What Not to Wear in the Knesset: Michelle Obama-style Sleeveless Dress Stirs Controversy

Some of the outfits that male Knesset members have worn over the years would hardly pass the test of good taste in many Western countries. So why is Tamar Zandberg under fire for wearing a crisp, albeit sleeveless dress?

The first lady of fashion: Michelle Obama at an official White House function.
The first lady of fashion: Michelle Obama at an official White House function. Credit: AP

Can a female politician hope to command power and respect while wearing a sleeveless dress?

Believe it or not, amidst all of the serious issues Israelis must wrestle with this summer, from the Iran deal debate to the precarious health of a Palestinian hunger striker, the appointment of a controversial ambassador to the UN – that is what has become a hot topic.

MKs Tamar Zandberg (right) and Stav Shaffir at the Knesset. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The controversy around the attire of Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg did begin as a substantive discussion. Zandberg became an overnight feminist folk hero when a YouTube video of a session of the Knesset Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse featured her, the committee chair, standing up to Anti-Drug Authority head Zvi Hendel. As Zandberg asked him questions regarding charges that he overstepped his authority regarding the paid leave of the authority’s director-general, Hendel slumped forward like a sullen schoolboy, refusing to answer her questions. His responses alternated between mumbles and an angry challenge of her legitimacy in her job, saying that he didn’t view a politician who supported the legalization of marijuana as fit for the position.

Without losing her composure, Zandberg calmly but sharply told him that if he had any issues with her appointment, they were to be taken up with those who put her in her position, but that she was to be treated with respect. After he went a step further than ignoring and denouncing her – but mocking her, she dismissed him from the room. "I have never in my life seen someone demonstrate such chauvinistic and disregarding behavior towards a committee chair and I am telling you to leave,” she said. Zandberg added that disrespect towards her as an elected official was disrespect for the public.

Like Labor MK Stav Shaffir before her, the footage of a young woman politician exercising power and refusing to be dismissed turned Zandberg into an Internet rock star.

But then the conversation took its bizarre detour towards the sartorial. Hila Kobu, a female columnist for the Walla News website authored an Op-Ed “Why Did a Knesset Committee Chair Come to Work With Bare Shoulders?” arguing that while Hendel’s behavior was inexcusable, Zandberg deserved criticism for her clothing. Her choice of a sleeveless dress that displayed a tattoo she had on her arm may not be the best outfit for chairing a Knesset committee if her goal is to be taken seriously and show respect for religious members of the legislature. It made Kobu “uncomfortable” to see Zandberg facing Hendel with exposed shoulders, in “some kind of a tank top” with her tattoo exposed and looked “strange” and “rebellious.” Kobu widened her criticism beyond Zandberg to all women in workplace settings who use the summer heat as an excuse to show up in tank tops and flip flops, not because of comfort, she charged but a desire to be seen as fashionable and sexy.

The responses to Kobu came fast and furious, most prominently a piece in Haaretz in Hebrew “What Do You Want from MK Zandberg? Powerful Women Go Sleeveless” illustrated with photographs of powerful women around the world who command authority while showing their arms, led, naturally, by First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been a trendsetter in making toned upper arms a status symbol.

Here’s the thing: those who criticize Zandberg’s clothing – might actually have a point if any real dress code or tradition of formal and respectful attire in the Knesset existed. As anyone familiar with the Knesset knows, clothing that its male members have worn over the years would hardly pass the test of good taste in many Western countries. The tradition of Ben-Gurion set is, well, schlumpy. While the clothing of male members has improved over the years nobody modeled a better example of the old-fashioned unkempt look that better than Zandberg’s nemesis, Zvi Hendel, who sat across from her in a wrinkled shirt hanging outside his jeans, sandals on his feet – no suit, no tie. One could easily argue that his appearance showed as much disrespect as Zandberg’s – if not more. She, at least, was crisp and well-groomed a gold necklace accessorizing her beige dress. Zandberg’s attire was no different than that of many professional women in countries when the temperature hovers around 40 degrees Celsius.

David Ben Gurion meets with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer,1966.Credit: Shalom Buchbinder / Kibbutz Sde Boker Archives

Perhaps, despite the sweltering temperatures, the Knesset should make it fair by requiring both men and women to wear suits while carrying out their parliamentary duties? Such a rule would solve the dual problems of making the men look classier and covering up women’s shoulders. But in Israel, the idea of stepping into the minefield of dictating to elected officials what they can and can’t wear is dangerous – recently, let’s not forget, there was a slugfest over a kaffiyeh in the Knesset.

No – from bare shoulders to wrinkled shirts to kaffiyehs to black suits and wide-brimmed hats – it’s best to let the Knesset members wear what they see fit, reflecting the diverse and feisty populations they represent, even at the cost of a little discomfort. But when it comes to their behavior, no such diversity should be permitted: No matter what the gender, religion or choice of outfit, our lawmakers need to treat one another the way their citizens should – with respect.

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