MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), an MK who is perhaps better known for his work concerning security and settlements, may seem like an unlikely choice for lobbyists seeking to forward the interests of working women and families.
The kippa-wearing grandfather sees things a bit differently, however, and told The Jerusalem Post this week that his perspective as a religious Jew – as well as a parent, a husband, and yes, an IDF officer – makes advancing woman-centered legislation a key part of his Knesset efforts.
“My moral understanding as a religious Jew is that in some senses, the role of the woman in the Jewish world is more important than [that of] men. The man may be traditionally the wage earner but the woman is usually the one who determines the tenor of the house,” he explained, a few days before International Women’s Day.
“The modern world must recognize this fact and thus not just seek equality of opportunity but simultaneously [recognition] of the woman’s special role in the home and the family.
“I think that my perspective has been expressed in legislation regarding women,” continued Schneller, who last week succeeded in passing a bill to widen the definition of sexual harassment. “The law was intended to help women, but in the current context also can apply just as well to men.
“I cannot accept that a woman can be targeted for sexual harassment simply because she attends a lecture or visits a para-medical specialist. At the same time, I don’t want to completely destroy the art of courting, and so as a legislator, one has to be smart enough to separate between the beautiful nature of humanity to seek a partner, and between an act that is harmful and condemnable.”
A second piece of legislation that Schneller is preparing with women in mind involves sperm donation.
“There are very important and difficult questions, ethically, legally and concerning Jewish law,” he said. “The bill is very complex, and seeks to allow every woman who wants to have a child to do so, regardless of whether she is single, married or in a homosexual relationship. The right to motherhood is universal to every woman by right of her being a woman.”
Schneller, a reserve colonel, said that another bill that reflects his own family’s experience is his legislation that would allow women to take part-day unpaid leave while their partner is doing reserve duty. Under the bill, employers could not fire a woman for taking up to three hours of leave a day during their partner’s reserve service.
“The responsibilities in the home are no longer restricted to women. Men also have a share in the housework, so this bill will allow partners the extra time needed to shoulder the reservist’s burden in the family,” he explained.
Schneller is happy to boast that he is responsible for the heavy cleaning on Fridays, including mopping the house, as well as for ironing and all of the table service during Shabbat.
He also notes that he is the on-call babysitter for his many grandchildren, with everything from entertaining to diapering under his purview.
“In our house – as in many houses – we are truly partners,” he smiled. “My sons and sons-in-law are also full partners to their wives, which I am happy to see.”
Schneller also wishes to forward what he calls a “semantic” law – a proposal that would change legal terminology from “hufshat laida
” (literally, “maternity vacation”) to pagrat laida
– “maternity recess.”
“Maternity is simply not a vacation” said Schneller, who, between his wife and his daughters, has witnessed his fair share of motherhood.
Beyond those four laws, the veteran Kadima MK could easily list an additional four laws that he is or has worked on relating to women and families, particularly in terms of religious institutions such as Rabbinic courts.
“All of these things draw from my personal perspective regarding women, family and Jewish law,” he added.
Schneller is a Knesset representative on the committee to appoint religious court judges (dayanim
), and says that “it is very important that the representative who sits next to me is a female representative of the Israel Bar Association. Fifty percent of those present in divorce courts are women, and I think that their voice should be heard.”
Similarly, Schneller says that it is “both positive and appropriate that women sit on local religious councils, because they too receive services from them.
“It may sound like a motto, but all of these bills support the fact that I mean what I say,” Schneller proclaimed. “It is not just lip service, but rather actions in service, the choice to see partnership between men and women as a value.
Schneller’s adult daughters, he said, demonstrated through their own choices that religious observance is compatible with greater opportunity for women.
“They all came up through the religious education system, and served in the IDF as part of their worldview,” he said. One worked with at-risk soldiers, a second was an instructor in the Armored Corps, and the third held an elite position as a squad commander in the Navy’s diving unit.
Schneller himself met his wife while they were both serving in the IDF.
“I was a young paratrooper officer, and was driving on an isolated part of the Jordan Valley road. I saw lights in the distance that turned out to be the basketball court at Mesu’a, and stopped for a rest there.
“There were soldiers there doing folk dances, and I immediately noticed one beautiful female soldier who was the best dancer. I asked her to teach me to dance, and we’re still dancing together today.”
He stressed, however, that he does not believe that equality of opportunity isn’t taken too far.
Using the example of military service, Schneller said that “there are
things that young women cannot do that young men can, in terms of
modesty, physical capacity, or out of other concerns, such as the
possibility that they could be taken captive. But on the other hand,
there are many tasks in which women’s abilities are equal or better
than those of most men, particularly in fields such as intelligence.
“My wife says that there is nothing more unequal than to act equally to people who are not equal,” Schneller explained.