Last September, Minister of Welfare Haim Katz appeared at the government’s weekly meeting in a short-sleeved striped polo shirt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent him away to change his shirt, saying that his dress didn't show respect for the occasion. Katz went to his car and returned with a button-down shirt. We should recall this anecdote in view of the attempts to veer the discussion over the publication of the Knesset’s new dress code on March 9 to the gender arena.
“This code, which of course is relevant only to women, anchors the male gaze that determines how a woman should dress and how she should look,” member of Knesset Tamar Zandberg of Meretz told Israeli media in response to the new rules. She is convinced that “a mechanism of warnings will only bring more looks inspecting and measuring the length of the skirt, that is, it will be part of the job of the Knesset stewards to check the clothes of every woman who enters the Knesset. This dress code is unnecessary and insulting.”
Zandberg, a young Knesset member who was once criticized for running a Knesset meeting while wearing a shirt with exposed shoulders, unjustifiably takes the dress code to theoretical arenas of feminism and the objectification of women. Just like the case of Katz, women who come to work at the Knesset or government ministries wearing a tank top or flip-flops don’t respect the place. This has nothing to do with gender equality, but with the fact that the official dress culture in Israel isn’t developed, and in fact doesn’t exist.
Indeed, Knesset member Stav Shaffir of the Zionist Camp gave a speech at the podium at the Knesset plenum this week in a dress with exposed shoulders. She raised an uproar after Knesset member Oren Hazan of the Likud Party yelled at her that he, as a man, wouldn’t be allowed to give a speech in a tank top. Like Zandberg, Shaffir made political hay out of the episode on feminist grounds, although if we ignore his provocative tone, Hazan had a point.
Perhaps the hot Israeli climate and the casual local style are the reasons there is no official dress culture in Israel. The Knesset’s new dress code is merely a legitimate way to explain to Israelis what goes without saying in other places. We can assume that in any other parliament in the world, Zandberg would respect the place, wear a jacket and forgo exposing her tattooed shoulders.
This isn’t the first time the Knesset has established a dress code. When former chairwoman of the Knesset, Dalia Itzik, started her service in 2006, she decided to publish similar regulations, which forbade tank tops, belly shirts, flip-flops and jeans. Itzik, a woman who made her way in a man’s world, didn’t publish the code out of hatred for women. She herself maintained a well-groomed, stylish and attractive appearance, and she thought that casually dressed men or women disrespected the legislature. It sounds odd, but at the time there were parliamentary aides who came to the Knesset wearing tank tops and flip-flops, like they would to the beach.
Before setting the dress code, Itzik asked then-director of the Knesset Avi Balashnikov to look into the situation at other parliaments. Surprisingly, most Western parliaments didn’t have a detailed dress code but a general custom of official dress. The reason for that is, in Europe and the United States a dress code for work, certainly for the parliament, goes without saying — men in suits and ties, women in conservative clothing. No one sees it as a gender issue.
The last West Europe feminist battle over a dress code dates back to 1972, when a young parliamentary assistant, who later became France's defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, dared to enter the French National Assembly wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress. To the assembly steward who wanted to prevent her from entering, she said, "If my pants bother you, I will take them off." Since then, the French stopped imposing this rule.
At the time, Itzik’s dress revolution caused an uproar because she also forbade wearing jeans — an item of clothing preferred by both women and men in Israel, even in the workplace. Indeed, we can recall low points for Knesset style, as when ministers and members of the Knesset, mainly from the Mafdal (today HaBayit HaYehudi), used to attend the Knesset wearing Teva-style sandals, with or without socks. Knesset member Charlie Bitton of Hadash was known for the open-back sandals he wore to speak at the plenum in the 1970s.
After a period of relaxation of the dress code during the tenure of the previous chairman, President Reuven Rivlin, in December, there was another hullabaloo on the issue after female parliamentary aides weren’t allowed to enter the Knesset building because their dresses and skirts were too short. In this instance, we must admit, there was an element of objectification of the young women, and the protest in response was justified. However, we could have gone without the provocation of Knesset member Manuel Trajtenberg of the Zionist Camp, who, in solidarity with the young aides, took off his shirt at the entrance to the building and stood in his undershirt in front of the astonished gaze of Knesset security personnel. Trajtenberg later understood that he overstepped and he apologized. And so, as a result of the uproar, it was decided to establish a new dress code in cooperation with parliamentary aides and Knesset members.
The outcome is the code published on March 9 that so angered Zandberg. If anything can be said against it, it’s the ridiculous style of its writing and the photos included. Under the headline “Suggested Dress Style for the Knesset,” it says that like other parliaments around the world, this is the style “customary at a respectable work environment, a style that ranges from formal professional dress to business casual wear.” What is proper dress? According to the document, it’s “classic and tailored, a suit in conservative colors, dark grey, black and navy, a solid light-colored shirt, closed shoes with or without laces, a belt in the same color as the shoes.” To illustrate these rules, the Knesset used young and skinny models, both men and women, and to be politically correct they also added a dark-skinned man. We could have gone without this forced styling explanation. If we’re looking to criticize, the skinny measurements of the models could be considered insulting to women and men who are overweight.