It was the strangest press conference in the history of Haredi politics. In the foyer of a building in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim industrial quarter, a table had hastily been set up, with a cloth too small to cover its bare boards. In the background stood a portrait of the party's late founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, held up by a metal ladder and some flags of Israel (a strange departure for an ultra-Orthodox party), and on a second table refreshments had been laid out - biscuits and mineral water.
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But it wasn't the makeshift manner of the event that made it so incongruous. For behind the table, facing the media, sat party leader Aryeh Deri, and by his side was a woman.
The fact that Adina Bar-Shalom, eldest daughter of Rabbi Yosef, head of the first academic college for ultra-Orthodox women, wife of a senior Dayan (rabbinical judge) and prominent social activist, was about to take part in the press conference gave rise to a flurry of wild rumors. Deri was going to try and deflect attention away from the deflection of Shas' number two politician, Eli Yishai, by announcing that Bar Shalom would be joining the party's list and run for the next Knesset.
None of the Haredi parties have placed a woman on their lists. It would be unthinkable in a community where a woman's role is strictly outside the public's view and the politicians are all officially shluchei de'rabanan – “messengers of the rabbis.” Having Bar Shalom as a candidate would be a massive departure from the norm, an earthquake not only in political terms, but a signal of major change within ultra-Orthodox society. It was not to be.
In the glare of the television cameras, Bar-Shalom beside Deri seemed shrunken and resigned. Over the last year she had spoken of the importance of having a Haredi woman in the Knesset and the offer of an attractive spot on the list of Moshe Kahlon's new social affairs-orientated party, Kulanu, was an open secret. Now she was reduced to presenting her new position within Shas as the joint chairwoman, together with Deri's wife, Yafa, of a Shas women's forum as a breakthrough. "It is in the forefront," she protested when asked by reporters. "Why do you say it's behind the scenes? Nothing will be behind the scenes. We are standing straight, advising the Shas leadership."
Yet there is nothing new about a "women's forum." Shas in the past had separate women headquarters, headed by the party leaders; wives, whose role was to ensure that women would come and vote. The only innovation this time is that the new forum is supposed to have a role in the "advancement of Haredi women," whatever that is supposed to mean. Sources close to Bar Shalom said that her main concern was that if she broke with the party and joined Kahlon, the Haredi college, her proudest achievement, would lose the approval of the rabbis and many ultra-Orthodox women would be reluctant to enroll. Faced with that implied (or perhaps even implicit) threat, Bar Shalom had little choice but to sit as a hostage with Deri and call him "the successor of my father."
In subsequent interviews, she explained that she "was returning home to work from within" but had trouble explaining why it was good enough to run as a candidate of a secular party but not on the list of the movement her father founded.
Recordings of angry accusations made recently by Bar-Shalom against the Deri couple have emerged since the press conference, indicating that any cooperation between the two chairwomen of Shas' women's forum is unlikely. As it is there isn't any party leadership to advise. The death of Rabbi Yosef last year has underlined how the ultra-Orthodox community lacks today a clear rabbinical leadership. The Deri-Yishai split has been on the cards for years, but it could only take place now, without a rabbi with the authority to order them to bury their differences, as Yosef did.
Shas appointed a new president to its Council of Torah Sages following Rabbi Yosef's death. But the new "spiritual leader" of the party, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, is a foul-mouthed head of a religious seminary who recently attacked academic programs for Haredi students, has few admirers and no public appeal. The only reason for his appointment was that he is a Deri loyalist. The leadership vacuum at the top of the Haredi world means that Shas will not be able to simply place in its television ads and mass rallies, a rabbi followed by an elderly kabbalist sage who will exhort the faithful to vote and promise them all the blessings of heaven and earth.
The other ultra-Orthodox party, Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism, an amalgam of Hassidic and "Lithuanian" sects has also been rocked by a split in the Degel Ha'Torah faction following the death of the Posek Ha'Dor (arbiter of the generation), Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, two years ago. Followers of one of the faction's elderly rabbis, Shmuel Orbach, broke away and formed a separate party in last year's local elections. They may not do so in these Knesset elections but it is clear that the word of the rabbis is no longer sufficient for many of the younger generation of the Haredi community in the privacy of the voting booth. One symptom of the waning of the rabbis' power is the high visibility of ultra-Orthodox activists in political events of non-Haredi parties, particularly Likud.
The rabbis are still powerful enough, however, to prevent women from running. In another blow to the standing of Haredi women, the "spiritual leader" of Yishai's new party, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, made it clear in an interview on Wednesday that he will not be breaking the taboo and now Israel has a third party which bans female candidates from its list.
Whether due to pioneers like Bar-Shalom or sheer financial necessities, many ultra-Orthodox women today are better educated than their husbands and are the principal bread-winners in their households. A group of Haredi professional women launched last week a Facebook campaign calling upon ultra-Orthodox voters to boycott parties which are not fielding female candidates. As of Wednesday afternoon, they have received over 4,700 "likes," but it's impossible to know how many of these were from within the community or outside supporters and even after the elections, it will be very difficult to assess how many women voted against the directions of their rabbis. But the fact that they are speaking out in open is a significant development.