“I don’t matter to Knesset members,” says Elana Sztokman in a campaign video for the new women’s party she just co-founded. She rattles off a list of issues that she says are routinely ignored by lawmakers – from gender issues to education and health care, to the women murdered by boyfriends and relatives. “Do you feel like you also don’t matter? Join us,” she concludes.
The “us” she is referring to is Kol Hanashim (“Voice of Women”), the new party she created with a group of women from across Israel’s political and ethnic spectrums to run in the upcoming election on March 2.
From religious right-wing settlers to left-wing secular Jews, from Israelis of Ethiopian descent to Arab citizens and transgender women, they are united in their determination to bring women’s voices and influence into Israel’s corridors of power, for the good of all Israelis.
Golda Meir, Israel’s first – and only – female prime minister, is often touted as an example that women can succeed in the political system here. But Meir came to power over 50 years ago, and was not known for advancing a feminist agenda or bringing other women into the political fold.
The women behind Kol Hanashim are also quick to capitalize on the ongoing squabbling between the male-dominated mainstream parties that has led to the country’s unprecedented third election in less than a year. “Want to end the political stalemate? Women are the solution!” is one of their key battle cries on the campaign trail.
“Our No. 1 goal is to help form a government and be part of that government, and when we have that seat at the table, to promote what’s right,” Sztokman tells Haaretz.
What’s right? She answers: A commitment to equality as well as compassion that translates into the party’s core issues, such as equal representation for women in government, promoting equal pay and fighting against violence toward women.
“The status of women in Israel is getting worse and worse,” Sztokman says. “The number of female lawmakers has been decreasing in the Knesset; 19 women were killed last year [in incidents of domestic violence] and no one is discussing it. Women are making 68 agorot [20 cents] on the shekel. All these issues affect women in their everyday lives, and no one I know in the Knesset cares because there are not enough women representatives there to advance this agenda.”
She argues that the few women in the Knesset end up promoting the agendas of male-led parties. And when they do raise matters that are considered “women’s rights issues,” they have no way to really advance them. Instead, they get “punished for caring about women” or pushed out of parties altogether, Sztokman says.
The only party currently headed by a woman is Hayamin Hehadash, with Ayelet Shaked at its helm. (It is part of the Yamina alliance of right-wing parties, headed by Naftali Bennett.) But Kol Hanashim activists say it is not enough to have women in positions of power. Those women, they argue, also have to advance women’s issues.
‘Why waste votes?’
Getting into the Knesset is hard for any new party, especially one that’s considered having a special interest. Historically, most have not succeeded: They must cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote – some 140,000 ballots.
“Why should voters waste their votes?” Army Radio host Razi Barkai asked Mazal Shaul, who heads the Kol Hanashim Knesset slate, on a recent broadcast of his popular morning show.
Shaul answered that voters have been left exhausted and demoralized by the status quo, and that women and men alike are looking for a party to call home. “We represent that – a different kind of leadership,” she told Barkai.
“You may argue it is [the new parties’] right to compete, organize and get elected. But most of the time, such parties are more about wasting votes,” says Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University. However, he adds, “You can argue a woman’s party is justified. Since 2009, female representation in the Knesset has not changed – it’s about one quarter of the Knesset members.”
According to Rahat, the number of female lawmakers remained essentially flat for the first 50 years of Israel's existence, with 12 women elected to the first Knesset in 1949 and 14 elected by 1999.
That number had doubled by March 2015, though, with a record 29 female lawmakers elected to the 21st Knesset. That number eventually climbed to 35, thanks to various male lawmakers being replaced by women – who are generally given lower places on the party slate – during the term. In the most recent election, held in September, 28 women were elected.
Left-wing parties have historically included more women, but those parties have been shrinking over the past decade. In contrast, the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been growing in size, do not have any women on their tickets, despite pressure from some feminist Haredi women to include them.
Kahol Lavan, the centrist party that poses the main challenge to the ruling Likud party, is led by four men, three of them retired army generals. Israel’s militaristic culture, which created a pipeline for retired army officers to become political leaders, has also impacted the role of women in the government – not just as lawmakers but as cabinet ministers.
Neither left nor right
Pamela Becker, 49, doesn’t feel like she’s wasting her vote by supporting Kol Hanashim – or that the votes of anyone she has been soliciting as a campaigner for the party would be wasted, either.
“I’m afraid if everyone votes the same way they did the first two times, there will be no government,” says Becker, who works in the high-tech industry and co-founded Jeremy’s Circle, an Israeli charity supporting children growing up in families coping with cancer or cancer loss.
Activists within Kol Hanashim say that since the party is neither on the left nor the right, it would partner with whichever configuration of parties could most easily form a government, helping to form a coalition and avoid a fourth round of elections.
But Becker says it’s a challenge getting that argument across in a climate where voters are either supporting or trying to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It can be very emotional for people who are voting,” she says. “One of my friends who has a son going into the army says, ‘We cannot do anything that will keep Bibi [Netanyahu] in power.’ So for her, the most important thing is not that women are represented in the government or that social welfare needs are met.”
Becker recently hosted a parlor meeting in her Tel Aviv home, and says the friends and neighbors she invited were impressed by Kol Hanashim’s message. She herself is inspired by the wide range of women running in the party: “What they have in common is they want to raise issues that impact women most and have a voice on how those issues are handled.”
“We are not complaining,” she continues. “We are just saying we deserve a seat at the table, so we are going to come and take it.”