Updated: Sep 1, 2019
Israeli women are shaking up the political system in their country in some intriguing and even exciting ways. With national elections set for March, it seems that election fever has provoked a tsunami of women’s readiness for change, especially around women’s issues. Across parties, in groups with different religious and ethnic make-ups, bubbles are forming that indicate that finally women are fighting back against the all-boys’ club that has characterized Israeli politics for so long. Energies are coming in from many new and exciting directions, and the language of social change for women is everywhere.
The most obvious indication of change comes from the sheer number of women holding top spots in their parties. The Labor-Hatnua party, which is currently the only party with a realistic chance of overthrowing the Netanyahu government, has Tzipi Livni as co-chair and thus potential prime minister — which would make her the first female prime minister in Israel since Golda Meir was elected, the only woman PM in Israel’s history, in 1969. Moreover, three out of the top four slots are held by women. And even more exciting, two of them, Shelly Yachimovich and Stav Shaffir, have had careers as active feminists. The lesson from Golda is this: it’s not enough to just aspire to have women in power. We need women with a feminist consciousness to bring change for women at large.
Feminist women have been causing movement in several other parties as well. It goes without saying that Meretz, headed by the indomitable Zehava Galon, has been front and center on women’s issues from the start, and the only party with 50-50 on gender on their lists. But other parties are starting to get the message. Deputy Jerusalem mayor Rachel Azaria, a staunch activist on behalf of women’s rights, announced that she is joining the new Kulanu party of Moshe Cachlon, at number four on the list. The fact that Cachlon actively sought her out suggests that he is wooing the feminist vote. On the other side of the spectrum Aida Toma, an Arab feminist activist, is now number two on the Arab Hadash party list, indicating that there, too, feminism has become a selling point. Tensions still exist, though, feminist activist Batya Kahana Dror also announced that she was running for the Jewish Home party — currently the only religious party that allows women on its list — but she had to drop out following an interview in which she veered from the party’s extreme right wing national agenda and suggested “practical solutions” to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Feminism, it seems, is not quite as averse to right-wing religious radicals as the idea of a diplomatic solution. The party now has two women in its top ten slots, one of whom, Shuli Muallem, has partnered with women in other parties on feminist legislation. (The top woman in the party holds positions on minorities in Israel that I do not view as having much social value, feminist or otherwise.) Still, in terms of actual female representation, Jewish Home has a better record than the reigning Likud party, which has only one (not so feminist) woman in its top ten, and only three altogether among the first 23.
Just to understand the context: Israeli politics has a serious gender problem. The number of women parliamentarians in Israel is currently at the highest it has ever been, it is still far from equal — 27 out of 120, or 22.5 percent. The number of women cabinet ministers has remained at a paltry average of 2 or 3, some 10 percent. An even worse metric of women’s political representation is on the municipal level, where there are currently only four female mayors out of 256 municipalities, or 0.15 percent — and one-third less than the high of six women mayors in the previous round. The worst news of all comes from the religious parties, most of which do not even allow women on their lists at all, and which account for around one fourth of the Knesset.
Considering all this, perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, before the real big changes began to come from ultra-Orthodox (“haredi”) women. And indeed, ultra-Orthodox women are not only making noise but are in fact making history. It began with the municipal elections just over a year ago, when a group of ultra-Orthodox women led by Esti Shushan, Racheli Ibenboim, Michal Tchernovitsky and Esty Reider-Indorsky, began fighting to force the ultra-Orthodox parties to include women on their lists. They even petitioned the High Court of Justice to make it illegal for a political party to exclude women. (Sounds like a no-brainer in a democracy, but alas, the women lost. They are currently petitioning again.) The women created an online platform called, Lo Nivchharot Lo Bocharot — which means, if we can’t be elected, we are not voting for you. At the time, the women had a few hundred supporters, but managed to impact some of the elections. Four ultra-Orthodox women made history by running for municipal councils, and one even won — Shira Georgi in Safed, becoming the first woman to sit on the Safed city council in twenty years! That’s right, there were no women at all on the council, ultra-Orthodox or otherwise, for an entire generation.
Since then, the group has grown. Now they have over 5000 supporters on their Facebook page — (not bad for a country of 8 million people), and have begun garnering national attention. Their story is being covered in all the major news outlets, Haredi politicians from different parties have actually had to respond on camera — even if their reactions have been, for the most part, lame and pathetic. Ultra-Orthodox journalist Aharon Kravitz, for example, said that men represent everything women need and therefore there is no “need” for women to enter politics. “We live in the same house, We know what they need, what bothers them.. We’re talking about very dirty work, and there are men that can do the work for them.” .” In one particularly jarring interview with a popular Israeli interviewing team named London and Kirshenbaum who are not exactly known for their feminist sensibilities, Reider-Indorsky was barely able to get a word in edgewise as ultra-Orthodox journalist Benny Rabinowitz yelled over her about how women in politics is against Jewish law. Rabbi Mordechai Blau of the United Torah Judaism party took probably the harshest stand when he threatened to excommunicate women who do not vote for ultra-Orthodox parties. Ibenboim knows about such things: when she began her campaign for the Jerusalem municipality, her family began receiving threats and she had to pull out. But that hasn’t stopped her. Today, she is more active than ever. She even quit her high-powered job to work on women in politics full time, and delve more deeply into the haredi feminist movement.
And now, there is even more exciting news: This week, Ruth Colian announced that haredi women are forming a brand new party, called “U’Bezchutan”, which means, “And in their [f] merit.” It’s a play on Orthodox gender apologetics which often tries to explain away the erasure of women by saying that due to women’s merit, the Jewish people have thrived. That is to say, thanks to women’s silence and invisibility, men can do the “dirty” work of entering politics and the public sphere. The women are offering a refreshing new interpretation of old practices and ideas.
If the haredi women’s party wins seats in this election, they would be the first women’s party in Israel to have a successful campaign. I think that veteran secular Israeli feminists have what to learn from the haredi feminist newbies. They are without a doubt the women to watch in Israel right now.
It’s still too soon to know what the final Knesset will look like. But what is for sure is that calls for gender change are echoing everywhere and are getting harder for the male establishment to ignore. Regardless of the final tally, the fact that feminists are having such a presence is nothing short of exciting.
Elana Maryles Sztokman
Founding Director, The Center for Jewish Feminism; Award-winning author; gender inclusion specialist