When asked at a JOFA panel about the status of women in Israel and what can be done to protect women’s basic rights, I replied that I would first make it illegal for a political party that has no women on its list to run for the Knesset. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this sentiment. In fact, a new movement is beginning to form of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women fighting against the exclusion of women from religious political parties.
Esti Shoshan, a haredi journalist, recently started a Facebook page called Lo nivharot, lo boharot, which means “If we can’t be elected, we are not voting.” As of this writing, the group has over 800 likes — perhaps not the stuff of a Steve Jobs fan page, but signs of movement nonetheless. And it comes at a particularly significant time in the development of religious politics. The legality of religious parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism is currently being debated by the Elections Council, under the leadership of Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, based on a petition filed by a coalition of seven organizations led by Jerusalem city council member Laura Wharton contesting the systemic exclusion of women from party lists.
“The sad situation of women’s under-representation in the Knesset, is imminent,” the petition states, adding that, “an absurd situation has been created in which the country subsidizes bodies that discriminate against women.”
Women have a “different role” than men, Shas and United Torah Judaism wrote in their response. “The parties function, as demanded by the halakha (Jewish law), with clear segregation between men and women for reasons of modesty. Men have one role and women have another. This segregation does not exclude women, discriminate against them nor deem them less worthy than men.”
As Shoshan wrote in the Facebook group, “They are trying to preserve a paternalistic social order in which a woman has no voice, in which she is paralyzed and excluded from the important crossroads in her life, in the nation’s life… And is it modest for a women to be a lawyer (as one of the Shas MKs bragged this week about his wife. Is it modest for a woman to be a school principal, a journalist, an editor, a CEO?” These are all roles that haredi women are increasingly taking part in, and “require women to get out of their kitchen and be in touch with the public, to provide a public service, to talk and speak.”
Interestingly, Shas MK Aryeh Deri said in a radio interview today on Galei Tzahal (IDF Radio) that “there is no [halakhic] problem with women being elected. These are merely social codes.” That is to say, the parties are afraid that if they allow women to be elected, they will turn away constituents. In their response to the petition, UTJ and Shas argued that if they put women on their lists, some women would not vote for them. That may in fact be true — but that is the trend Shoshan’s group is fighting to change.
“I hope that this initiative will encourage women to take action, especially when it comes to voting,” Shoshan told Yediot Aharonot yesterday. For example, if a party excludes women, then women simply shouldn’t vote for them.
The petition, brought by seven organizations — Free Israel, Kolech, Pluralist Lobby, The Feminist Lobby, Jerusalem Movement, We Power, and Uncensored — is scheduled to be heard on Thursday at 2PM Israel time.
“There have been a number of attempts to pass laws in the Knesset to have parties have proper gender representation,” Wharton told The Sisterhood. She continued:
But all attempts were torpedoed by the religious parties. So it became clear that we couldn’t make change from within the Knesset. We asked these parties to be disqualified because they violate the basic law of the Knesset that says that all citizens have the right to vote and be elected. Gender discrimination has become an issue all over Israel, on buses, etcetera, but the Knesset is the most important because it affects everything else. It’s especially egregious because these are publicly funded parties that say explicitly that women can’t be elected.
Wharton added that since filing the petition, she has been inundated with calls from Orthodox women thanking them for doing this.
“The ultra-Orthodox must include women on their lists,” Wharton added. “In that sector, women are often much more educated and broad minded than men, because they get secular education and work, as opposed to men who spend years in yeshiva. Ultra-orthodox women may be particularly effective members of Knesset. This petition is a way to encourage our ultra-Orthodox sisters to come out and take their rightful place in society.”