Petach Tikvah, Israel — Israeli government officials like to highlight the country’s credentials as the Middle East’s sole democracy and contrast its record on women’s rights with neighboring states.
“Where women fly fighter jets, lead major corporations, head universities, preside — twice — over the Supreme Court, and have served as speaker of the Knesset and prime minister,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded the plenum at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
But when it comes to the political institutions among Israel’s charedi community the situation is different. There is no female representation among ultra-Orthodox parties at the national and local level, thanks to long-standing formal and informal bans on female members.
For decades, the bans have been sanctioned by Israel’s party registrar and accepted as a fact of life in the charedi community. Now, a potentially precedent-setting case being heard in Israel’s Supreme Court is challenging that.
An alliance of religious, secular and Arab feminist groups petitioned the court — along with the support of a charedi women’s group — against Section 6A in the bylaws of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, which states that party membership is open to “any Jewish man 18 years or older.” The court last week gave the charedi party 75 days to explain why the ban on women isn’t discriminatory.
“This is something historic,” said Estee Rieder Indursky, an activist in the charedi feminist group Nivcharot, which supported the petition. “Every day that the Knesset allows those parties to be a part of the system even as they discriminate against women, this is a stain on democracy in Israel.”
The court petition was originally submitted in March 2015 by Tamar Ben Porath, a former corporate lawyer, who recalled being surprised when hearing about the ban from another charedi feminist activist, Esty Shushan.
“I was not aware of how common this is. I was shocked that in Israel of 2015, in legal documents of a party represented in the Israeli Knesset, such a provision was written and approved,” said Ben Porath.
The dispute pits Israel’s commitment to uphold the principle of women’s equality with a desire to allow its heterogenous religious and ethnic communities to pursue their own worldviews and customs as they see fit. It raises questions about how aggressive the government should be in forcing these communities to respect basic norms of equal rights.
The issue first burst into public view during the 2013 campaign from parliament when Shushan opened up a Facebook page “Lo nivcharot, lo bocharot” — “no voice, no vote” — to discourage women from voting for charedi parties until they allow them to run for office.
Shushan spent years writing for a charedi newspaper under a pseudonym to hide her gender because she was told that ultra-Orthodox men wouldn’t read opinion articles written by a woman. She was inspired to embark on the protest after hearing complaints from ultra-Orthodox women about experiences on gender segregated buses that run through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
“I realized that there has to be a public voice [for women]. On the public level, we are invisible,” said Shushan. “The goal was to say: ‘We’re here and you’ve forgotten us.’”
Shushan described Israel’s two leading charedi parliamentary factions — Shas, with seven seats in the parliament; and United Torah Judaism, with six — as a “home” and “a family.” But she argued that they’ve been allowed to discriminate against women because of their position as the king-makers between left- and right-wing governments.
The tension over women’s political participation reflects how Israel’s fast-growing charedi community is grappling with trends of modernization that are forcing an insular religious group to open up to outside media and pressuring it to integrate into wider Israeli society, Shushan said.
Since the initial protest, Shushan and Rieder Indursky have helped organize women’s parlor meetings to encourage them to become more politically aware.
“We are trying to change the perception of women that, ‘Yes you can talk about politics,’” said Rieder Indursky. “We are trying to open the minds of the ultra-Orthodox women that they have rights, that they have civil rights. We are the last suffragettes.”
The charedi political establishment in Israel has flat out rejected the demands of the ultra-Orthodox women. In a response to the petition, Agudat Yisrael said that allowing women to join the party as members would be like letting children run the party. Women involved in politics are considered to be in defiance of notions of “tzniut,” or “modesty.”
Recommending that the petition be rejected, the office of Israel’s attorney general acknowledged that while the ban is a violation of the principle of equal rights, Israel is also a multicultural country with groups whose way of life constitutes a challenge to the principles of liberty and equality in democracies.
“The legislature and the courts have recognized that there are situations in which cultural singularity can justify behavior that normally would be discriminatory or an injury of liberty,” the legal opinion argued.
At the same time, leaders have threatened to ostracize the charedi political feminists from their own communities. Mordechai Blau, a leading rabbi in the party, said the consequences would include the nullification of marriage contracts and the expulsion of children from schools. “Anyone who defies in public the elders of Israel – is not charedi,” he said, according to the website Haredi World.
Indeed, the charedi feminist group Nivcharot did not formally join the Supreme Court petition out of concern for public criticism and sanctions in their own communities.
Feminist legal experts say the ban on women in politics in the ultra-Orthodox community has negative fallout that affects women throughout the country, not just in charedi communities. The existence of such a bylaw allows other minority groups to discriminate against women, they said. That’s why Altufua, an Arab women’s nonprofit based in Nazareth, joined the petition.
“Women from cultural-political periphery face a lot of obstacles in getting political representation,” said Netta Loevy, a lawyer for the feminist legal nonprofit Itach-Maaki, which joined the petition against the party. “If there is a bylaw like this that constitutes a red light, then they have less of a chance to overcome other obstacles.”
Avinoam Cohen, director of international human rights law from the Concord Research Center, said Israel is obligated to take action because of its membership in a 1979 international convention seeking to eliminate discrimination against women.
“International law provides clear guidance on the obligation of the state to eliminate gender stereotyping, and to ensure that men and women can participate equally in the public sphere,” he said.
Will a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the bans pave the way for a wave of women to enter the charedi parties and run for Knesset? Shushan said that even though a victory will be an important symbol, the fight for equal rights will be a long one, fraught with risks for the charedi feminists.
“We are walking a fine line not to lose our legitimacy,” she said. “In the best-case scenario, we are at the beginning of the road.”