yosef - Michal Fattal - May 18 2011
Ruth Kolian does not agree that the ban on ultra-Orthodox women entering politics is part of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's legacy. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef supports integrating women into religious councils, according to Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi (Shas ). Margi declared he "will act to improve representation of women in the makeup of religious councils appointed in the future."

Margi made the written statement in response to a report about his ministry that criticized the negligible proportion of women serving on appointed religious services bodies in locales around the country. The minister wrote that in light of instructions from his spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, he would act to improve the situation, but added that the law does not permit him to impose the appointment of women.

The report by the non-profit organization Hiddush - for Religious Freedom and Equality was submitted to the minister in March. It deals with the rate of integration of women in the religious councils in Israel 23 years after the precedent-setting High Court decision to allow women to serve on religious councils. The petition was initiated by Leah Shakdiel, in 1988, when then-religious affairs minister Zevulun Hammer (of the now defunct National Religious Party ) refused to recognize her election to the religious council in Yeruham. The High Court ruling prohibited discrimination against women in elections to religious councils.

But according to the Hiddush report, the proportion of women on religious councils has increased at a snail's pace over the years; in February there were only 22 women among the 450 members of religious councils - or 5 percent. No religious council is chaired by a woman.

In his response to the report Margi said the number of women appointed during his term in office is 26, and that such a high number "has never been appointed in all the history of the ministry in all its incarnations over the years." According to the minister, he instructs the local councils and the municipal rabbis - the electors of the councils - to act to appoint women. He added that "this instruction accords with the opinion of the First in Zion Rabbi Ovadia Yosef." In this context, he writes that the law does not enable him to impose his opinion and his ability to intervene in the considerations of the local bodies that select the council is "very limited."

Appointment of women is just one of the controversial issues concerning the religious councils. The biggest dispute is over the question of whether the existence of the councils is even necessary. The issue has arisen with greater intensity over the past year, as Shas has energetically engaged in appointing paid members to religious councils in dozens of locales, nearly always according to party considerations. This is done in accordance with the law allowing the minister to appoint a religious council head in any locale where this has not been done by one year after the municipal election.

Shas sources say the appointments to the religious councils are done in accordance with the law.

Hiddush director Reform Rabbi Uri Regev welcomed "the breakthrough in the positions of the leader of Shas and the minister of religious services," but he believes "Shas still sees women as ornamental and not as partners to decision-making, and the religious establishment has yet to internalize the principle of the equal status of women.

"The legal obligation to appoint women to public positions must be implemented de facto and not just as a fig leaf," said Regev. "Hiddush and other organizations will petition the courts if the minister and the attorney general do not implement the instructions in the law concerning gender equality."