Jerusalem — Calling it a “breakthrough for political life in Israel,” Communications Minister Limor Livnat last week hailed the election of the first woman as mayor of a major Israeli city and vowed: “This is only the beginning.”
“We are at the height of a revolution,” Livnat proclaimed here to more than 350 women as she announced the formation of a foundation to raise money for Israeli women political candidates. “We are here today because we are interested in taking an active role in the feminist revolution. The feminist revolution wants women leaders. The ability to lead is not linked to a male chromosome. …
“I turn to you women from Israel, the United States and Canada — let us join forces. We need to come up with practical ways to raise money for women who wish to run and who are committed to the advancement of women’s status, regardless of political affiliation.”
The meeting, moderated by Carole Solomon, national general chair of the United Jewish Appeal, was held in a packed room of the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Minutes earlier, the General Assembly of UJA Federations of North America held its closing session in the same building.
Joining Livnat at the podium was Miriam Feierberg of the Likud Party, who two weeks ago was elected mayor of Netanya.
“I am the first, I pray I will not be the last,” she told the audience, which was composed of virtually all women. “I was director of three-quarters of the [Netanya] municipality, and I am doing my doctorate on how to cope with drugs. So after 26 years [in government], there was no reason” to refrain from seeking the mayoralty.
But her candidacy created quite a stir and she received the support of all women’s organizations in Israel.
“It came to the point where people said that because you are a woman, we will vote for you,” said Feierberg. “Last week when I was in Haifa, a 7-year-old girl said to me, ‘you are the mayor of Netanya. I’m proud of you.’ ”
But not all women fared as well, according to Dorit Ayalon, who was defeated by Shmuel Abuav in her independent candidacy for mayor of Kiryat Tivon near Haifa.
“About 30 of us ran for mayor and 400 ran for municipal seats,” she said, adding later that fewer than half won municipal seats and only Feierberg won a mayoral race.
“I’m afraid that most of us are broken,” she said. “We were not ready for such a struggle. … It’s dirty and we don’t know how to behave in such a situation. There were two letters to newspapers in my city: one which said I stole money from another party and another that said I had behaved violently to a child at an event I organized. Nothing like that had ever happened, but the newspaper printed these letters without getting my response. I’m now going to sue the paper to clear my name. It was awful.”
Asked if she would consider running in the future, Ayalon replied: “I can’t tell you. I’m still shocked by what has happened in the last three months.”
Ayalon, who was the first woman to run for mayor of Kiryat Tivon, received just 2 percent of the vote. That was not enough under the election rules to permit her to recover the registration fee she had paid to get on the ballot. In all, Ayalon said she spent about $7,500 on the campaign.
“My opponent spent about 10 times as much,” she said. “We just didn’t have enough money.”
Only slightly more than half of the 10,000 registered voters bothered to cast a ballot, Ayalon pointed out.
“We are 52 percent of the electorate, but I’m afraid that women in Israel are not ready to vote for women,” she said. “We have to work on this quite seriously.”
But a woman in the audience offered another view. She told panelist Nomi Chazan, a Knesset member from the Meretz Party, that she did not support Chazan in her bid to be mayor of Jerusalem because her “first loyalty is to my party.”
“You disappointed me,” Chazan told her. “This was the first time ever that a woman had run for mayor of Jerusalem in its 3,000-year history. People have to get accustomed to it. … The complexion of Jerusalem was not determined by those who voted but by those who abstained. Everyone who stayed at home forfeited the right to complain for the next five years.”
She was referring to the fact that nearly half of the City Council seats were won by ultra-Orthodox parties while secular Jews, who comprise two-thirds of the city, refrained from voting.
In explaining the need for more elected women politicians, Chazan noted that there are just nine women in the 120-seat Knesset, compared with 12 when the Knesset was first created 50 years ago.
“In our 50-year history, there were 54 women members of the Knesset — an average of one a year,” said Chazan. “That is appalling; absolutely outrageous. … We need more women politicians in Israel. It’s not just an aspiration or a wish, it’s an absolute necessity. With all due respect to men, only women will advance women’s issues. If we want to achieve full equality and sensitivity to our concerns — women’s health, education, welfare, personal status — we need 60 women in the Knesset.”