Opinion

Shelly Yacimovich, You've Abandoned Us

When ultra-Orthodox women are systematically excluded from power centers, the lawmaker turns a blind eye.

MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) in July 2016.
Moti Milrod

You know, Shelly Yacimovich, Esti is one of the more common names in the ultra-Orthodox community. If you call out that name in the middle of Bnei Brak or in Mea She’arim, at least several heads will turn toward you. Nevertheless, I don’t pretend to speak for all the Estis, or for all the Rivkas, Nehamas or Feiges. I don’t really know what all of them think about their situation or about the situation of ultra-Orthodox women in general.

Some may not agree with me and others may be afraid of the community’s sanctions, preferring to hold their silence. However, increasing numbers of women are beginning to understand that something in the existing scheme of things, which systematically excludes them from all decision-making centers in Israel, requires urgent rectification.

Shelly, last week you posted a happy Facebook note, reporting your collaboration with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in your quest for leading the Histadrut labor federation. You expressed your excitement over the fact that for the first time Shas or any Haredi party will compete in a faction headed by a woman.

First of all, to put things right, there have been numerous occasions in which the ultra-Orthodox have supported the candidacy of secular women (such as their support for Dalia Itzik when she ran for president). There is a web of cooperation between uncovered female heads and kippa-wearing males when interests converge.

However, the respect shown by the leaders of Shas or United Torah Judaism toward secular women is not afforded to their own women. As Interior Minister Arye Dery says: “[His wife] Yaffa doesn’t want it otherwise.” The problem is that other ultra-Orthodox women aren’t asked, it’s not even an option for them. Moreover, women who try and describe the present situation as problematic are targets of incitement and attacks.

Ultra-Orthodox parties are closed to ultra-Orthodox women, based on rules that specifically and unabashedly declare that only men are allowed to be members. You never say a word about this. You never voice any feminist moral statement about this impossible situation in which I and women like me have no representation, not in the Knesset and not in any municipal council. You never speak out against a situation in which a Haredi woman has no voice in centers of power in which you and your colleagues close political deals over our covered heads, with us remaining invisible.

The slogan of our movement, called Nivcharot (“chosen,” or “elected”), is “No voice, no vote,” which is an appeal for feminine solidarity across the social spectrum, made with the understanding that the present situation hurts every woman in Israel, no matter where she comes from. We appeal to women not to collaborate in the exclusion of women from the representational public sphere in Israel.

I assume you’ll nod and say “yes, you’re right, it’s not right but you need the entire community to support this idea, you need to act with determination from the inside in order to change things,” as you recently told me. If the entire Haredi community supported this idea I wouldn’t need any external assistance. So far the majority are afraid to speak up, since such women end up unmarried, as proclaimed by Rabbi Mordechai Blau, a candidate for the Knesset on the United Torah Judaism list. He threatened to expel the children of such women from school. The few who dare raise their heads pay a heavy price.

Overall, I work from the inside in many ways. However, in your political silence, maintained out of apathy or the powerlessness you share with other female Knesset members who broke through the glass ceiling, you have abandoned the struggle of women such as me who are paying a heavy price for what they say or do in this matter.

The satisfied back-slapping over the Haredi support for a secular woman is particularly and searingly painful for Haredi women like me. For you, as long as the deal doesn’t exclude you, it’s an exciting and historic one. But if you were excluded for being a woman, you’d raise a bitter feminist cry. In contrast, when Haredi women are systematically excluded from power centers you turn a blind eye, not expressing even one word of criticism or a hope that things will change.

I’m not even angry or disappointed. I only understand more than ever before that if we don’t struggle, despite the heavy costs, things will remain unchanged and you will continue huddling with Litzman or Dery, who will bestow their sweet smiles on you. They’ll ignore your uncovered head and you’ll ignore their chauvinism. That’s how things stand.

The writer is the founder of Nivcharot, a Haredi women’s group advocating representation, equality and having their voice heard. She also leads the “No voice, no vote” protest.