No votes without representation

After withdrawing her candidacy in the 2013 elections due to threats from her sector, haredi activist Racheli Ibenboim is leading the struggle to bring ultra-Orthodox women into politics.

Haredi women vote in the 2013 elections. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haredi women vote in the 2013 elections.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The tall, smiling young woman dressed mostly in black and wearing a wig reaching her shoulders seems no different, at first glance, from any other haredi woman in the city.
For 29-year-old Racheli Ibenboim, a married mother of two little girls, being a haredi woman is just one aspect of her personality – though it is, she emphasizes, a core aspect. Everything she does, has done or is planning to do draws on her life as a haredi woman, even if she has managed to widen some of the more traditional boundaries of that description.
Ibenboim is a feminist, a social activist and an agent of change in one of the country’s most conservative societies, which is itself experiencing some significant changes from the inside.
Following the hesitant but increasing removal of the taboo against serving in the army, and the growing number of young haredi men and women entering academic studies and professional training, there are signs of a feminist revolution among haredi women. Indeed, when it comes to the quest for higher education, the Haredi Academic College established by Adina Bar-Shalom is a milestone in that field.
Like their counterparts in religious Zionist society, these women are seeking significant changes within their community; they do not believe in looking for solutions outside it.
Haredi women are also seeking a serious answer to the issue of political representation. Today they are more educated and much more aware of their rights – as well as of ways those rights are disregarded. That awareness has led to a movement toward acquiring political clout, culminating in the launch of a protest group with the slogan “Lo nivharot – lo bohrot” (roughly translated as “If we’re not running we’re not voting).
In fact, the protest group, founded by haredi advertising entrepreneur Esti Shushan, has existed since the last general elections of 2013, but while it attracted some attention from the general public, it never reached the haredi media. Now, with new elections on the horizon, Shushan and a group of fellow haredi women have decided to revive it.
One of those women is Ibenboim, a Ger Hassid and a resident of the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood with a record of pioneering activities in the field of haredi women’s empowerment.
“I was not part of the group back in 2013, but after I joined them, I was among those who decided to renew the activity now,” says Ibenboim.
“Based on the total lack of interest from haredi society that we witnessed last time, we assumed it would be about the same this time, too. We opened an account on Facebook, with our slogan, still figuring out how we would gain attention, and we sent a press communique. Within less than two hours, it became total madness.”
Unlike in 2013, this time the small group of women got that attention, along with some angry reactions, from a large part of haredi society – “although,” adds Ibenboim with a smile, “we know that we have a lot of support from inside. We have received hundreds of responses from haredi women and men, encouraging us and telling us how important what we are doing is. It’s just that it is still not easy for many inside the haredi world to be publicly identified with what we stand for, but even that will come.”
With more than 5,000 “likes” on its Facebook page, thousands of phone calls and messages, and growing public support, the group has become a significant factor that can no longer be ignored. At the same time, there have been harsh and even violent responses from some in the haredi establishment – though none of them seem to deter Ibenboim and her friends.
She stresses that the goal of the group is not just to have a haredi woman sitting in the Knesset.
“We want to bring our issues to the fore,” she says. “It’s not a matter of conquering another stronghold just for its own sake.... It is about having haredi women in haredi parties represented in the Knesset, so they can represent us, the haredi women, and our problems and needs.”
She emphasizes that it’s not even about her or the activists in the group getting a Knesset seat.
“I’m not aiming for that,” she says. Rather, “it’s a struggle about the principle of women in haredi parties being MKs, too. We are not promoting the presence of a haredi woman as a decoration in any party – that is not our point. We have our own issues, our own specific needs and problems – and we believe that only haredi women can represent us, only inside haredi parties, which are there to represent us in general.”
She and her fellow activists are aware of their critics and the social price they may pay – or are already paying – for their initiative.
The weapons of the haredi community can carry significant weight, and include threats to expel the children of those involved from prestigious yeshivot and seminaries, shun their husbands in synagogue, or ostracize the entire family.
IBENBOIM HAS already been down that road. During the last city council elections, she was on the Bayit Yehudi list – and had to withdraw because of such threats.
Now as then, she and the women in the group made sure to turn first to the rabbis and spiritual leaders of the haredi community.
In that appeal, “we said that we had all the necessary skills for the mission: We are educated, devoted, dedicated to the needs of haredi society, of which we are a part,” she recalls. “Nothing. We didn’t get even one answer. So we decided to go public, and the rest is now history.”
Today, she looks back on her city council experience with a slightly different view.
“Then [in 2013], my decision to run for the city council elections was a kind of daydreaming,” she says. “But today, the public discourse is totally different. The public understands that things have changed. Even if it’s at a slow pace, it has changed.”
She sees Bar-Shalom’s establishment of a women’s council in Shas as a step in the right direction.
“If that was accepted, it means that [in Shas circles], too, there is an understanding that things have changed – that women, even haredi ones, cannot be disregarded anymore. After all, they said openly that this council would serve as preparation for including women in politics. What else do we need?” Asked how she explains the reaction of Yaffa Deri – the wife of Shas leader Arye Deri – that women’s place is not in politics, Ibenboim smiles and says, “I take this with a lot of affection... I remember myself there, not so long ago. It is a process, and it takes time. It’s natural – the work will not be done in a month or two. It’s not an easy task, and we, who have already cleared our way, have a lot of patience.”
For the most part, the haredi interpretation of Jewish law strictly prohibits women from holding positions of authority or leadership, and prohibits men from subordinating themselves to a woman. However, Ibenboim dismisses this issue.
“We know that over the years the leading Torah sages have allowed their representatives at the Knesset to vote for such women in clear positions of authority and rule – like for Dalia Itzik when she was the [acting] president [replacing Moshe Katsav] or Speaker of the Knesset – to say nothing of women who have been elected, with haredi votes, as mayors. We’re beyond that today,” she says.
She adds that within haredi society, almost everyone understands that things are changing.
“Not all people like it, of course,” she notes, “but we know for sure that not only has this train left the station, it is literally flying, and nothing can stop it anymore.”