About 50 years ago, dozens of female researchers at Newsweek sued their employer for not letting them write for the magazine, keeping them behind the scenes while their male colleagues got the bylines. I’m reminded of this milestone in women’s struggle for equality when Esti Shushan – a cofounder of Nivcharot, a movement that promotes the representation of ultra-Orthodox women in state institutions – recalls her time as a journalist.
“I was writing for Haredi journals at the time,” Shushan says. “Like other Haredi women, I used a pseudonym, E. Shushan. Your editor tells you, ‘If you want to write for the serious sections in the newspaper and for male readers to take you seriously, it’s better if they don’t know that you’re a woman.’ Later, I found out that many of the male names alongside mine in the op-ed section, Menachem or Yossi, actually belonged to women. No one even imagined they were actually women. It got me into thinking about gender, about my role as a woman, and eventually to the understanding that my situation is problematic.”
If you close your eyes and only listen to Shushan and her fellow leaders of Nivcharot – Ester Twersky, Efrat Chocron, Hila Hassan Lefkowitz, Tirtza Bloch and Yael Elimelech – it’s easy to forget that they’re ultra-Orthodox. All of them are mothers in their thirties and forties, and they say they have nothing left to lose. “I’ve been through terrible things,” Shushan says. “My mental health was questioned, my relationships with my husband and my children, too. Nothing is out of bounds for them.”
Even this interview could be used as fodder against the women. “My husband will be summoned to the local welfare office to explain the actions of his promiscuous wife,” says Bloch. “Getting interviewed for Markerweek [the weekend section of Haaretz’s sister business publication, TheMarker] is a vulgar and irresponsible action, and he’ll be called in to answer for it.”
You don’t seem scared.
Bloch: “I was hurt and I cried. Letters were sent to my daughters’ school saying that we were a dangerous and promiscuous family, that I smoke, drink, beat my children and host house parties for secular political parties. But it’s just letters. I went to court and denied it all.”
Hassan Lefkowitz: “What can they do? Expel my kid from school? I’ll register him in a different one. Stop my husband from going to his classes? He’ll find a different rabbi. Make my family and my cousins stop talking to me? Let them. Stop me from coming to my grandmother’s memorial service? So what? I won’t go. What else can they take away? The worse the beating a woman gets from the establishment, the closer she clings to us.”
The women of Nivcharot come from across the country, and some of them originally met online. “Esti and I were active on an anonymous forum,” says Chocron. “It was around the time of the Immanuel affair in 2010, when the Haredi school in [the West Bank settlement of] Immanuel built a barrier to separate Ashkenazi and Mizrahi girls in the schoolyard. I messaged her about it. My avatar was ‘Luna.’”
“Mine was ‘Hester panim,’ which is a Jewish concept for describing times when God conceals his face from us – troublesome times,” says Shushan. “Then they kicked me out of the forum and I used a different avatar. They didn’t like my opinions.”
Though Nivcharot isn’t a movement for Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern descent – or Sephardim – those expelled from Spain and Portugal – and the interviewees stress that some of them are Ashkenazi, the recurrent mentions of the Immanuel affair in our conversation makes it clear that they were motivated at least in part by ethnic discrimination.
But Shushan, who is Mizrahi and attended Ashkenzi schools, said that the struggle isn’t inherently ethnic. “Ashkenazi upper-class women also have problems getting their rights, and their contribution to gender issues is clear. But it’s possible that without the class-religious issue, Nivcharot wouldn’t have come about.”
Sephardi ultra-Orthodox are considered more flexible about assimilation in secular society, while the Ashkenazi Haredim are not. “Maybe Ashkenazi women have more to lose,” says Shushan.
Chocron: “When Ashkenazi matchmakers do background checks, they look way back, all the way to your aunt’s grandmother. So if someone gets involved in women’s rights, it can cause a permanent blot on the family’s reputation. Sephardim only look at the specific woman and her immediate family.”
Shushan: “The Mizrahi-Haredi public is more diverse. You could see a Haredi Zionist, a secular man and a leftist around the same Shabbat table.”
Even a leftist?
Shushan: “Maybe not that many.”
Chocron: “Don’t exaggerate.”
‘The economy is on our shoulders’
Nivcharot was born before the 2013 election. “We didn’t have a grand plan to change the Haredi attitude toward women,” says Shushan. “We didn’t even say, ‘We’re going to get a Haredi woman in the Knesset.’ I called it, ‘If we don’t get voted in, we don’t vote.’ At first they said I was crazy, but many women were interested.”
Their goals became clearer as their research deepened. “Take the issue of women in the job market, for example,” Shushan says. “We’re the economic engine of Haredi society, and it gets us involved in the outside world. We don’t all work in the Haredi education system as teachers and day care managers. I worked in marketing, for instance. The ultra-Orthodox economy is on our shoulders, but our voices aren’t heard – not in the media, not in politics, not in the religious council or the local council. In other societies, your economic status gives you a certain social status as well, but not in a society whose values revolve around Torah study. For Haredi women, that’s a catch: They can be strong and influential, but only in the background.”
Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of the Shas party founder and former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, tried to run for Knesset a year ago with the Ahi party.
“Adina tried to do something different,” says Shushan. “Before she turned to politics, she worked to provide employment alternatives to women who had only worked in education until then. She was a pioneer in opening the fields of psychology and computer science to women. Later, she became a politician who challenged Shas. They said that she wasn’t really Haredi, and they asked what kind of kippa her husband wore. That’s the sort of discourse that develops around anyone who says that something in the system is broken.”
How would you define your demographic?
Chocron: “Our views aren’t mainstream in [Haredi centers like] Bnei Barak and the Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem, but our voice is getting out there. We keep hearing about more people like us: Men and women who are starting to think for themselves instead of blindly following what they were told.”
Hassan Lefkowitz: “There are many names for it: Israeli Haredim, New Haredim or modern Haredim.”
How many women are in the movement?
Shushan: “Hundreds. There’s the leadership groups that go through political training. We’re on our third class, and we already have 50 graduates. And then there’s the people on the Facebook groups.”
Promoting their agenda isn’t easy. “We don’t get a platform on ultra-Orthodox media,” says Chocron. “And when we get attention from the non-Haredi media, they say, ‘They’re not part of us.’ Even the Haredi websites that have a more liberal line depend on the Haredi parties’ fat election budgets, so they can’t publish anything that’s not in the mainstream. We have to come to your office to make our voice heard, because in our environment it’s illegitimate.”
Elimelech: “We’re doing Sisyphean groundwork to change ultra-Orthodox women’s perceptions. We have small rallies, leadership sessions, political house parties. We screen films about women’s empowerment.”
Considering the demographic changes you mentioned, wouldn’t it be profitable, politically speaking, for the ultra-Orthodox parties to include women on their Knesset lists?
Shushan: “We called on people not to vote for them at first. But the truth is that no one would punish her party for not having female representation.”
Chocron: “There’s no alternative. Who will I vote for? Habayit Hayehudi? What do they have to do with me?”
What about Omer Yankelevich, the Haredi woman in Kahol Lavan? Can she get Haredi votes?
Hassan Lefkowitz: “That just goes to show how important it is for Haredi women to run for the Knesset as part of the Haredi parties. Yankelevich can’t push anything in the Haredi agenda without drowning in a sea of criticism. As long as she’s in that party, her hands are tied. She maintains the semblance of neutrality and keeps saying, ‘I’m not representing the Haredim, I represent the Israeli periphery and social organizations.’”
Chocron: “Half of the Haredi parties’ power comes from women. Why shouldn’t women have a share of it? Why should they find another home, which isn’t really theirs? The Haredi lawmakers don’t respect Yankelevich, either.”
Hassan Lefkowitz: “When she addressed the Knesset Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni [of United Torah Judaism] asked his adviser, ‘Who’s talking there?’”
Bloch: “As long as we’re represented by the Haredi parties, we have no representation. If they separate religion and state, God willing, and we’ll have a normal division between right and left, we’ll see.”
Elimelech: “None of us wants to be in the Knesset. We don’t care who’s in the Knesset, as long as she’s in one of the Haredi parties.”
Hassan Lefkowitz: “You have to understand what happens when we need to reach out to our representatives. Women are separated from men from kindergarten. Say that the manager of a domestic violence crisis center for Haredi women wants to talk to a Knesset member. She has to explain to him what kind of problems Haredi women have. We need to have a woman there who understands women’s issues.”
‘The system is collapsing’
What would be on the agenda of an ultra-Orthodox female lawmaker?
Chocron: “When we talk about the need for female representation, the Haredi lawmakers say: ‘We’re already representing you. Don’t you think that I care about my wife? My daughters?’ But here’s a good example: A recent article showed that schools are laying off teachers every summer so they don’t accumulate seniority and benefits. The data from the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that most of the summer layoffs are in the Haredi population, and most of the laid-off teachers are Haredi women.
“These women have a lot to lose if they complain about their employers, who have money and are well-connected. It’s not just their livelihood that’s on the line – they can always contest that in court. It’s that one day they might tell them there’s no room for their children in the school. They’ll harangue their husbands. It’s a phenomenon that our lawmakers aren’t interested in. The heads of the non-profits [that run the schools] are very close with the lawmakers. They run yeshivas and high schools, and their students are guaranteed votes. Why would any lawmaker touch this hot potato?”
Twersky: “I’ve been running day cares for a long time, and I’m in constant contact with mothers on the one hand and caretakers on the other. The price that mothers pay – in stalled careers and in the housework they must do, which no one takes into account – isn’t foreign to me. In some day cares, the caretakers, whom we entrust with our children, have terrible working conditions. The needs of mothers and caretakers are completely clear, [but] they don’t have a seat at the table, and that should be corrected.”
