Opinion |

Be Nice, Ladies, if You Want to Win

Shelly Yacimovich, who just lost Israel's labor federation election, isn’t a nice person. She’s a deal-maker, and she makes enemies. None of that hurts a male politician, but it’s deadly for a female one

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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MK Shelly Yacimovich.
MK Shelly Yacimovich.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The election for Histadrut labor federation head seemed to be one of the most disgusting things to happen around here lately. (The competition has been tough.) That a leading female politician lost may say more about the challenges women in politics face when they enter an arena dominated by men than it does about this particular female candidate’s qualifications for office.

MK Shelly Yacimovich petitioned the High Court of Justice over the outcome of the election, which she lost to incumbent Avi Nissenkorn. Her petition included allegations that a supervisor had ordered a female employee to vote for Nissenkorn, that ballot boxes were sitting all night at Nissenkorn’s campaign headquarters, that ballots were missing from ballot boxes and that someone found that someone else had voted in their name without their knowledge. Although Yacimovich’s petition against the outcome of the election was rejected, it’s surprising that the Histadrut’s greatest critics suddenly find the system kosher, and claim that Yacimovich is a crybaby. So much so that they’re happy she lost.

That might be the key to explain how Yacimovich went downhill from being a politician with prime ministerial potential to the shallow waters of the allegedly corrupt ballot box in the town of Yehud. What happened to one of the worthier politicians around here – certainly considering the unimpressive character of many Knesset members and the alarms some of them set off on the corruption detector.

Yacimovich is not a nice person. People who work with her say she has problems getting along with others. She’s also a deal-maker, making and breaking alliances. Members of her inner circle sometimes become her bitter enemies, and her bitter enemies become her most bitter enemies. So far, there’s nothing here that’s absent in any politician aiming for the top. But the public – including, unfortunately, women as well – just can’t stand those characteristics when the politician in question is a woman. No one expects Ehud Barak to be nice; his emotional blankness is fairly unimportant compared to his status and leadership. That’s not the case with Yacimovich. Although she is intelligent, a go-getter and courageous, voters eventually reject her again and again and give in to the incitement of her rivals. Beyond the circle of her loyal supporters, there is no critical mass to come to her defense.

To some extent, this antagonism recalls the animus mainly people on the right have for Tzipi Livni, which reached particularly ugly heights in the last election. Livni was depicted as jumping from one ideological home to another without looking back; that is, a treacherous woman in the best classical tradition, a kind of political Lilith. Many politicians change parties and opinions, not always as a cynical act but sometimes as part of a change in thinking or in reality. (For instance Ariel Sharon, the establishment of the Kadima party and the Gazan disengagement.) But the abhorrence for Livni, like the hatred for Hillary Clinton, who was called a bitch at Republican meetings, shows that women are judged by much more severe moral standards than men. They are punished first of all for their pretention to act like men, that is, to be strong. Alienation, hypocrisy, aggression, treachery – characteristics that are naturally acceptable and forgivable when it comes to men, are demonically amplified when it comes to women.

As long as female politicians serve as second fiddles to the opinions of some leader, as long as they are nice, smiling and pleasant (how charming MK Orly Levi-Abekasis is!), they are sympathetic and constitute photogenic proof of the success of feminism. The moment they start to amass power and try to use it, they are subjected to character assassination. Shelly Yacimovich was subject to character assassination.

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