Labor Party Chairwoman Merav Michaeli posted two videos for International Women’s Day last week. “You interest me constantly, even if you’re not voting for me,” she says in the first one, citing a litany of wrongs every woman in Israel encounters in their daily life, including the gender wage gap, violence from one’s domestic partner or ex and female high-school students whose shorts are measured at the gate. In the second video she promises to foment a revolution after the March 23 general election.
“Netanyahu, during the coronavirus pandemic, returned women to the kitchen,” Michaeli says. “The Labor Party, in its strategy for exiting the crisis, will carry out a ‘pink-collar revolution,' investing in the women who work as caregivers in Israel: the teachers, nurses, social workers, psychologists in the public service, all the women doing the emotional labor, investing in our society.”
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This is not a new campaign. Michaeli has been identified with these struggles since she first entered the Knesset in 2013. Along with the promotion of substantial legislation and speeches which brought these topics to the Knesset’s agenda, she is known for always using female language in Hebrew, a highly gendered language where the default is male, and for always wearing black (“I want people to take note what I do, not to talk about what I wear”).
Since she won the party’s primary in January there has been a substantial surge in women who say they will vote for Labor. Polls conducted by the party suggest that 50 to 60 percent of its votes will come from female voters. Party officials said this number is in flux, nearing 70 percent in the latest polls, adding that it could also decline.
These polls reveal another interesting fact: Of the female respondents who said they plan to vote for the Labor Party, 39 percent self-identified as at least somewhat religious. (Thirty percent identified as “traditional,” the remainder as religious or Haredi). This is quite different than the party’s typical voters. According to party officials who asked to remain anonymous, this shows that female voters care more about being women than about the communities they belong to. Thus, for example, a woman who said she’d always supported the Haredi party United Torah Judaism tweeted last week that she would go with Michaeli’s feminism this time.
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Michaeli’s campaign schedule has included many meetings with women’s forums. Most of these took place on Zoom, given the pandemic restrictions, and in live broadcasts on the pages of well-known bloggers. On Saturday she attended an in-person women’s forum at Kibbutz Hazorea. She also gives many interviews to Haredi media outlets, such as the Srugim website and TV Channel 20, which don’t exactly cater to Labor’s target audience. She believes than in every sector there are people who identify with her ideas, say associates.
The reasons for this rallying of female voters to the Labor Party are threefold: Michaeli’s election as chairwoman, the reputation she has created for herself over the years and the vacuum in parties that have no women in leadership positions.
Michaeli’s campaign was adapted to the growing interest shown by women from across the political spectrum. Whereas in contending for party leader she emphasized her leadership qualities, last week she revealed her party’s flagship program, which focuses on improving the lives of Israeli families.
The program, “A house of equality,” includes one year of egalitarian parental leave, the coordination of school vacations with parents’ work schedules and a shortening of the work week. These initiatives require hefty government funding, but Michaeli believes the money could come from allocations for the promotion of political agendas. According to a source within the Labor Party’s election campaign, “The feminine sentiment works because in Merav’s case it’s genuine. Things she said 20 years ago on these topics, thought to be delusional at the time, are now seen as self-evident.”
Meretz party, which has been carrying the feminist banner for years, is worried about losing female voters to Labor. A source in Meretz told Haaretz that many female Meretz voters are shifting their support to Michaeli. Party polls show that whereas in the past, most (60-65 percent) Meretz voters were female, since Michaeli became the head of the Labor Party, Meretz voters are now skewing male.
Labor Party officials say that over the past few weeks they have picked up female voters who were previously leaning toward Yesh Atid. Figures in Yesh Atid dismissed the claim. They showed Haaretz data indicating that since January there has been an 8.7 percent increase in the number of women saying they would vote for Yair Lapid’s party. “Yesh Atid’s slate has a majority of women in slots likely to make it into the Knesset, with three women in the top five spots,” said a source in the party. “Orna Barbivai (No. 2 on the slate) is a groundbreaking woman, as are Karin Elharrar (No. 4) and Merav Cohen (No. 5). With all due respect to Merav Michaeli, there’s no competition.”
In the time that remain before Election Day, the Labor Party says it will maintain the principles that have characterized its campaign until now. The polls that predicted the party’s total collapse have turned around, giving the party six Knesset seats, on average. Michaeli’s associates are not worried about Lapid siphoning off votes, as he did in previous elections. “Lapid doesn’t want to present himself as someone contending with Netanyahu in order to blur intrigues,” said a Labor source. “We can only benefit from this and get Knesset seats from people saying that this time they’ll vote from their hearts.”