The Knesset secretariat let an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker switch seats during Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony so that he would not have to sit between two women.
The secretariat has always determined seating arrangements, but until now its criteria for doing so never included the gender of the legislators.
While the ceremony was taking place, several human rights groups protested outside the Knesset against “the attempt to form a government with parties that promote hatred of women and the LGBTQ community.”
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The Knesset member in question claimed that his request to switch seats stemmed from considerations of Jewish law. But many religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers do not insist on this, and in any case, the justification seems dubious given that due to the coronavirus regulations, each lawmaker was separated from the others by an empty chair.
Knesset members said this issue has arisen only in the last few years.
The Knesset’s director general, Samy Bakalash, said the legislator “asked that he not be seated between women, and there was no intention of hurting anyone here ... We found another MK who wasn’t bothered by this, and the two changed places.”
The request was approved by the Knesset secretary, Yardena Meller-Horowitz, he added.
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Knesset members’ permanent seat assignments are determined only after a government is formed, based on whether they are part of the coalition or the opposition. But during the swearing-in ceremony, seats assignments are usually based on the size of the party.
Asked whether the Knesset had discussed the lawmake's request not to be seated between two women, Bakalash said, “It’s natural to take a Knesset member’s beliefs into account and to honor them. Our message is one of understanding and respect for everyone.”
He added that the request “didn’t spark any debate. This was done out of love and understanding.”
Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, do not allow women on their tickets, though this rule has been challenged by ultra-Orthodox women and petitions to the High Court of Justice. The fact that the current Knesset also includes the Noam party – which is part of the Religious Zionism joint ticket, but shares many ultra-Orthodox attitudes toward women – will merely intensify the battle over women’s rights and their place in the public arena.
“As long as the law allows women to be treated as a ‘modesty hazard,’ some people will do so,” Labor Party chairwoman Merav Michaeli said Tuesday. “It’s inconceivable that women constitute barely a quarter of Knesset members. It’s inconceivable that parties are entitled to exclude women entirely. We must legislate our equality.”
Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg said this was a “troubling request that attests to growing fundamentalism in the Knesset. There have been ultra-Orthodox and religious people in the Knesset since the founding of the state, but only when Kahanism, chauvinism and LGBT-phobia entered through the front door have requests like this become legitimate.”
Dana Meitav, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, said there is “nothing surprising in this humiliating demand by a Knesset member not to sit between women. This happened at exactly the same time as we were standing outside the swearing-in ceremony to protest the moral low and the real danger of forming a ‘government of hatred.’
“This is a slippery slope that enables people with benighted, unacceptable views to hold their heads high in the Knesset,” she added. “From there, this destructive agenda will continue percolating through the general public.”
Following the March 2019 election, Shas' Michael Malkieli asked to switch seats to avoid sitting next to Likud's Osnat Mark. After this became public knowledge, he claimed that one of his aides had submitted the request – but didn’t retract it.
The Knesset said in a statement that “As in the past, the Knesset secretariat received dozens of requests from various MKs” about the seating arrangements. “Some were accepted and others weren’t. Just as we have in the past, we won’t comment on any specific case.”