May women sing in the Knesset? An examination

What is the Knesset's true policy on women singing within the parliament's building, and where does it stand today?

Keren Peles at the Yom hazikaron ceremony in the Knesset. (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
Keren Peles at the Yom hazikaron ceremony in the Knesset.
With controversy about women singing in the headlines again, the Knesset’s confusing policy on the matter is worth another look.
Earlier this week, rabbis in Rosh Ha’ayin called to boycott a Yemenite culture festival because popular singer Eden Ben Zaken, along with other female singers, are scheduled to appear, which could lead to “forbidden relations through mixed dancing.”
Meretz MK Michal Rozin came out against the phenomenon of banning female singers because of religious sensitivities, something that has happened in youth group, IDF and other events over the years.
“People say it’s a personal, cultural, religious preference, but if you replaced the statements with any other group, like Jews or blacks, no one would agree to it,” Rozin said on Army Radio. “There’s a process of hiding and excluding women that’s being justified in the name of religion, and then people tell us we should be considerate.”
But Rozin took her lament a step further, and said that women are now banned from singing in the Knesset.
“If you want to bring in a choir, it has to be the IDF Rabbinate Choir, so God forbid there won’t be a woman. When was the last time you saw a woman on stage singing in the Knesset? The last time was [in 2014, at prime minister Ariel] Sharon’s funeral, because his sons insisted,” she claimed.
This statement is false. To give one recent example, on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism, the Knesset holds its annual “Singing in their Memory” ceremony, in which popular musical artists sing songs by and about slain soldiers. Last May, the roster included an IDF band that was gender mixed, and not from the rabbinate, as well as singers Keren Peles and Esther Rada, in addition to male performers.
Women sang in other Knesset ceremonies since Sharon’s funeral, as well, such as the mixed-gender group The Ein Prat Fountainheads at a Tu Bishvat event that took place only five days after his death.
But there’s something the pictures and videos of the female musical performances in the Knesset have in common – they’re all in front of the famous Chagall tapestries hanging in the legislature.
That’s because the answer as to whether women sing in Knesset ceremonies is not a simple yes.
On the rare occasion on which there is singing in the plenum – usually “Hatikva” – the Knesset tries to bring in a children’s chorus or have just an instrumental performance with attendees singing along, but there is no limitation on other ceremonies, Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir said on Tuesday.
As Rozin pointed out, there used to be a choir made up of male and female MKs, which was disbanded.
In 2008, when then-British prime minister Gordon Brown spoke in the Knesset, the choir was supposed to sing “Hatikva,” and MKs Orit Noked and Collette Avital of Labor and Marina Solodkin of Kadima were not invited to take part, in order not to put haredi lawmakers in an uncomfortable position. The three lawmakers wrote a letter complaining to then-Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik.
A few years later, six IDF officers course cadets were put on trial for walking out of a ceremony when a woman sang, for religious reasons. Then-chief rabbi Yona Metzger said that when he attends such events, he recites psalms to distract himself from singing women. Then-MK Nissim Ze’ev of Shas suggested in a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting that religious soldiers be given earplugs for such situations.
Apparently, these solutions are insufficient for male Orthodox lawmakers, and the Knesset’s administration decided that it’s unfair to put them in a situation where they’d feel the need to walk out of the plenum, but in Knesset events that are not at the center of legislative activity, it’s not as bad if they leave.
So, are women allowed to sing in the Knesset? The answer is, well, sometimes.