Women are joining haredi political parties

Here is an in-depth look at the challenges faced by women candidates.

MICHAL ZERNOWITSKI, running on the Labor Party list. (photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
MICHAL ZERNOWITSKI, running on the Labor Party list.
(photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
‘I know a number of haredi women who’d be more than happy to run on the Agudat Yisrael or Shas tickets in the upcoming election,” says Esty Shushan, the founder and CEO of Nivcharot, a social and political activism organization. “These women are exceptionally capable of contributing to society, but unfortunately, the parties that represent their communities are closed to women. There are so many women who are just waiting for the gates to open so they can play their role. Many of them do not see themselves in Labor or Likud – they want to be on the list of a haredi party.”
Last month, the High Court of Justice ruled that the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party must allow women to be members. The ruling gave the party 21 days to amend its statutes in order to do so. Does this mean we will see haredi women running for the Knesset on ultra-Orthodox party lists in the upcoming elections? 
Only two haredi women are running in the current race: Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who founded the Achi Israeli Party; and Michal Zernowitski, who will run on the Labor Party list. Although many ultra-Orthodox women have experienced tremendous success in business, the political arena still remains largely taboo. 
“The haredi parties are closed systems that don’t allow women to participate in them,” says Shushan. “Just yesterday I met with a haredi woman from a very well-respected Jerusalem haredi family. She has been an active social figure for many years, and would love to represent her community in the Knesset, but is afraid of the price her family would need to pay if she were to try.”
What would the ramifications be if she ran?
“Her daughters would not be accepted into seminary or be set up in shidduchim [marriages],” says Shushan. “This is a call-out to the heads of the haredi political parties to open their minds and meet with these women and hear what they have to say. I’m not saying they should accept these women now as potential Knesset candidates. Maybe we could form some kind of women’s forum for now, so that our needs could at least be heard. Maybe this will bring about a change. These women need to have a voice in the haredi parties. If the haredi parties were to unite, they would have a lot of seats, and it doesn’t make any sense that it would be made up of men only.”
What does the haredi community think about having women represent them in the Knesset?
“Haredi society is currently undergoing many changes,” says Shushan. “It could be that there are many haredim who aren’t ready for women to join the world of politics. But with a little goodwill and the agreement of the rabbis, we could achieve this. The haredi Knesset members don’t tend to take the Nivcharot leaders very seriously. They say we’re not really haredi, or that we’re mentally ill.”
According to Shushan, this is one of the reasons why haredi women haven’t dared to do enter politics, until now. 
“They see how far haredi men will go to delegitimize women and say to themselves, ‘Why do I need this? The price is too high to pay.’ A number of rabbis support us, but they are hesitant to demonstrate their support publicly. That’s the most frustrating part. And then people ask me which rabbis support us. But of course, I cannot name them if they have not yet agreed to go public.”
Do you think this might change in the future?
“Yes, but we need to be patient,” says Shushan. “First we need to prepare the ground for change, train women leaders, and slowly alter public consciousness. We’re not aiming for equal representation yet. For now, we just want to get our foot in the door. As it stands, that door is still double-locked. The most troubling part is that the haredi parties supported a number of secular women candidates in the recent mayoral elections, because they were good for our community. If the government were to require that political parties earmark certain spots on their lists for women, and declare that all-men parties were illegal, it’d be much easier for us to make some headway.
“Haredi women can’t wait to get into politics, but the haredi community is doing everything it can to prevent this from happening,” says Tamar Ben-Porat, an attorney who is currently petitioning the High Court of Justice against Agudat Yisrael. “The Haredi parties are threatening the haredi women who are trying to rock the boat. Agudat Yisrael claims that these women aren’t really haredi, which is the most insulting thing they could say. They also continue to announce that there aren’t any haredi women who are interested in entering politics.”
TAMAR BEN-PORAT, an attorney who is petitioning the High Court of Justice against Agudat Yisrael. (Courtesy)
TAMAR BEN-PORAT, an attorney who is petitioning the High Court of Justice against Agudat Yisrael. (Courtesy)
Do you think the High Court’s decision will prompt a change?
“We attacked the party’s articles of association, which clearly state that women are prohibited from joining,” continues Ben-Porat. “Now this has changed, and it no longer states that women can’t join. This decision will have ramifications for other haredi parties, too. The ruling states that if these parties make it difficult for women to join, then we will go back to court. I hope that won’t be necessary. This case lasted three-and-a-half years. The only defense they came up with to justify their exclusion of women was that this was their worldview. Our counter-claim was that this view was discriminatory.”
Ben-Porat points out that, slowly, the legal case spilled over into the haredi streets. 
“More and more women are plucking up the courage to announce publicly that they want to be part of the decision-making process. In addition, there are also men who are willing to support them publicly, too. These women are currently registering to join the haredi political parties. I hope that the leadership will comply with the court order so that we won’t need to continue our legal battle.
“The haredi parties will not accept women,” claims Michal Zernowitski, 38, the woman who founded Labor’s ultra-Orthodox branch, and ran in the party’s primaries. “It’s not going to happen. A woman can’t just state, ‘I want to be an MK from Yahadut Hatorah.’” 
Zernowitski, who is from Elad, is the head of Ir Va’am, an organization that promotes haredi women. “It doesn’t make any sense that an Israeli political party should not have women on their list,” she says. 
“This isn’t just a haredi problem, but exists throughout Israeli society,” continues Zernowitski. “It doesn’t make sense that in the 21st century this should still be an issue. Parties must be mandated to give certain spots to women, or they should be disqualified. Haredi society has been undergoing a revolution in the last few years, but the haredi political parties have stuck their heads in the sand. It’s important that the Labor Party, which claims to represent all the people, have haredi representation, too.”
Have you felt any backlash since you decided to run in the primaries?
“When you go into politics, you need to be ready to deal with both supporters and detractors,” says Zernowitski. I’m lucky that I grew up in the more modern part of the haredi world, and so I haven’t really experienced any threats. But I’ve heard of cases in which haredi women who wanted to enter politics were told that their husband’s livelihood would be damaged, and that their children would be shunned at school. Once people see that you’ve made the decision, however, and that you’ve gained some clout, they begin treating you differently. It’s not simple or easy on either an economic or emotional level. Sometimes you need to use a bit of force to get the door open.”
“Haredi women must work from within an ideological framework that opposes women expressing their opinion in public,” says Tzvia Greenfield, the first haredi woman to serve in the Knesset, on the Meretz list. “They follow these strictures just like any other minority group. In general, haredi women don’t object to these restrictions. They don’t consider it a problem since this is the reality they grew up in. Only a very small number of haredi woman have joined movements to oppose these norms, and the price these women pay is very high.”
What has your experience been like?
“I’ve certainly paid the price for stepping out of the accepted boundaries,” says Greenfeld. “People have expressed anger and lots of aggression toward me. Most haredi women have no interest in bringing about change. So long as the haredi community is based on the assumption that there is no place for women to participate in community activities, then surely they won’t have much chance of being welcomed into haredi political parties. I’ve been actively involved for many years, and changes are taking place extremely slowly.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.