Jerusalem — During an election campaign dominated by security and economic concerns,
so-called “women’s issues” haven’t been at the top of most parties’ priority lists.
Yet there’s quite a bit to be hopeful about, feminists say, even if the signs are sometimes subtle.
“In some ways this is a historic election for women,” said Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, noting that three of the major political parties are headed by women: Shelly Yachimovich (Labor); Tzipi Livni, (Tenuah/Movement); and Zehava Gal-on (Meretz).
Two other women, Asma Zahalka Agbarieh (Da’am Workers Party) and Yuliz Shmalov-Berkovich (Calcala), head parties that are unlikely to win a Knesset seat.
Yachimovich has long been considered a staunch advocate of women’s rights while Livni, who rose in politics “without touching feminism,” has experienced “a major turnaround” over the past couple years “and publicly embraced feminist issues,” Sztokman said.
During this campaign, Sztokman noted, Livni has reached out to women as a constituency, speaking at feminist events about the importance of women’s leadership and making changes in society.
“That in itself is also new — the idea that feminist women are a constituency that should be wooed,” Sztokman said.
It’s not only the women-led parties that are trying to appeal to women, said Galit Desheh, director of the Israel Women’s Network.
“They understand that what women want is extremely important,” but how they define this “is still based on chauvinism and assumptions about what they think women’s issues are,” Desheh said.
While women are especially concerned about socio-economic issues, education and children, Desheh said, calling those topics “women’s issues” makes it easy for some to “put them in a corner” and marginalize them.
Feminists agree that issues related to gender equality are becoming more mainstream, and they give much of the credit to the increasingly high-profile protests and court battles waged by women’s advocates in recent years.
Those efforts, especially around issues of gender segregation and religious pressures to exclude women from public spaces “are now paying off with a greater societal awareness of these issues,” Sztokman said.
That awareness is being felt at some of the hundreds of campaign gatherings the parties have held in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 22 election.
Some veteran male politicians are “starting to get the message,” Sztokman said, noting that “even” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud Party, “had an election spot last week” promoting gender equality.
“That’s really new” and signals that “most of the parties” are beginning to appreciate that gender issues matter to the public.”
Writing in the Times of Israel, Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member who consistently put women’s issues at the top of her political agenda, noted that women’s representation on many party lists “has increased in the present campaign.”
From an examination of the parties’ lists, Chazan found that 50 percent of the Meretz party candidates holding realistic spots on the list are women. That number was 40 percent for the new centrist Yesh Atid party; 33 percent for the Balad party; 30 percent for Labor and Kadima; and 20 percent for the up-and-coming Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) and Likud-Beiteinu joint party of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.
(If a party garners, say, 10 votes, the top 10 people on its list enter the Knesset; the 11th is out of luck.)
The fervently Orthodox parties, as well as some Arab parties, refuse to permit women on their lists. They say it would be immodest and a violation of Jewish law/Islam to permit women to campaign and serve alongside men.
A small but significant number of women voters have begun to fight back. In an unprecedented move, a group of haredi women are publicly refusing to vote for the fervently Orthodox parties that claim to be representing their agenda, whether it be subsidies for large families or military exemptions for yeshiva students.
In addition to having a Facebook page with more than 1,000 followers that goes under the banner “If I can’t be elected, I’m not voting [for you],” the organizers co-petitioned the High Court to rule that all-male parties are illegal.
“They lost the case but the message is getting through,” Sztokman said. “Inequality must change.”
Rachel Azaria, a Jerusalem City Council member at the forefront of the fight against the marginalization of women in the public sphere, noted that, due to the haredi and Arab party restrictions, up to a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 seats could be off-limits to women.
While the haredi activists did not succeed in their demands for including women candidates, “next time there is an election, the notion won’t be considered so far-fetched” to the parties’ traditional constituents, Azaria said hopefully.
Former MK Colette Avital says she and other MKs tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill that would have provided political parties with financial incentives to include women on their lists.
“For years we tried to pass legislation to increase women’s participation in realistic places” on the lists “to ensure that at least 40 of every list would be women,” Avital said.
Had the legislation passed, the state would have been required to pay the political parties considerably more money per female candidate than it pays for each male candidate.
Avital recalled how then-Minister of Justice Tommy Lapid, who many considered anti-religious, said, “It can’t pass, it’s not democratic because it doesn’t allow religious parties to get the money.”
“You have countries like France, where the law says there must be an equal number of men and women candidates. In Israel, that concept is called ‘ritch-ratch,’” like the two, intertwined sides of a zipper.
“That will never happen in Israel,” Avital said, “because there will always be parties that object.”
Sztokman bemoaned the fact that very few parties, Meretz excepted, have detailed platforms or strategic plans for advancing gender issues. Yesh Atid has come out with a statement, not a platform, vowing to fight gender segregation.
“I’m not sure if the reluctance to make a clear practical commitment stems from fear of haredi backlash — if the parties later want to sit in a coalition with all-male parties — or something else.
“But there’s still a lot of work to do,” Sztokman said.
At the same time, she said, feminist issues “are gaining momentum.”