The Human Spirit: That feminist word

The proliferation of women willing to undertake the hassles of politics is a sign of the health of our democratic process.

Naomi Tsur 370 (photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
Naomi Tsur 370
(photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
Elections are over, so don’t accuse me of politicking.
I’m taking this opportunity, soon after the municipal elections but before I’ve seen the results, to salute the women of so many different backgrounds who stepped into the municipal political arena to run for city council.
Erudite commentators on the evolving social fabric of Israel, please take note: This is new.
I can’t think of a sector that wasn’t represented. There were more Jewish and Arab women – among them religious Jews and Muslims – than ever ran before. Immigrants shared lists with Sabras. Young women ran alongside grandmas.
As Michal Chernotvitzky, a haredi woman who headed the Ir Va’em list in Elad, put it in an interview on the Ynet website, “The city’s women are the ones who spend more hours in Elad, the ones who use public transportation more often, the ones who spend many hours in parks and playgrounds, the ones who connect with the staff and management at the kindergartens, daycare centers and schools, and the ones who take care of their children’s activities in the afternoon and during vacations. It’s only natural that women and mothers will be the ones to take care of all these issues at the council.”
But it hasn’t been natural. Not in general party politics or in any of the niches. Not in the big cities nor the small towns. Somewhere along the line, between the lines of the pragmatic argument, lies a new willingness to take a public role.
Most of the women who stepped into the sea of politics were novices, and the election of 2013 was a learning experience. My daughter-in-law, Hadas Brody Schroeder, a college teacher and mother of five, was sorry that the slate she ran on in Binyamina got off to a late start. She enjoyed the party discussions that took her out of the fast growing national-religious community, into the homes of other towns’ folks who were eager to share ideas for improving local schools and facilities. If they had started earlier, she thought the election process itself would have been a good opportunity to take down some of the social barriers that separate newcomers from the veterans.
Running as No. 3 on her list, she was unlikely to win, but recognized the potential of politics to advance the community’s visibility. Next time, they’ll be better prepared.
Jerusalemite Racheli Ibenboim, a member of the Gur Hassidic community, was running on the Bayit Yehudi list before she was forced to drop out of the race by community pressure.
Speaking to local and foreign journalists on a panel sponsored by Media Central, she said she didn’t regret her short and aborted run.
“Dropping out was a well-thoughtout decision,” she said. “My community wasn’t ready yet for me to run and represent them. I decided I wanted to remain part of the community rather than to be ostracized. I want to work for change from the inside.”
She expects those changes to be dramatic enough to allow her to run in the next elections, in five years. She’s already looking forward to it. Her candidacy inspired a hassidic woman friend, who did run in a different town.
The proliferation of women willing to undertake the hassles of politics and, in most cases, to take on non-paying jobs running towns and cities, is a sign of the health of our democratic process. I wonder how many of these women would consider themselves “feminists,” a word that strikes terror in the hearts of so many.
Except for Zionism, it’s hard to think of a social movement that is more reviled than feminism. Somehow, the ideology of according women equal rights has come to be equated with harridans, hussies and homewreckers. Feminists are pictured as an army of Liliths arriving to steal babies from carriages, not Miriams talking back to Pharaoh and leading triumphant women with their timbrels through the raging sea. Instead of esteeming the early feminists along with the suffragettes, who struggled for our long-cherished right to vote (okay, not until the 1990s in the Swiss Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, and not yet in Saudi Arabia), they are held in contempt.
There are exceptions, of course. Rachel Azaria in Jerusalem says the word right out loud. So does my daughter-in-law.
Still, you can imagine my distress and disappointment when – speaking on the same panel as Ibenboim – Naomi Tsur, head of a nearly all-women’s party, Ometz Lev in Jerusalem, said she was only a Joanie-come-lately feminist.
Tsur, a well-known environmentalist and former deputy mayor whom I’ve always admired, described how in 2013 she’d had a fight with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. She didn’t say over what. When she told Barkat that she would be leaving his list and starting her own political party for city council, he shot back that he’d find a woman to replace her on his list. “He didn’t even realize what was wrong with that,” said Tsur.
That was her moment of feminist consciousness-raising.
She presumably realized for the first time that she had not only been valued for her thoughts alone, but also because women were now needed to make political tickets appealing to voters.
Like me, Tsur is a grandmother, and I wondered how anyone who had grown up in an English-speaking country and Israel, who was so much involved in public service, could have missed feminism.
“I thought it was right to stay home and bring up my children,” she answered.
Which, of course, has nothing to do with being a feminist or not. Feminism is, above all, about raising consciousness so that we can make informed decisions about what we really want to do, and have freedom of opportunity to follow our hearts and ambitions.
Making a choice to stay home or not stay home, rather than being coerced to stay home or not stay home, is what feminism is about. It also means making the opportunities family-friendly, so that meaningful and remunerative employment can be combined with parenting and public service.
We may have come a long way, baby, but we have also have a long, long way to go.
Whether they made it into city councils or not this election cycle, the women who were willing to stand up within their communities and then to seek the broader endorsement of their towns have moved us forward.
And it looks as if the campaign for 2018 has already begun.