The New Female Face of the Knesset

Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh

Israel's parliament has never had such an attractive, young appearance, or at least you would have thought so from Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony of the members of the new Knesset. As a feminist, I was particularly pleased to see the faces of new women. That's both the advantage and disadvantage of my being a feminist (or a Jew, a leftist, a journalist or any other distinct group). Every woman is regarded as one of our representatives, and so I find myself becoming embarrassed "as a woman" (as if I had a choice of being something else) by every woman representative who falls down on the job.

Hatnuah party leader Tzipi Livni, for example, in her meteoric rise to the helm of the Kadima party, prior to the 2009 Knesset elections, received the support of left-wing women because she was a feminist role model. But during her years in the opposition, she became a model of passivity and incompetence. She disappointed most of those who gave her such massive electoral support in that election. The disappointment among women was all the greater because Livni, who was supposed to be one of us, promoted anti-feminist models through her conduct.

Can feminists be racist, uncivil or unwise? In other words, can Likud MK Miri Regev be a feminist? Possibly, but she certainly cannot serve as a feminist role model or lead a feminist battle. In feminist circles, there is no longer an argument over whether a feminist can work for equality, against discrimination, and on behalf of advancement and women's rights without also working on behalf of other oppressed minorities (Palestinians, for example), or whether a feminist can have a right-wing perspective. In practice it turns out that it is possible. Yisrael Beiteinu MK Orly Levi-Abekasis and Likud's Limor LIvnat, for example, are seen as highly active in efforts to advance feminist legislation. On the other hand, Likud's Tzipi Hotovely, whose role as chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women should have been to advance feminism, acted as an anti-feminist when she fought on behalf of observant male soldiers who sought to be excused on religious grounds from army events that included women singing.

What's nice about the new Knesset is not necessarily the higher number of women legislators, but rather that most of the new female MKs are declared feminists. As usual, when it comes to the proportion of women in the party's Knesset faction, the only party that meets expectations of full equality is Meretz, for which feminism is a central tenet, a party in which three of its six MKs are women. In addition to party leader Zahava Gal-On, the Meretz Knesset delegation includes Michal Rosin and Tamar Zandberg, both of whom are known to have feminist perspectives and to work on behalf of feminist causes.

Actually Hadash, which has portrayed itself as a standard-bearer for equality and justice, has been a disappointment time after time when it comes to representation of women. On the other hand, the Yesh Atid party has been a pleasant surprise in this respect, bringing a number of impressive, accomplished women with a feminist outlook into the Knesset. (Ruth Calderon, who founded Alma College, is my dream candidate for education minister.)  Party leader Yair Lapid may speak patronizingly about the Zuabis of the Knesset -- a reference to Balad Arab Knesset member Hanin Zuabi -- but that he mentioned her name as representing Israeli Arabs demonstrates the great progress that has been made on the status of women among the Arab parties and reflects the feminist activity of Zuabi in particular.

Of the new Members of Knesset, the Labor Party's Merav Michaeli (a former Haaretz columnist) is the most well-known feminist. With Shelly Yacimovich at the helm of the party, Michaeli's presence strengthens Labor's commitment to feminist issues.

If they join forces, what can all the Knesset's feminists do? A lot, especially related to the exclusion of women from the public sphere. This work should be initiated in the legislature, and it should take the form of legislation against parties whose rabbis issue orders to exclude women. In the meantime, until such a law is passed, they should form a women's choir.

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