Women leaders absent from parties ahead of Israel's elections

This is the first time in 15 years that not a single party is headed by a woman.

Tzipi Livni takes the podium at a press conference announcing her resignation from politics, February 18th, 2019 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Tzipi Livni takes the podium at a press conference announcing her resignation from politics, February 18th, 2019
Israel is a pioneer in women’s rights in the region, and is perceived as a pioneer in women’s representation in government. Indeed, the situation for women in Israel is far better than for the women of many other countries in the Middle East. Yet ahead of Israel’s third elections within one year, the trends of female representation seem to be going the opposite way. Why are women being pushed out of government, does it matter, and was Israel ever really as much of a pioneer as is commonly believed?
In January 2020, Israel’s political parties finalized their electoral lists for the March elections, but from the Left to the Right, there is something missing from the top of the lists: female representation. This is the first time in 15 years that not a single party is headed by a female. In many parties, women are largely absent from the first few spots on the list.
Israel’s largest parties – according to polls, Blue and White, Likud and the Joint List – contain no more than two women in their top 10 candidates. The only party with a proportional list, interestingly, is the right-wing Yamina Party, whose top 10 includes 50% women.
In 2015, Israel ranked 54th in the world for women’s representation in government, with 26.7% of Knesset being female. In 2019, according to election results, Israel would have dropped to 69th place for women had a government been formed. Additionally, there are only three women serving in the current Israeli cabinet. Today, if Israeli elections go according to the polls, female representation will be even lower, based on the current slates.
Additionally, the ultra-Orthodox parties prohibit women explicitly from even running on their lists – a disgraceful position that ought to be universally rejected in Israel. Female political leaders such as Tzipi Livni, Stav Shaffir and Tamar Zandberg have been pushed out of their respective parties and replaced by men. Even Ayelet Shaked, who is running with Yamina, gave up her position as party leader for the 2020 elections to run with Naftali Bennett leading.
That is not to say that women in Israel have never served in high-level positions, but the fact that women can serve in a position is an inadequate response to the fact that comparatively, far fewer women serve in ministerial positions in the Israeli government – and indeed at the top of other sectors as well. Israeli women make up more than half of the student population for bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, yet 80% of Israeli professors are men.
While Israel was the third country in the world to have a female head of state (Golda Meir), a woman has never served as the minister of defense, interior or finance. Historically, only 18 of 246 cabinet positions have ever been filled by women, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
CONTRAST THAT with Sweden where women comprise 45% of the legislature, or 42% in Finland. Additionally, in Finland every party of the coalition government is run by women, and all but one of them is under 35!
A common response to the downward trend of female representation is that it’s “coincidental” and that women “can” serve in any number of positions in Israel. Indeed, Israeli women have had tremendous success historically. We have many rights far surpassing Israel’s neighboring countries when it comes to maternity leave, healthcare and more.
Disproportionate representation in government is more than a discussion of numbers, however. It has real-life consequences for Israeli women. When women don’t have a voice in government, the decisions that affect women aren’t being decided by anyone who represents those groups (or is done so without significant representation). Additionally, agenda items in government that address issues which impact women such as agunot (women “chained” to a man who refuses divorce), combating domestic violence and femicide, and more, don’t even get put on the agenda the same way they might should women be proportionally represented.
The lack of female representation can also be, at least in part, the result of a society that is increasingly tolerant of intolerance. The ultra-Orthodox attempts to erase women from the public sphere, whether erasing them from their Knesset lists or from magazines and newspapers, is shameful behavior that twists Judaism to oppress and silence important female voices in Orthodox communities.
This inequality has not gone unaddressed, to the credit of Israeli society. There are organizations and individuals fighting back against explicit gender discrimination in politics and other spheres.
First and foremost, the Supreme Court has made landmark decisions that defend the rights of women and uphold equality for women which is enshrined in Israel’s basic laws, but the fight is only beginning. The NGO Nivcharot is also currently working to end the ban on women running for Knesset in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, and a new female party, Kol Hanashim, is working to earn a spot in the Knesset to advance the interests of women, but far more work is to be done to advance gender equality in Israel.
Women shouldn’t lead simply because they happen to be women, and quotas on the basis of any specific characteristics are not enough to solve the root of the problem societally. I believe that political leaders should be chosen based on their expertise and leadership qualities (among other things), but the fact that not a single party list has a female leader in a country where the population is 50.7% female, and women are highly educated and working in nearly every sector, is not a good indication of the current situation in society. As Israelis, we can and must do more.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.