Israel’s Year of the Woman

Female politicians are one of the only new forces giving life to Israel’s election season.

Labour party candidate Stav Shaffir
Labour Party candidate Stav Shaffir pictured in Tel Aviv, Israel, in December 2012.

Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

TEL AVIV, Israel—On a warm Sunday evening in the central coastal city of Herzliya, at a bar called Dolly Parton—“drinking 9 to 5”—Stav Shaffir is holding a forum with voters. Shaffir, the youngest female Knesset member in Israel’s history, was the breakout star of the 2011 social protest movement and the Labor Party’s new shining light. Every table is taken, and the crowd is noticeably younger than at most gatherings associated with the left in Israel these days. On the one hand, this might just be because of the alcohol, but more importantly, Shaffir is one of a number of passionate and provocative women giving life to what is otherwise a campaign without content.

“In the Labor election, party members decided to give women very important seats—three women in the top five of the Labor Party,” Shaffir told me when I spoke with her outside after the event. “It’s a wonderful change, since in the last Knesset, women were less than a quarter of the Knesset and there are parties that still don’t have any women in their party lists. The more of us there are in important places, giving an example to women, the faster the change will come.”

In this election, on the left and right, women are in prominent spots on party lists. The Zionist Union—the joint list of Labor and Hatnua—has four women in its Top 10: Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich, Merav Michaeli, and Shaffir. Zehava Gal-On, Michal Rozin, and Tamar Zandberg hold three of the top five spots on Meretz’s list. On the right, Yisrael Beiteinu has Orly Levy-Abekasis—daughter of the former foreign minister David Levy—in its No. 2 spot while secular Tel Avivi Ayelet Shaked is third on the Jewish Home’s list and an integral part of their efforts to reach beyond its national-religious settler base.

“I think it’s a process,” Michaeli told me, noting that Livni might have become prime minister in 2008 but she was in effect blocked by Shas, the Sephardic Haredi party founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In 2013, three parties had female leaders: Labor with Yachimovich, Hatnua with Livni, and Meretz with Gal-On. “Even though none of them seemed like a viable candidate for prime minister, still, it was a change. This time, we have very prominent female members of Knesset out front on the left and right. There’s a greater presence of women in politics.”

The 2009 election that followed Livni’s failed attempt to form a government the year earlier demonstrated the importance of the relationship between women in politics and female voters. With Livni at the top of the ticket, Michaeli explained that women came out in droves to back her specifically, not just the ideology she espoused. Her Kadima party ended up winning the election with one more seat than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, whose support in that election came mostly from men. Female voters, then, could be mobilized for the right female candidate and in 2015, the parties—those with democratic primaries and lists chosen exclusively by the party leader—are finally catching up to the voting public.

The rise of women in Israeli politics now is tied to the quality and ability of the candidates breaking through, and the compelling nature of their voices that chime with the Israeli public at a time when the main male candidates—Netanyahu and the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog—are less than inspiring. Michaeli and Yachimovich both come from backgrounds in journalism and social activism. Yesh Atid’s Yael German dedicated herself during her tenure in the Ministry of Health to improving the legal status of Israel’s LGBTQ citizens. Levy-Abekasis is recognized as one of the most effective legislators in the Knesset, while Shaked and the Likud’s Miri Regev are outspoken on security and the Palestinian issue from a distinctively right-wing perspective.

“No party belongs in the Knesset if it doesn’t have representation of women,” Ksenia Svetlova, an Arab affairs reporter for the Russian-language Channel 9, told me. Svetlova is running for office for the first time in this election on the Zionist Union’s list. “I have had offers from other political parties since 2006, but I cannot agitate people to vote for something I do not believe in,” Svetlova told me. “I guess they needed to scout some famous people and did not care much about whether that person would identify with their goals. It was not the case with Livni. She knew who I am and I knew who she was.”

Svetlova was given a reserved slot (for candidates selected at the party leader’s discretion) on the Zionist Union list by Livni and feels that this faction is best placed to deal with the economic problems that are sharply felt by the Russian-language community, including housing and the cost of living. “It would not be fair to say that women in the Russian-speaking community have not been represented until now, but they were represented by parties who did not do anything to improve their situation,” she said, with reference to Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-nationalist faction led by Avigdor Lieberman often characterized as the “Russian party.” “[They] have been sitting in the government in one way or another for 16 years but people see that there are no results on the ground.”

It should be said that not all parties running in this election made an effort to have women be well-represented on their tickets. While the Likud has Regev in fifth place on its list, following the party’s primary, its final slate was noteworthy if only for its male dominance. In order to further increase the representation of women in Israeli politics, Shaffir, Michaeli, and Svetlova all told me they support the idea of quotas based upon gender that would apply to all parties (although Shaffir backs it only as a temporary measure).

“I presented legislation that would make it mandatory that every party who wants to run for Knesset have two women for every five seats” on the party list, Michaeli said. “Fifteen male members of Knesset and all the female members of Knesset signed—all but the members of the Jewish Home, which is amazing to me since it’s a form of betrayal to their Haredi sisters fighting in order to get access to the political world.”

Indeed, the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties—Shas and United Torah Judaism—currently prohibit women from becoming elected members of Knesset. This exclusion is a growing cause of discomfort within the Haredi community, which is partly internal and also influenced by ideas of Orthodox feminism imported from the United States. In this election, that discontent has manifest itself in the form of a new party: U’Bizchutan, the first ever Haredi party for women.

The place of women within Orthodoxy is not only an issue for Orthodox women but for all Israeli women due to the Orthodox monopoly on religious life. The Orthodox establishment in Israel has full control over marriages and divorces conducted between Jews, as well as the rabbinical courts that hear divorce proceedings. Michaeli, Svetlova, and Zandberg all believe that the Orthodox monopoly is a main factor that contributes to female inequality and disadvantage within Israeli society.

“We do not have civil marriage in Israel, which is a huge issue for women’s rights, when women are totally dependent on religious law and men who are the exclusive judges of their fate,” Michaeli said, who has a proposal that the state become the sole registrar of marriage in Israel.

“The phenomenon of the agunot is horrific,” Svetlova told me. An agunah is a chained woman, unable to obtain a bill of divorce, or get, from her husband. “It’s our duty to fight against this. We need to promote legislation that will not allow any man to dictate that someone should stay forcefully in an unwanted marriage. The matrimonial laws that exist right now humiliate women.”

Although it is the factor that is most uniquely Israeli, the Orthodox monopoly is not the only cause of gender inequality here. “There are many issues and many of them are connected to each other,” Zandberg told me. “The inequality in wages is strongly connected to sexual harassment in the workplace because research has shown that sexual harassment is the main block that stops women from getting promoted. And, you cannot detach poverty from that, because when a woman is a single mother, she is taking care of her children, making a living, and is underprivileged in her alimony.”

Closing the gap between men and women in Israeli society will require greater cooperation between political parties on core economic issues, which Zandberg told me is absent in the Knesset at the moment, while Michaeli said that currently the public discourse doesn’t allow space to discuss gender issues over national and religious ones. Established female legislators in prominent positions in political parties on the left and right give hope, however, that something serious might be accomplished in the 20th Knesset.