For First Time, ultra-Orthodox Shas Party Includes Women in Delegation to World Zionist Congress

The move does not reflect a new party policy, but rather a decision of the congress requiring women to be included in each election slate.

Yair Ettinger

Ohavei Zion, the slate of the Shas-affiliated World Sephardic Zionist Organization, failed to achieve its main goal at the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem last week: The plenum voted down, by a large majority, its bid for official recognition of the Sephardi Zionist Orthodox stream throughout the Jewish world. But that failure could not erase the dramatic precedent set by the list which, for the first time, was a full participant in the conference, with five women in its 17-person delegation.

Hundreds of conference-goers listened as Estie Abadie spoke from the stage about the importance of erasing the differences between the various streams of Judaism, in the spirit of tolerant Sephardi Judaism.

“The Sephardim have something to offer to the Jewish people, in the sense that we never had the division among Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. We always understood that we’re all Jews, so we look to get away from divisions. That’s the positive message of Ohavei Zion,” Abadie told Haaretz after her speech.

The other women members of the delegation are Shifra Sananas, daughter of Shas chairman and Economy Minister Arye Deri; Margalit Steinberger, daughter of Council of Torah Sages member Rabbi David Yosef (himself a son of the late Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef) and wife of delegate Yehuda Steinberger; Nava Antebi, the wife of delegation member Ariel Antebi, in-laws of Rabbi David Yosef; and Aliza Ouzan, who has served in a number of positions within Shas. All five are close to the top ranks of Shas or related in some way to top men in Shas; Abadie’s husband, Rabbi Elie Abadie, is also a member of the delegation but that still does not detract from the magnitude of the precedent for Shas, which would not consider being represented in the Knesset by women.

The precedent is not the result of a new policy in the ultra-Orthodox party. In 2010, Shas joined the World Zionist Congress on the orders of Ovadia Yosef, earning the opprobrium of United Torah Judaism and of the Ashkenazi Edah Haredit. The justification given for the founding of Ohavei Zion, which although affiliated with Shas also includes Likud supporters, was the need for Sephardic representation in the Zionist institutions together with the possibility of enjoying the kinds of attractive jobs that figures in the other religious parties were already filling. Nevertheless, it’s doubtful that Shas would have taken the same decision today, under its present leadership.

Yair Ettinger

Shas participated in the congress for the first time in 2010, when a resolution requiring each list to comprise at least 30 percent women was passed; this year was the first time Shas fielded a mixed slate.

“They thought that by passing the rule we’d go home, but we’re not going home,” Yigal Bibi, one of the founders of Ohavei Zion, said. “It turned out well for us; the women were the most active, in my opinion. It was a pleasant surprise.”

Yizhar Hess, the CEO and executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, wrote on his Facebook page in the wake of Estie Abadie’s speech: “When there’s no choice, it turns out that women can also serve in the parliament of the Jewish people on behalf of a Haredi party.”

But Yigal Bibi, himself a former MK for the National Religious Party, says Shas views the presence of women in a delegation representing the party in the congress as a one-off. “It’ll take a long time for them to get into the Knesset, but that too will come,” Bibi said, adding, “After all, once there was Deborah the prophet,” referring to the Biblical figure, who was also a judge. “I imagine that she spoke before soldiers.”

The Abadies, who together make up half of the American contingent of the Ohavei Zion delegation, are not exactly typical Shas representatives. She was raised in the religious Zionist movement; he is a physician who is a senior lecturer at New York’s Yeshiva University, in addition to being the pulpit rabbi of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, on the Upper East Side. Their son immigrated to Israel and served in the Golani Brigade, including in Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

“Sephardi Judaism is a moderate Judaism, a Judaism that recognizes the value of the person, of the man and the woman, and the ability of everyone to contribute to the Jewish people and the Jewish community. We wanted to pass a resolution [saying] the World Zionist Congress won’t ignore the world Sephardi communities, because many of them don’t participate in WZO,” Elie Abadie said.