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Israel's Parliament Fears a Critical Mass of Women

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Shas head Arye Dery and United Torah Judaism co-chair Moshe Gafni in the Knesset, May 20, 2020.
Shas head Arye Dery and United Torah Judaism co-chair Moshe Gafni in the Knesset, May 20, 2020.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The next Knesset will again include two parties that exclude women, despite a decade of struggle. This will happen even though ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) women have been battling against this outrageous exclusion. It will happen despite the High Court of Justice petition filedby Tami Ben Porat against the United Torah Judaism party, whose first hearing took place five years ago this week, and the petition brought by Ruth Colian against Shas, both of which forced the Haredi parties to delete the clauses that codified this form of discrimination from their party charters.

It will happen despite the solidarity between Haredi women’s organizations and secular ones. It will happen even though there are Haredi men who have joined the struggle. It will happen even though Haredi women have tried other strategies to get involved in Israeli politics.

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In short, it will happen despite all these developments, which for years were considered as prerequisites for resolving this situation: Over time, when Haredi women themselves rose up, when more women joined the struggle, when there would be cooperation, High Court petitions, new strategies for joining Haredi parties, and when there would be both secular women and Haredi men who understood that this struggle was important, things were supposed to change. All these changes have occurred, and yet there will still be parties that exclude women in the 24th Knesset.

This will happen because the Knesset has not sought to correct this injustice and is refusing – contrary to what one would expect in the 21st century – to advance legislation requiring all parties to present slates in which at least 40 percent of the spots considered likely to enter the Knesset would be filled by women.

The answer to the question of why the Haredi parties exclude women is simple – because they can. To the question of why the Knesset does not prevent this stain on its name, the answer is complicated and sad: Because it’s afraid.

The Knesset is afraid of a critical mass of women, which would change it. We’re talking about a completely physical process. There is a minimum ratio of people required to create a social phenomenon that changes reality. Research has shown that the minimal mass of women needed to create change and make the legislature substantially representative, would be 30 percent – i.e., 40 female MKs.

That the Knesset isn’t even trying to make gradual progress toward such legislation is not (just) because of the Haredi parties, although it’s convenient to blame them for it. The Knesset isn’t trying to do this because in the absence of such legislation every party head can decide out of the goodness of their heart how many women to take under their wing and what place on the ticket they’ll get.

It’s easy to blame Haredi women, Haredi parties, or religion itself for this injustice. But the truth must be told: If the Knesset would set different norms for those seeking to wander its hallways, the Haredi MKs, who are very pragmatic and who see the Knesset as a vital tool for advancing their community’s interests, would present slates that include women.

One can see a precedent for this in the slates Shas submitted for the elections to the World Zionist Congress. The congress regulations require that the slates include women. And lo and behold, despite Arye Dery’s declaration that there are no Haredi women interested in political positions, there are women there, and they even give speeches from time to time. It’s easy to point out the visible stain in the middle of the room – the Haredi exclusion of women – but it’s much harder to identify the small mounds of lingering filth that get swept under the fridge or the sofa; the exclusion of women by or under the auspices of secular liberalism.

You may ask, how would it help were Haredi women chosen by Haredi MKs – not to mention the Councils of Torah Sages – to serve in the Knesset; after all, these women wouldn’t be feminists. One can assume that at least the first women chosen to serve as Haredi MKs will not be feminists (as if all secular women MKs are feminists). But even from that perspective, the critical mass will have an effect.

So instead of just blaming the Haredi parties and leaving the exclusion of women in place, the Knesset must save itself. The result might not just be more women in the Knesset, but more women sitting at the cabinet table – and perhaps at some point, another female prime minister. If we look at New Zealand and Finland and the way they coped with the coronavirus, it seems like it’s worth a try.

Estee Rieder-Indursky is a Haredi activist, and a PhD candidate and lecturer in the gender studies program at the Porter School of Cultural Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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