Haredi Party Agrees to Remove Anti-women Rule, but Says Nothing Will Change

Women's groups that petitioned High Court push for formal ruling after Agudat Yisrael asserted that its membership policy is still determined by sages’ council

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of the Agudat Yisrael faction within the United Torah Judaism party in Israel's Knesset, March 25, 2018.
Marc Israel Sellem

The ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party informed the High Court of Justice on Monday that it will eliminate the clause in its charter that prevents women from becoming members.

But the party also clarified that no change would occur in practice because its Council of Torah Sages, the highest authority when it comes to determining party policy and its Knesset slate, still opposes allowing women to be members.

The Haredi party submitted its response to the High Court after a petition was filed three years ago by attorney Tamar Ben-Porat, together with 10 local women’s organizations, against the clause in its regulations that bans women members.

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A month ago, the justices of the Supreme Court who heard the petition recommended that Agudat Yisrael remove the clause, because in any event the party’s charter also includes a different section stipulating that members follow all decisions of the sages’ council. In agreeing to the justices’ recommendation, the party reduced the likelihood that the High Court will issue a precedent-setting ruling against it for discriminating against women.

Agudat Yisrael is one of the two parties making up the United Torah Judaism alliance in the Knesset. Degel Hatorah, Agudat Yisrael’s partner in UTJ, does not have a similar clause in its party charter.

Section 6(a) of Agudat Yisrael’s bylaws states that the party will accept “any Jewish man 18 years and older, who keeps the Torah and commandments,” who is God-fearing and identifies with Agudat Yisrael and its goals.

>> Israel's High Court recommends allowing women to join ultra-Orthodox party

In its statement to the High Court, the party said it would agree to removing the word “‘man,’ if in so doing the [legal] proceedings will come to an end.” But Agudat Yisrael immediately added, however, that this would not lead to any change in the practice of acceptance of members, since anyway all of them must commit to following the dictates of the Council of Torah Sages.

Neta Levy, legal counsel for Itach – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, who along with Prof. Neta Ziv of Tel Aviv University represents the women’s organizations who submitted the petition, said: “Removing the word ‘man’ from the clause in question does not resolve the problem of discrimination against Haredi women and their exclusion from the party and political arena. The declaration that [Agudat Yisrael] does not intend on changing this practice makes the announcement concerning elimination of the clause a deception of both the public and the court. Our demand for changing this part of the charter is fundamental and intended to allow Haredi women to run and be elected in the party’s institutions.”

Despite the Agudat Yisrael announcement, the petitioners plan to ask the High Court to issue a formal ruling on the matter.

The lawyer for the party, Eyal Nun, told the court during the hearing a month ago that the rule banning women from membership is not based on a religious justification, but rather a cultural one, because “no commandment forbids women from being a Knesset member.” But in terms of the Haredi lifestyle, it is inappropriate and a matter of faith, he added.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has stated in the past that the clause in question does indeed discriminate against women – but any intervention or invalidation of it would violate the religious beliefs of the party’s supporters.

A similar petition was filed against Shas, which has a similar bylaw in its charter. However, legal proceedings in that case have been postponed until after a decision is reached with respect to Agudat Yisrael.