Ultra-Orthodox Party Must Accept Female Members, Israel's High Court Rules

Supreme Court president says Agudat Yisrael's charter must be amended to remove all restrictions on women attaining party membership

Members of Agudat Yisrael's Council of Torah Sages in 2015.
Members of Agudat Yisrael's Council of Torah Sages in 2015.Credit: אוליבייה פיטוסי

The High Court of Justice on Thursday validated a compromise ruling ordering an amendment of ultra-Orthodox party Agudat Yisrael’s rules to remove a clause barring women from becoming members ahead of the April 9 Israeli election.

The decision handed down by a five-justice panel headed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, was that the party’s charter be amended within 21 days to remove all restrictions on women attaining party membership.

Thursday’s decision said “there will not be any rules preventing acceptance of a woman as a party member.” It added that “from a legal standpoint the appeal process has been fulfilled.”

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The justices said that if the rules are not amended and any woman is barred from joining the party, she may petition the High Court.

A senior member of Agudat Yisrael said in response that the party “does not discriminate against women and represents them honorably. The failure to place any women on their roster is an outgrowth of an historic decision by the great rabbis since the state’s establishment, and the High Court is aware there is no intention to mend this."

Several of the petitioners to the High Court, in 2017.Credit: אוליבייה פיטוסי

"We shall respect the High Court’s instructions to change the party’s constitution because it’s a matter of semantics that has no practical meaning," he said, adding that "Even the group of women who speak about a lack of womens’ representation in the party know that this won’t change in the decades to come, and still they know that Agudat Yisrael is a party that will see to the needs of all Haredi Jews. We suggest viewing this discussion in proportion as it is a mainly populist discussion without any meaning.”

Attorney Neta Levy, from the organization Itach-Maaki Women Lawyers for Social Justice, who represented the 10 women’s groups along with Professor Neta Ziv said the High Court sends a clear message that it is forbidden for parties to discriminate against women in any political parties in Israel.

"We hope the Haredi parties will carry out the ruling and permit women to run in the coming election,” said Levy.

The party rules currently say that “a member of the party can be: Any Jewish man aged 18 and older, who observes the mitzvot mandated by the Torah.”

In July, The party was asked whether it would agree to erase or amend the clause. A month later it said it would agree to erase the word “man.”

Women’s groups said that amending the clause alone wouldn’t remove the obstacles to integrating women into the party. Therefore the High Court ordered the party to clarify its position.

Last month, the party replied that “with the removal of the word 'man' from paragraph 6a, from the party rules, all technical legal obstacles to women being accepted into the party would be removed.”

At the same time the party made clear that amending that paragraph would not in effect lead to women being accepted as party members.

Agudat Yisrael’s position is that a woman who wants to be a member cannot commit as the rules warrant to act in accordance with Jewish Halacha and the instructions of the Council of Torah Sages.

Women’s groups marked this as an internal contradiction between the party’s positions and asked the court to clarify if a change in the rules would effectively open the gates to women to join the party.

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