A woman for mayor? Not in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv

Politicians say glass ceiling not yet broken in local politics, after women quit races in Israel’s two largest cities.

Rachel Azaria is running for Jerusalem's mayor at the head of the Yerushalmim party (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rachel Azaria is running for Jerusalem's mayor at the head of the Yerushalmim party
Women wishing to become active in local government in Israel still face a glass ceiling, female politicians have argued. In fact, after Rachel Azaria, a member of the Israeli parliament (Kulanu), and Zippi Brand Frank both dropped out of the upcoming Jerusalem and Tel Aviv races respectively, there are no women left to run for the mayoral races in Israel’s two biggest cities.
In the upcoming municipal elections, slated for October 30th, voters will select from a range of candidates for city council, in addition to voting for the mayoral slot. Azaria quit the race after her campaign racked up debt funding a lawsuit against the Egged bus company, forcing it to allow political advertisements featuring female candidates on Jerusalem buses. These images are often the targets of vandalism by members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who fervently object to images of women in public.
Brand Frank withdrew her mayoral candidacy for Tel Aviv last week, joining Asaf Zamir, her former rival, to run as his number two, in a bid to unseat current mayor Ron Huldai, who has served in the position for 19 years. Brand Frank had pushed a political platform focusing on children and education.
Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of Israeli parliament on the Joint Arab List who is also chair of the parliamentary Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, believes the lack of female representation at the local level is due to both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv being particularly complicated cities for women to navigate politically.
“Local politics in Israel have a different dynamic [than national politics],” Touma-Sliman told The Media Line. “Local elections require a candidate to either be part of a strong party, or to run costly campaigns independently with their own funds.”
The lawmaker—who also founded the Women Against Violence Association which aims to advance the status of women in Israel’s Arab sector—noted that local governments often rely on unpaid voluntary work, which is more difficult for women to provide given they are traditionally responsible for a larger share of domestic duties. She also argued that the system in place at the local level still very much favored male candidates.
“I think women can be more politically successful by going through large, well-organized parties rather than by running independently because then there is a support system in place,” Touma-Sliman asserted. “In Israeli politics, there is still very much of a conservative, male-dominated and patriarchal atmosphere.”
Women currently hold 28 percent of parliamentary seats (34 out of 120) and 18% of ministerial posts, the highest on record since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Though the representation of women in the Israeli parliament has significantly improved over the past two decades, with women now holding more seats than ever, their numbers in local government positions have conspicuously lagged behind. For instance, only six out of 256 local government heads serving in Israel are women, and overall, women make up only 13% of all council members in the country.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, which measures things like economic opportunity and participation as well as political empowerment, Israel ranked 44 th out of 144 countries, down nine places from its position a decade ago.
Some activists are trying to address the gender imbalance by getting women more involved in municipal elections. One such effort has been undertaken by “HALO—The Women of Tel Aviv” party, an all-female list of candidates running for Tel Aviv’s city council. Founded by Shelly Harel, who previously worked in the mayor’s office, the group hopes to address the gender gap in municipal representation.
“This is the first ever all-female municipal party to run for city council in Tel Aviv,” Maayan Bodenstein, a deputy of the party, explained to The Media Line. “Out of 31 council seats, only eight today are held by women. Unfortunately, not many women run for mayor [in Israel] and it’s not yet the norm, which is something we are trying to change. But we’re not there yet.”
Some of the issues that HALO mentions in its platform are providing financial aid to female students who are single mothers, promoting female entrepreneurs and business owners, and adapting public spaces to women (or men) with strollers. When asked whether the party intends to join the mayoral race, Bodenstein replied that it is currently focusing its efforts on “reaching gender equality in the city council.”
“We believe that 2018 is the year for women,” Bodenstein said, referring to the #MeToo social media movement against sexual harassment and assault, which has dominated the headlines over the past year. “Women can advance issues affecting everyone, but only women can properly address issues facing women, which men might ignore.”
Touma-Sliman also emphasized the importance of women being politically active in local government. “Every citizen—whether male or female—has the right to be represented,” she declared. “Anyone who wants to serve the public shouldn’t have to face obstacles. Women have their own experiences and bring their own perspectives, which I think is very important. They have to represent their own interests to bring about a more egalitarian society.”