The Israeli ultra-Orthodox Women Fighting for the Right to Party (Politically)

The Haredi Agudath Israel party forbids women from becoming members, but this week a group of activist groups is hoping the High Court will force it to accept female candidates

Hassia Schiffman. "If Israel is a democratic state, the High Court must ensure that women have representation even in ultra-Orthodox parties."
Meged Gozani

Hassia Schiffman will travel to the High Court of Justice on Wednesday for its hearing on a petition against the Agudath Israel party’s bylaws, which forbid women to be party members. “I want our voice to be heard,” Schiffman says. “If Israel is a democratic state, the High Court must ensure that women have representation even in ultra-Orthodox parties. It doesn’t matter one bit that they believe they’re working for the general welfare.”

Jewish law (or halakha) does not explicitly ban women from serving in leadership roles, adds fellow activist Bracha Davidowitz. “This stereotype must be exploded as quickly as possible,” she says.

But Agudath Israel – one of two parties comprising the United Torah Judaism ticket in the Knesset – will argue in court that the justices shouldn’t intervene in its bylaws because of the need to respect a minority’s “cultural difference.”

The petition, filed by Tamar Ben-Porat, has been joined by 10 women’s organizations and has also attracted support from ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) women like Schiffman and Davidowitz.

Some of these women are considering running in next year’s local elections and, should the court rule against the discriminatory bylaw, this could give them a boost in their uphill struggle to get women into Haredi politics. Several ultra-Orthodox women previously tried to run in the 2013 local elections. But after being denounced and threatened, almost all withdrew their candidacies.

Since the petition was filed two years ago, examples of women’s exclusion from the public space have multiplied – due in part to governmental cooperation, as evidenced by several gender-separated courses run by the government and plans to expand gender-separated programs in higher education. And last Thursday, Haaretz reported that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said during a discussion with lawmakers that the religious community’s demand for gender segregation should be respected.

The Justice Ministry insists that its policy on women’s exclusion hasn’t changed. But the tone, especially from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, has clearly become more conciliatory.

Agudath Israel’s response to the petition argued that “public activity by women – which is desirable, essential and welcomed – ought to focus on and be conducted through women’s organizations within the movement, not in the political party framework.”

This view, it added, stems from “a cultural worldview that is indeed different from the view accepted by much of the non-Haredi public in Israel.” Furthermore, anyone who dislikes the party’s approach is welcome to found or join a different one.

The party also argued that “the right to equality actually requires recognition of Agudath Israel’s right to set internal restrictions on its membership, even if they seem discriminatory to an outsider.” Consequently, overturning this rule “would infringe on the fundamental right of freedom of religion, because our cultural standpoint that women shouldn’t be involved in public party activities is an inseparable part of the religious beliefs and values of the party’s supporters.”

UPHILL STRUGGLE? Two ultra-Orthodox women and their children in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, May 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Esty Shushan, co-founder and co-leader of an ultra-Orthodox women’s party called Nivcharot, rejects this stance. “Ultra-Orthodox society isn’t like it was in the previous century,” she says. “Women work in a variety of fields, and there’s no connection between women’s exclusion from decision-making centers and ultra-Orthodox culture.” There’s a place for multicultural sensitivity, Shushan adds, but not in official institutions like the Knesset and the political parties that sit in it.

State discrimination

In this respect, Mendelblit’s brief to the court – which said the bylaw is discriminatory but the court shouldn’t intervene – raises a suspicion of discrimination under state auspices. That is also the view of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: A month ago, it wrote that the ultra-Orthodox parties’ bylaws violate both the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and the Basic Law on the Knesset. But Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor sides with Mendelblit.

Estee Rieder-Indursky, Nivcharot’s other co-leader, said that Palmor recently asked her and Shushan why they insist on changing the ultra-Orthodox parties’ bylaws. “I explained to her that even if there were ultra-Orthodox women in every [other] party, this wouldn’t erase the stain of the fact that the state is permitting two ultra-Orthodox parties to discriminate against women,” Rieder-Indursky recalls. “This isn’t just the problem of a few brave ultra-Orthodox women, but of every woman and man in Israel. This is a situation of flawed democracy.”

Agudath Israel was quick to embrace Mendelblit’s argument that the ban on women being party members is “accepted” in ultra-Orthodox society and is viewed as being “based on halakhic reasons.” But Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Neta Ziv, who demanded that Mendelblit’s office explain the basis for this claim, said she has yet to receive a proper answer.

“Severe discrimination against women’s rights is being grounded on a circular argument that lacks an evidentiary foundation,” wrote Ziv, who is representing the women’s organizations that joined the petition together with lawyer Netta Levi of Itach – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, in a brief submitted to the court.

Moreover, she argued, the fact that women represent the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the World Zionist Organization indicates that an ultra-Orthodox party can find halakhic arguments to justify women participating in its institutions. But while Shas and Agudath Israel are both ultra-Orthodox, the former is Sephardi (descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled Iberia following the Inquisitions) and the latter Ashkenazi.

The women’s organizations that joined the petition – including Kolech, the Israel Women’s Network, WIZO, Na’amat and Al-Tufula – argue that women’s exclusion from Agudath Israel isn’t a religious issue but a secular, civil one, which should be decided in court rather than in synagogue. Just as the employment of municipal rabbis is governed by state law, so a party’s behavior should be subject to oversight by the party registrar. And if the latter refuses to overturn the bylaw, the court should do so in his stead, they say.

“We can’t accept a situation in which women can’t be members of a political party that is subject to state regulation, sits in the legislature and is financed by public funds,” Ziv wrote.

“It’s inconceivable that the court should agree to ‘sacrifice’ ultra-Orthodox women’s right to equality on the altar of multiculturalism and religious sensibilities,” Levi added. “It’s absurd for the state to support the suppression of women’s rights on the grounds that this is the view of members of the ultra-Orthodox community when those members are male only.”

“Women’s voices aren’t heard, only those of the rabbis,” Schiffman agrees. She thinks women’s integration into ultra-Orthodox parties will happen once “the rabbis understand we aren’t coming to break the rules. We want to help the weak female community speak. Women can do just as much as men can.”

Davidowitz says that “beneath the surface, a huge need to make their voices heard is bubbling up among women. A woman can see things from a different, more sensitive angle. Anyone who represents the entire community, which also includes ultra-Orthodox women, can’t neglect this important voice.”

Another ultra-Orthodox activist, who asked that her name not be printed, added, “Women can be trusted to be lawyers and accountants, nor is there any problem with an 18-year-old girl getting married and having a family with eight children. The problem arises only when it comes to the Knesset.”

Like other activists, Shushan doesn’t delude herself that women will suddenly be placed on ultra-Orthodox parties’ Knesset slates, even if the court grants the petition. Party membership, she says, is only the first obstacle to be overcome.

“Until two years ago, the ‘halakha’ was that United Torah Judaism MKs couldn’t serve as ministers,” she notes. “But after the High Court’s ruling on that issue, all that theology melted away. The same will happen with women in ultra-Orthodox parties. Ultimately, this is just a lousy cultural custom that has received state approval.”