Will Israel get its first ultra-Orthodox woman lawmaker?

Israeli ultra-Orthodox women are fed up with the exclusion from national politics, and are challenging the religious parties that prevent women from joining.

al-monitor Adina Bar Shalom, Israeli educator, columnist, and social activist, appears at a conference in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 2015. Photo by flickr/Stephan Röhl.

Aug 7, 2018

There are three ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, and all of them are composed of men only. In fact, no ultra-Orthodox party in Israel ever included a female Knesset member. The constitution of Agudat Yisrael, for instance, specifically states that only men can become members.

Agudat Yisrael is now confronted with a petition challenging this parameter. Still, it is clear that even if the faction cedes to a High Court ruling and removes the ban on women's membership in the party, there will not be an ultra-Orthodox female Knesset member from one of these parties in the near future.

The ultra-Orthodox woman whose chance of becoming a member of the Knesset is the most likely is Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of the late spiritual leader of the Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Bar Shalom will run on the list of a party she established and heads.

Ultra-Orthodox society has been going through a process called "Israelization." And as part of this process, it has become increasingly accepting of the demand to allow women to represent the sector in the Knesset. But the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinic establishment has fought this trend with all its might, and it is expected to continue preventing women from entering the ultra-Orthodox parties.

On July 30, an expanded panel of five judges recommended to Agudat Yisrael that it remove clause 6a in the party's constitution, which prohibits women's membership. Judge Uzi Fogelman said in the debate that "the Knesset is not a synagogue" (playing on the Hebrew word of Beit Knesset), and that there is no issue of freedom of religion since this concerns a public political arena where it is prohibited to violate the principle of equality.

The decision was reached in response to the petitions of 10 women's organizations, among them ultra-Orthodox organizations, against the prohibition on the membership of women in ultra-Orthodox parties. The recommendation of the judges has a 30-day grace period, and if it is not accepted the judges would likely make a decision of principle that prohibits this clause because it discriminates against women.

A similar petition was submitted involving the constitution of the Shas Party, which includes a similar clause, but the debate was suspended until a decision was made concerning Agudat Yisrael. In contrast, Degel Hatorah, which together with Agudat Yisrael make up the Yahadut Hatorah Knesset faction, does not have a clause that excludes women, but also does not include any female members.

In the course of the debate, Racheli Roshgold, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Nivharot, one of the organizations that submitted the petition, broke in to the discussion and yelled, "They're discussing technical legal arguments, but this is a matter of life and death! I have to yell what's in my heart for all of the ultra-Orthodox women, for my daughters, for our future. We have no representation in all the areas that touch on our lives: women's health, salaries, sexual assault. We're invisible." 

Esti Shoshan, an ultra-Orthodox publicist, led with her colleagues the "No representation, no vote" campaign in the 2015 election, which called on women to boycott the vote if there is no female representative in any of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.

She told Al-Monitor that the lack of representation is a central problem, since the ultra-Orthodox male leadership does not understand and does not want to deal with the issues of importance to ultra-Orthodox women, and that there is a need for such representation. She said it is impossible that a public organization in the State of Israel could allow itself to entirely exclude women. She conceded that the court's decision has a mainly declarative significance, and the chances that a woman would be included in a party's list for the Knesset election or even be elected to a local authority is slight to nil, and if it does happen, it would not be on the list of an ultra-Orthodox party.

She noted that the change in mentality in ultra-Orthodox society is huge, and if in the past the idea of an ultra-Orthodox female politician seemed crazy, today it is much more acceptable and increasingly women and men in the ultra-Orthodox sector support this.

"The ultra-Orthodox media that makes its livelihood from the hands of ultra-Orthodox politicians opposes us and paints us as enemies of the sector, alongside Reform Jews," she said. "But in the end it would not be our victory but that of ultra-Orthodox society as a whole, and it would not threaten religious law or way of life."

Michal Tzernovisky, the head of the ultra-Orthodox caucus in the Labor Party and a board member of the Israel Women's Network, said this is a power struggle and certainly not a matter of Jewish law or a religious question. "It's such an embarrassing issue," she told Al-Monitor. "There's an ultra-Orthodox female judge and ultra-Orthodox female CEOs and an ultra-Orthodox female pilot, but there can't be a female member of the Knesset?"

One of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox women in the public sphere in Israel is Adina Bar Shalom, who announced July 30 the formation of a new party that would run in the next election. She could be the first ultra-Orthodox woman in the Knesset. Bar Shalom told Al-Monitor that instead of a frontal battle in the High Court, she chose to bypass the ultra-Orthodox parties that are controlled by men and established "a party that deals with unity — not division." Half of the members of the party she established would be women, and on the list presented to the Knesset women and men would alternate, and appear in equal numbers, in accordance with the percentage of women in the population. She said that there are many positive developments in the struggle of ultra-Orthodox women. 

Bar Shalom is admired within the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi community. She established the first ultra-Orthodox college in Israel, encouraging ultra-Orthodox women and men to integrate into the labor market, and won the Israel Prize for this accomplishment four years ago. In previous elections her name has appeared as a possible candidate for the Shas list, but in the end the party leadership, headed by Aryeh Deri, rejected the idea, and she left Shas. She said of Deri, "It's too bad he went to jail and got ruined completely. If it's up to me, Shas is history." 

Tzernovisky said that in the next election she would most likely run herself in the primaries for the Labor Party list, noting that the only way to force real change on the ultra-Orthodox parties is through legislation that sets a minimum number of women to participate in all the parties. 

The municipal level is the first in which attempts were made by ultra-Orthodox women. In 2013, two ultra-Orthodox women who sought to run for Jerusalem's city council withdrew their candidacy following threats and out of concern for the ramifications for their families. 

In the October municipal elections, three ultra-Orthodox women will run for city council, in Jerusalem, Kfar Yona and Sderot. The candidate in Sderot, Madeleine Tuito, is running on a mixed list for ultra-Orthodox candidates from all the ultra-Orthodox parties. This is a small precedent that might signal the start of a change. Until that happens, the ultra-Orthodox parties will continue to discriminate against women and forbid their candidacy in elections on the one hand, and seek their votes at the polls on the other. 

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