Israel's High Court Recommends Allowing Women to Join ultra-Orthodox Party

The change would require the removal of an article in the charter of the Agudat Yisrael party, which is part of the United Torah Judaism alliance

Members of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael in Jerusalem, 2015
Kobi Har Tzvi

After a three-hour hearing, the High Court of Justice proposed to the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael that it allow women to join the party and participate in local and national elections.

The change would require the removal of an article in the charter of Agudat Yisrael, a component of the United Torah Judaism alliance.

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The justices’ proposal came in response to a statement from the party’s lawyer, Eyal Nun, who said that in any event the party’s charter included a different section requiring all party members to follow all decisions of the party’s Council of Torah Sages: “They do not view political activity by women favorably,” he told the High Court. In response, Justice Hanan Melcer made the suggestion that the party agree to removing the section banning women from membership.

Agudat Yisrael is to file its response to the court within a month. The case is one in which two fundamental rights —  freedom of religion and the right to gender equality — are in conflict.

If the party accepts the High Court’s proposal, the court will not have to rule on the question. One of the petitioners in the case, attorney Tamar Ben Porat, objected to the technical compromise proposed by the High Court.

Ten women’s organizations joined Ben Porat in petitioning the High Court. They are not asking to ban the party or revoke its state funding, but instead to order the specific section of the charter keeping women from being party members illegal and remove it.

A similar petition was filed against Shas, which has a similar clause in its charter, and the hearings in this case has been postponed until after a decision is reached in the Agudat Yisrael case.

Degel Hatorah, Agudat Yisrael’s partner in United Torah Judaism, does not have a similar clause in its party charter.

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The lawyer for the party said the clause banning women form membership is not based on a religious justification, but a cultural one because “no commandment forbids women from being a Knesset member.” But in terms of the Haredi lifestyle, it is inappropriate, said Nun.

The Haredi lifestyle sees a woman as a leader, of higher importance than the man, whose activities in private and also public matters does not need to be expressed on the political level because it is inappropriate, it is a matter of deep faith.”

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who headed the panel along with four male justices, asked: “What is inappropriate about it?”  
Nun said it is the worldview of the Orthodox movement in which the way the political system operates is inappropriate for a woman.

“She can participate in public, not political, activity,” Nun told the court. Hayut did not accept this and asked again what is inappropriate about a woman being involved in politics?

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told the High Court that the clause excludes women and harms the equality and political rights of women, but still is of the opinion that the clause is legally valid because outlawing it would harm the religious beliefs of the party’s supporters. The representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office compared the situation to that of a private contract in which the public is not harmed — and the justices criticized this position.