Opinion |

You Won’t Find Women’s Solidarity in the Knesset

Female legislators in Israel are party members first, and only afterward, if at all, on the side of women

Sharon Geva
Sharon Geva
FILE Photo: Likud MK Nava Boker.
FILE Photo: Likud MK Nava Boker.Credit: Moti Milrod
Sharon Geva
Sharon Geva

As long as there’s no women’s party in the Knesset, there’s no reason to expect female legislators to put women’s issues ahead of their party’s interests – certainly not when the governing coalition has a razor-thin majority. This is one explanation for the disgraceful role of Likud MK Nava Boker in the honoring of singer Eyal Golan by the Knesset Caucus for the Promotion of Israeli Music, which Boker heads. Golan was once accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.

Israeli women unite to battle violence – and a government that doesn't careCredit: Haaretz

Boker’s comments on this matter show that she knows that to keep her Knesset seat she needs the support of party members, not women. In fact, she openly admits this. Thus expectations should be better aligned with reality: Female MKs are party members first, and only afterward, if at all, on the side of women in general.

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The unrealistic expectations were one reason for some of the anger and disappointment directed at female MKs who voted against establishing an inquiry committee on the murder of women in Israel. Journalist Oshrat Kotler said it was a “black mark for the women ministers and MKs” and called them a “symbol of disgrace” (on the Channel 10 program “The Magazine”). Actress Gila Almagor expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Kan Bet radio. Kotler and Almagor are right, but history shows that if some of the female coalition MKs had voted in favor, it would have been pretty surprising.

Aside from WIZO’s one seat in the First Knesset (1949-1951), all female MKs have served as a minority for parties controlled by men. The percentage of women in the Knesset has risen in the last generation, and with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox parties, more women have had high slots on party tickets, and have also headed tickets. But just as was the case two and three generations ago, female MKs’ loyalty goes to their parties first.

In the state’s early years too, women expected female MKs to show solidarity with other women. Around the time of the 1961 elections, female journalists met with six of the 10 female MKs at the time. They asked them to name the most urgent problems for Israeli women and the bills helping women they planned to submit. Haaretz’s Shulamit Lavari, who led the meeting, asked the MKs if they thought they had done enough in their parliamentary work for women.

The answers reflected each MK’s connection with the coalition and her party’s ideology. Baba Idelson of Mapai, then the largest party in the Knesset, said she thought women’s status was fine and there were no laws on the books that discriminated against women. Emma Levine-Talmi of Mapam, a party even further to the left, replied candidly: “We worked quite a bit, we achieved quite little.”

In response to questions about the high cost of living and the difficulty of managing a household budget, the MKs on the right spoke of the need to reduce government involvement on the issue, while left-wing MKs supported tighter government supervision, and Idelson defended the existing policy.

Generally, female MKs from opposition parties were more critical of government policy toward women, but not necessarily because their parties promoted women’s issues or declared the advancement of women part of their agenda. Rather, it was because in such cases, promoting the party’s interests didn’t always conflict with promoting women’s interests. In this way they also showed that party interests invariably take precedence.

The female journalist had expected that the female MKs, just because they were women, would work to promote women’s status and solve problems faced by women, both on the individual and public level. Yehudit Winkler of Herut magazine remarked that “for a moment one could get caught up in the sweet illusion that, despite the sharp disagreements between the various parties, the women still find a common language.” But it didn’t happen.

A similar thing happened with the female journalists themselves. Most worked for newspapers with a clear affinity for a certain party or movement that had Knesset representation – Davar was the main Mapai paper and Herut was the Herut party’s magazine. And while Haaretz portrayed itself as beholden solely to its readers, it too had a similar connection: Publisher and editor Gershom Schocken was an MK for the Progressive Party in the second half of the ‘50s.

In any case, the expectation of a long-term uniting of forces among all women in Israel didn’t stand the test of reality – thanks to female voters. While the First Knesset included WIZO, it didn’t represent all Israeli women but rather two large women’s organizations. WIZO soon chose to work outside parliament. In the ‘70s, a women’s party that ran for the Knesset didn’t win enough votes to pass the threshold.

For now it seems impossible that a party that officially represents all women will be established and make it into the Knesset. Therefore the expectation of female solidarity should be replaced by an emphatic call for female MKs to work on behalf of women, each within her own party. Female MKs are party members first, but the question is what they do in their party.

Dr. Sharon Geva teaches at the Kibbutz Seminar and at Tel Aviv University.

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