Sexism Marked Campaign, Despite All the Talk of Female Representation

A prime minister’s wife under fire in his place, female MKs in the line of fire, sexist campaigns, few women in the parties, but also a new party of ultra-Orthodox women.

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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MKs Ayelet Shaked and Orit Strock at the Knesset Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
MKs Ayelet Shaked and Orit Strock at the Knesset Wednesday, December 4, 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitussi
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

There has been a lot of talk about the representation of women during the present election campaign. However, according to the most recent polls, there will probably be only 27 female lawmakers in the next Knesset – the same number as in the outgoing Knesset. This is still only 22.5 percent of the 120 MKs, representing an Israeli population that is 51 percent female.

Only one party has a woman solely at its head: Meretz (led by Zehava Galon). Two parties, meanwhile, have women in the second spot: Zionist Union has Tzipi Livni (followed by Shelly Yacimovich), while Yisrael Beiteinu has Orli Levi-Abekasis.

But in addition to talk about representation, the campaign saw mostly a lot of sexism. For example, the Likud video clip “You chose Bougie, you’re stuck with Tzipi,” starring pizza and a cardboard cutout of Livni. Good taste prevents us from adding anything here.

The heads of the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog and Livni, provided untold amounts of material for somewhat Neanderthal campaigns, whether by presenting themselves as two women (how we laughed!), or as a romantic couple, and more.

An especially repellent example was the ad for a rock concert, in which a derogatory caricature of Habayit Hayehudi’s Ayelet Shaked appeared under the headline, “An evening to beat young women” (which is a terrible pun in Hebrew).

The lead singer from one of the rock bands told the press that it was a response to Habayit Hayehudi’s position against gay people. This is sad: Habayit Hayehudi really is a frighteningly homophobic party, worthy of condemnation and even disgust over its positions (and others). However, this does not give anyone the right to act in a sexist manner toward one of its female candidates (Shaked is also third on its Knesset list).

If we imagine a target at which arrows being aimed at women are shot, then slap bang in the middle – as always – is the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu.

Years ago, I wrote that the attitude toward her was infected with misogyny. I must confess that, in light of the abundance of stories about her, after a while I started to doubt myself and wondered whether maybe there was something to it all. But regardless of what her words and actions may be, there is no excuse whatsoever why the woman who is married to the lousy prime minister, a man in office for way too long, should be subjected to so much vitriol in place of her husband.

These are just a few examples of the overall public debate, which can only be described as being violent toward women.

And the violence does not end with just talk, as the attack on MK Haneen Zoabi (the voodoo doll of Jewish Israelis) of the Joint List of Arab parties and her party spokeswoman, Emilie Moatti, proved.

Then there is MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), the outgoing chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, who can be credited with significant action on women’s issues, yet was recently attacked at a conference by divorced fathers.

Still, let us move onto happier topics. Truly heartwarming. The dramatic innovation of this campaign is, of course, Uvizchutan, the party of ultra-Orthodox women headed by Ruth Colian. Even though, regretfully, it seems the party will not pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset, it is still an important and historic precedent.

In the meantime, the three ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas, United Torah Judaism and Eli Yishai’s Yahad party – do not have a single female candidate. This is no big surprise. However, what was more surprising was the possibility (or not, as many skeptics thought) of a change within Shas, headed by Arye Dery: Specifically, the founding of an advisory council of women, led by Adina Bar Shalom (the daughter of Shas’ spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), along with her many worthy colleagues in social activism – including feminists – which offers the hope, which we hope bears fruit, of an alternative.

An absurd expression of the mess that this created was Dery’s protest at the lack of Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) women on the list of people honored this year by the city of Tel Aviv: The protest itself is absolutely justified, but is Dery – the head of a party without any women candidates – the right person to voice the protest?

This Shas paradox is one of the many that appeared during the election campaign. Another was provided by the Joint List, which brought us feminist candidates such as Zoabi (from the Balad faction) and Aida Touma-Suliman (Hadash), alongside a bigamist, Talab Abu Arar (United Arab List), who is married to two women.

It is equally amazing what is happening within Yisrael Beiteinu: The combination of the leader of this party, Avigdor Lieberman, and his number two, Levi-Abekasis, is simply unbelievable.

Among the different slates, Meretz has the highest percentage of women placed high enough on the list to most likely enter the Knesset (based on the prediction polls): 60 percent (three women in the first five places). Next comes Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, with 37 percent of women candidates in spots that could realistically see them elected. Yesh Atid has 30 percent, and far behind are Habayit Hayehudi (18 percent) and the Joint List (16.6 percent), and then Likud (only 13.6 percent). Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid have moved in reverse in their female representation when compared to the present Knesset. Zionist Union has presented a nice slate with four women in its top 10 places. Likud, by comparison, has embarrassed itself, with only one female candidate in its top 20 places.

Appropriate representation by female lawmakers may not guarantee legislation that benefits women. After all, even male Knesset members can promote the interests of women, and there are some among them who do so. It is not enough to count heads – it also matters whose heads they are, both men and women. Nonetheless, the fact that we have gotten used to half the population always receiving tiny representation in our government is a scandal and needs urgent correction.

Women must fill half the seats in the Knesset and the cabinet, as in other centers of decision making. It is also extremely desirable that many of them are feminists. It is essential that there be a diversity of populations: Not just well-off Ashkenazim and heterosexual women, but also Mizrahim, Arabs, Ethiopians, lesbians and transgenders. The time has come – it came a long time ago, in fact.

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