Israel elections 101: Women demand spots on ultra-Orthodox party lists

A new group of devoutly religious women, 'No voice, no vote,' is threatening to withhold support from Israel's ultra-Orthodox political parties unless they are represented on party lists. A tough battle awaits.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni attends a news conference at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Nov. 30, 2011.

With the Israeli election campaign shifting into high gear, the popular ultra-Orthodox Jewish website Kikar Hashabat recently posted a graphic with pictures of the leaders of contesting political parties.

But not all of them.

Zahava Gal-On and Tzipi Livni, two women who lead Israeli political parties, were left out of the graphic, as were Arab party chiefs.

The tendency to black out images of women in the ultra-Orthodox media, which justify the practice citing a need for modesty, highlights what women pressing for gender equality in the rigorously traditional ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community are up against.

But now, in advance of the March 17 election, a group of determined ultra-Orthodox women are rejecting the male monopoly on politics in their community as they for the first time press to be represented on the lists of candidates of the Haredi parties running for Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.

''The taboo is based on things that have no basis in reality today,'' says Esty Shushan, head of the “No voice, no vote” group, which is calling for a boycott of ultra-Orthodox parties that do not list women on the ballot.

While the women concede that only a miracle will enable them to place a candidate in time for this election, they are breaking new ground in what promises to be a long struggle and are staking their claims for future elections.

“Our goal is to raise awareness. The more it’s talked about, the more the social taboo is broken,” says Ms. Shushan, a mother of four who runs her own advertising company and lives in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox area of Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.

Ultra-Orthodox parties, guided by revered rabbis from both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, have often been king-makers in Israeli coalitions, but they were left out of the broad government formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two years ago. (Ashkenazic Jews are primarily from Europe, and Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Levant.)

Now they are eyeing an opportunity to return to power, especially if a rift persists between Mr. Netanyahu and the secular, centrist Yesh Atid party of Yair Lapid, which finished second to Netanyahu’s Likud in the last elections in 2013.

For the most part, the Orthodox parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas – do not hold doctrinaire positions on the Palestinian question but are concerned primarily with securing funds for their religious institutions.

Shushan says with women on the lists “there will be a refreshing feminine perspective. Women will be a bridge within the nation and can also bring good things on the diplomatic issue.”

Some women fear repercussions

No voice, No vote’s Facebook page has garnered more than 5,000 likes. But in some cases, women are afraid to go public with their support for fear they or their families will be sanctioned. “Women are afraid to raise their voice,” Shushan says. “They tell me ‘I can’t support you publicly, they will expel my children from school.’”

Shushan, whose husband runs a Judaica website, says she and the women in the group are backed by their spouses.

“None of us could do this without a supportive husband,” she says, noting that her neighbors' reaction to her activism is mixed.

Kimmy Caplan, a specialist in Jewish history at Bar Ilan University, says the demand for Knesset representation is an outgrowth of a 40-year process in which ultra-Orthodox women have gone beyond traditional jobs in education to establish themselves in accounting, graphic design, administration, and many other fields.

These working women often support husbands who devote themselves to the study of sacred texts rather than paid employment.

“Someone successful as a lawyer or graphic designer could see the Knesset as something women should be part of as well,” Mr. Caplan says. But he stresses that Shushan’s group so far is “not a huge phenomenon. There are tens of thousands of Haredi women in the workforce and maybe fifty in the political arena.”

A matter of Jewish law, or tradition?

While ultra-Orthodox rabbis agree that women can leave the house to work, serving in parliament is another matter entirely, they say.

“How can a woman, who is supposed to be modest, be in the Knesset where she has to constantly appear and where her picture is constantly being sent to the whole world?” asks Rabbi Mordechai Bloy, chairman of the Guard for Holiness and Education of the United Torah Judaism party. “It’s the complete antithesis of the rules of Judaism.”

Maimonides, the revered 12th-century Jewish philosopher and jurist, came out clearly against such public roles for women, Rabbi Bloy says. But Shushan says she and other activists consulted rabbis before launching their group and that there is nothing in Jewish law against an ultra-Orthodox woman serving in the Knesset.

Bloy insists that his brand of traditional Judaism accords the highest respect for women. “When the Sabbath starts, it is the woman who is the first to welcome the Sabbath by lighting candles,” he says.

Those demanding representation, he says, are “all sorts of embittered women or maybe they aren’t Haredi. And they don’t have an answer as to ‘Why can't a male member of the Knesset represent women?’” The demand for women's representation “is all folly and chauvanism,” he says.

Asked what motivates her activism, Shushan explains: “Women have to provide income and bear children, yet they have no voice. No one represents us.

“A man's way of looking at things is different. In the Knesset, there were no Haredi representatives at the sessions on the status of women. I am talking about sessions focusing on the problems of ultra-Orthodox women in employment, health, and education. There were no ultra-Orthodox representatives there and this infuriates us.”

Key roles for women in Israel

Women have played significant roles in secular Israeli parties. Ms. Livni, a former foreign minister, has an outside chance to become prime minister after she struck a rotation agreement with Isaac Herzog, the Labor party leader who is challenging Netanyahu in the election.

Labor’s Golda Meir served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974. Ms. Gal-On heads the dovish Meretz party.

The demand that ultra-Orthodox parties follow suit points to the reality that as hard as the rabbis may try to insulate their flock, the Haredi are still subject to influence from larger Israeli society.

But that does not mean “No voice, no vote” will succeed any time soon.

To do so, “there would have to be a considerable well-acknowledged leader of one of the big Haredi groups who would support it, if only in a closed room,” says Caplan. “You need backing, and I don't think they have that, not as yet.”

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