There are fewer Israeli women in politics than it may seem

"If the polls are correct, she said, the number of females elected next week will be 28 or 29. But numbers don't reveal the whole picture."

Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abecassis (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abecassis
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
It would appear that women in Israel have broken through the glass ceiling. Women have filled positions of prime minister, foreign minister, deputy defense minister, justice minister, Bank of Israel governor, state comptroller, Supreme Court president, as well as of lower courts, Knesset speaker, university president, chair of the board of directors of leading banks and more.
But in most cases, these have been token positions that have been filled by women only once or twice. The Supreme Court has the best record, with three female presidents, two of them successive.
Following its establishment, Israel was very progressive in comparison to many other Western countries, with 11 women in the first and second Knessets, and 12 in the third.
From 1959-1999, the number fluctuated between seven to 11, political scientist Dr. Reut Itzkovitch-Malka told journalists at a discussion hosted on Monday by Jerusalem-based MediaCentral.
Itzkovitch-Malka is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University. She and her colleague Dr. Osnat Akirav, who heads the Research Department of Political Science at the Western Galilee College, each commented on what a tough year it has been for women in Israeli politics. They shared the reasons for concern, indicating that it may get a lot worse before it gets better.
There was an incremental increase in the number of women legislators from 1999 onward, with the highest elected number for the 20th Knesset in 2015, Itzkovitch-Malka said. Due to unintentional personnel changes in which some MKs left, people in lower slots were moved up, among them eight women, bringing female representation in the Knesset to a record-high 35.
If the polls are correct, she said, the number of females elected next week will be 28 or 29.
“But numbers don’t reveal the whole picture,” Itzkovitch-Malka said. “There is always a constant struggle for equal gender representation.”
Unless elected legislators are in the first 10 slots of the winning party, they have little chance of becoming ministers or heads of Knesset committees, she said, and it is the ministers and the committee heads who have the power.
There are only two women within the first 10 slots in both Likud and Blue and White, Itzkovitch-Malka said. Aside from that, there have never been more than four female ministers serving simultaneously in any government of Israel, and there were governments in which there were no women.
Women will continue to be pushed down on the list unless there is a mechanism to prevent it, such as the system in France, where parliamentary lists are man, woman, man, woman, she said.
In her research, Itzkovitch-Malka said, she interviewed past and present female MKs. One came up with the idea that the French system be adopted for two successive cycles of the Knesset and then dropped, because by that time, the voting public would have gotten used to the idea that female parliamentarians have something to say, and not just about education and social issues, which are the areas to which they are usually elected or appointed.
Akirav took this a step further, noting that women have something to say about security. In addition to the three generals in the top 10 in Blue and White, there is also a female MK on the list who was formerly a high-ranking IDF officer, and her viewpoint is no less valuable, she said. Akirav was referring to Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai.
Whereas Itzkovitch-Malka spoke mainly of women in the Knesset, Akirav spoke of women in local government, where only the elected mayor has power because most of the other people on the municipal council are volunteers. She was a council member for 10 years.
There is a huge gap in female representation between national and local government. The number of women candidates for mayor increases with each election. In 2008, 10 ran for mayor, and six were elected. In 2013, 38 ran for mayor, and six were elected. In the most recent municipal elections, 72 women ran for mayor, and 14 were elected.
In 2013, there were 475 women serving as council members in municipalities across the country. Currently, there are 645 female council members, and out of 255 municipalities nationwide, there are 78 without any women at all.
Increasing numbers of women want a say and feel a responsibility toward society, Akirav said.
“Our voice is different,” she said. At the local level, women are better known and there is greater public awareness, she said, adding: “More people vote for women because they want women to be there.”
It bothered both Itzkovitch-Malka and Akirav that when women voice political ambitions, they are immediately asked about the effect on their children. But such a question is never put to a male politician, even in an era of shared family and household responsibilities, they said.
Neither woman held out much hope for Kol Hanashim, the Women’s Party, which is running in the current Knesset election and has candidates from across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum. Firstly, they were “Jenny come latelies,” Akirav said, and secondly, various feminist groups believe this is not the right time for a women’s party. Previous attempts to enter the Knesset on a women’s ticket have failed. In 1992, the women’s party received only 2,886 votes.
Another factor prompting yet another unhappy outcome for a women’s party is the general decline in female political leadership. The only female party leader is Orly Levy-Abekasis, whose Gesher party is running with Labor and Meretz. Ayelet Shaked is playing musical chairs with Naftali Bennett. Tamar Zandberg lost out to Nitzan Horowitz. Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich left the political arena, and Stav Shaffir is in her final week as a legislator. Marcia Freedman went back to America, and Golda Meir, Shulamit Aloni and Geula Cohen are no longer alive.
Even though the future does not look promising for would-be women legislators, Itzkovitch-Malka and Akirav do not see this as a cause for dismay.
That Kol Hanashim is running is proof diversity is not a disconnect but a gateway to discourse, and proof that women in the Knesset are not just one different voice but many different voices raised in harmony.