Shushan: “I compare us to the inter-Haredi renegades like the [activists known as the] Jerusalem sect, extremists who say: ‘These parties don’t represent us because we think the conscription law is dangerous.’ But Haredi women can’t go out and block roads like they do. We have husbands, fathers and brothers and that makes our struggle complicated, because it touches on the deepest parts of familial and personal relationships. Many women can barely bring themselves to even press ‘like’ on our Facebook posts, to say nothing of signing up for a class or coming to a rally. Every women who opens her mouth will get hit. That’s the catch.
“On the face of it, Haredi politicians have an insanely powerful position: They have an inseparable bond with the ruling party, and our men have seats on the Knesset Finance Committee and in government ministries. But it’s a cloistered male elite that doesn’t look into the issues that are important to us as Haredi mothers and educators on the ground.”
Elimelech: “I’ve been teaching at a girls high schools for 30 years and I run the department for state-religious education in Jerusalem. When Shai Piron was education minister, he allocated funds for full core curriculum studies and full matriculation exams in state-religious schools. But then the government changed, Naftali Bennett became education minister and his deputy, Menachem Porush, froze the funds.”
Shushan: “The state has manufactured an education system that puts us on the track to a life of poverty, and everybody will suffer the economic and demographic ramifications of that. The system is collapsing, socially and economically, and there’s no one at the wheel.”
Chocron: “Bennett said, ‘We’ll make sure everybody completes five units [the highest level] of math.’ Give us one unit. Make sure that everybody completes three units – that will be a good place to start. When my husband left school in the eighth grade to go to the yeshiva, all he knew was basic arithmetic.”
Elimelech: “We care deeply about women’s health. The Health Ministry showed that breast cancer mortality is highest among Haredi women, and we tried to understand why. We saw that there were no public service announcements about the need for constant checkups. Women get tested too late. In our society, they don’t even call it breast cancer, but ‘the female affliction.’”
Shushan: “They use a hazy term because they are considered unchaste words. Haredi women have a unique lifestyle: They marry early, they get pregnant young and have many children, which has health effects, good and bad, but no one talks about this issue or allocates funds to address it. In 2014, we convened the Knesset committee for women’s equality to discuss the issue of ultra-Orthodox women’s health, and the Haredi lawmakers were a no-show, even though it concerned their mothers and their grandmothers.”
Chocron: “It’s the same with violence against women. In 2019, the Finance Ministry gave 20 million shekels (around $5.5 million) to the Welfare Ministry’s program to combat domestic violence. The Haredi representatives weren’t there to claim a piece of the pie. We started a campaign in collaboration with ultra-Orthodox crisis centers. We used very gentle language, we barely even used the word ‘violence.’ Our posters only showed a Shabbat table and a kiddush cup, so that only those who suffered violence would get the message, and they still wouldn’t let us put the posters up in Bnei Barak.
“In our society, we don’t talk about violence, and when we do, we only talk about impoverished, miserable families: Mizrahi families. No one understands that it happens all across the spectrum of Haredi society. For them, when you talk about violence, you devalue the concept of family itself. So they sweep it under the rug.”
‘A place in our own home’
So you won’t vote in the election?
“Of course we will,” says Shushan.
Chocron: “I appreciate the fact that I have the right to vote. When the state was established, there was a big question about voting rights for women. I won’t give it up now.”
Hassan Lefkowitz: “Our problems are the result of living in a democratic state without getting our democratic rights. The state must intervene.”
Elimelech: “The law should be changed so that every party will have to include a certain number of women on its Knesset list.”
Hassan Lefkowitz: “We were at the Knesset the day that Shas and United Torah Judaism submitted their lists. The election committee got two lists of 120 men, and no one batted an eye. What if some party said that they’re anti-Ethiopian? It’s undemocratic. I won’t agree to have my right of representation taken away. Right now, there’s no one representing 51 percent of the Haredi population.”
Chocron: “At the first stage, they should say: ‘You want a male-only list? No problem, but you’ll get only 50 percent of your election budget.’”
Why aren’t you starting an ultra-Orthodox women’s party? Why insist on getting into a party that doesn’t want you?
Hassan Lefkowitz: “If a party rejected black people, would you tell them to start a black party?”
Chocron: “If I start a women’s party, how will I reach voters without radio and newspapers? We deserve a place in our own home.”
Bloch: “Jewish law doesn’t really have an issue with women in political parties. There are Haredi women doing many jobs in the Knesset. There’s no reason for us to start a new party.”
But if you started a party, wouldn’t Shas and United Torah Judaism feel threatened and let you in to keep their female votes?
Elimelech: “They’ll say it’s illegitimate and not Haredi.”
Bloch: “Historically, Rabbi Kook prohibited women from voting. He claimed it wasn’t a women’s place. But for some reason the Haredim are fervent about high voter turnouts, even of dead women.”
Shushan: “They write the rules and they break the rules. When they want to, they change them.”