am not doing anything forbidden. The illustration on the “Not elected” logo is by Sarah Schenirer – an unknown name in the secular realm, but one that’s known to every seminary student. Sarah Schenirer is a woman who decided to establish schools for girls, in Poland, before World War II. It was a revolutionary, unprecedented move. She was the victim of insults and vilifications; people threw stones at her, and legend has it that she would pick up the stones that were thrown at her and say: With these we will build the Beis Yaakov Seminary. All I’m doing is writing and saying what I think and what I think is permitted. The Agudat Israel lawyer told the court explicitly last week: We know that there is no Jewish law issue here.

They were compelled to admit that.

True. If they actually had a Jewish law argument, they would use it. They were forced to admit that it’s merely a cultural custom, and in Haredi society, a cultural custom is something that can be changed. I also checked it with a rabbi, before we set out. There is no halakhic issue. So what are we left with? With a bad habit we want to continue with? Why?

For many reasons. Behind almost everything you call cultural custom is the desire to rule and supervise.

As far as I am concerned, you can’t tell women they can hold jobs outside the home, while in a council meeting there will be no feminine hand raised to decide if and where a kindergarten will be established.

Are there are no Haredi women at the municipality level, either?

Zero Haredi women in Israeli politics as of 2018. There are a few Orthodox women, but zero ultra-Orthodox women. Bedouin women have long since overtaken us.

But won’t this be a paper achievement only? Let’s say you win, that the regulations will be revised. What will happen then? Will a woman really be elected? And given the truly imaginary scenario that it happens, will anyone allow her to do what she wants?

Ultra-Orthodox society is a community of words. It attaches great importance to words. I don’t discount the power of a text to alter reality. A great deal of time passed between the abolition of slavery in the United States and the election of [Barack] Obama as president.

Is that the time span you’re thinking of?

Of course I hope not, I hope it will be shorter. A few months ago, I had a radio confrontation with a well-known Haredi chauvinist, who told me – after he finished reviling me – “That’s after all something that will happen only in another 50 years.” And I think to myself: Hey, if that’s the most pessimistic estimate of the greatest chauvinist, then the situation is better than I thought.

But you understand that it’s a long battle.

I understand that it’s possible that I won’t see the results of the struggle with my eyes. Yes. As it is written, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, and you are not free to desist from it.” In 2013 there were a few Haredi women who tried to compete in municipal politics, among them Racheli Ibenboim, whom I mentioned earlier. They were effectively beheaded. They were the victims of numberless threats. Some gave in and withdrew their candidacy. One of them stayed the course but wasn’t elected. She didn’t get enough votes. In other words, it’s possible. It can happen. I hear other voices, of a kind I haven’t heard before. I hear women saying they want to join, want to contribute, want to make their voice heard. I see that as our greatest achievement – that we told them, “You can do it.” That they are allowed to utter a sentence like, “I want to be a politician like my father.” That’s something someone said to me.

One of the complexities in your struggle is that it’s clear that men will object, but there is also objection on the part of women, who are supposed to be your natural partners. There are women who are against you and some who declare that politics doesn’t interest them.

The overwhelming majority in fact take no interest. It sounds like Greek to them. They have no understanding of what we want.

Let’s say you succeeded. That there’s a Haredi slate and there’s a woman on it. Who would vote for that slate of candidates?

I think that secular people can vote for a slate like that. Also national-religious voters. Traditionalists. The concept of “Israeli Haredim,” as they are called, is expanding. They are Haredim who have not left the Haredi society, but they are more progressive and understand that the existing situation is not sustainable. I believe that in the end they will be the ones who will put forward the political alternative, that perhaps there won’t be total equality, but at least there will be women. These days it’s women and not men who are leading the great revolutions.

But you know that in terms of the electoral base it’s suicide. Will the Agudat Israel base or the adherents of Torah Judaism vote for a woman?

If there’s a woman on the slate who’s acceptable to them, they will vote for her.

What kind of woman would be acceptable to them?

For example, not long ago I saw a short film about the Belzer Rebbe’s wife doing a genuine tish for her Hasidim, and they are sitting and listening to her [referring to a gathering of Hasidim around their rebbe].

But she is an exceptional figure in the Haredi realm. And also – the Belzer rebbetzin? That will be the scale?

There are many female Haredi spiritual leaders. We are not at the end of the process, but there is a certain readiness for a feminine personage.

The freedom to choose, in the Haredi space, is not really a given.

It’s very simple. In every election campaign the rabbis announce whom to vote for. There’s actually a picture of the rabbi with the correct ballot next to him, it’s the classic Haredi campaign. More than that is not needed. We have great rabbis, they understand what happens at the grassroots, and they write and publish accordingly; but I expect that rabbis will understand that today’s Haredi women are different, and that they need this place. Not because they are provocative or need control, but because they can find solutions for their public.

What does finding solutions for the public mean? After all, in the end, Haredi politics is sectarian.

That has changed a little lately. Litzman [Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, from United Torah Judaism/Agudat Israel] holds views that are sectarian, but on the issue of [medical] cannabis he is less sectarian. Or the campaign against junk food.

Those are curiosities. At the end of the day, Haredi politics is aimed at the interests of the community and, as such, preserves the balance of forces.

If there’s anything missing in Haredi politics it’s a true perception of the community’s needs. It’s absurd. Haredi politics serves mainly an upper crust of directors of institutions and of yeshivas. All the social issues – and I saw this with my own eyes at Knesset committee meetings we took part in – are not addressed. When it comes to health, sexual assault, women’s education, social needs of the Haredi community which is groaning under the ordeals of poverty – there are no solutions. They [the Haredi leadership] deal only with conversion and the draft. That’s the only place you’ll see them. Where they’re needed by the community, there you won’t find them.

Read the interview on the Haaretz English website

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