An Unlikely Feminist Victory in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak

How Likud leaders fought - and won - the right to show women’s faces in Bnei Brak.

Ilan Assayag

There was plenty of fighting and squabbling within the Likud party on the day of their primaries Wednesday, but that’s par for the course on any election day.

But a showdown in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and reported in the Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat described a different kind of battle in which the Likud leadership fought and won the right to display photographs of women.

The conflict - and its resolution - demonstrate that change is in the air when it comes to the issue known in Israel as “the exclusion of women” - even ultra-Orthodox strongholds like Bnei Brak aren’t immune. 

The story goes that the local Likud party activists and officials set up for the big vote and opened the polls in a community center, they were visited by representatives from the municipality, which acts as modesty police for the community. The officials demanded that they remove the signs for the female Likud candidates who were vying for seats on the grounds that the images of women’s faces were offensive to residents of the neighborhood. 

In extremely ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, women’s faces and bodies are typically absent from advertisements and billboards on the grounds that any image of a woman is potentially sexually provocative. The Bnei Brak municipality representatives said that they were under orders to remove the signs with photographs of Likud contenders like Miri Regev or Gila Gamliel at the entrance to the polls - even though they were shown from the neck up and modestly clothed. 

The newspaper reported that when the demands were made, the Likud representative in charge of the ultra-Orthodox community, Yaacov Vider, was summoned. Vider, who sits on the Likud’s primaries oversight committee, told the officials that they could not interfere with the election process by removing signs, and that their removal would constitute exclusion of women, which the government has made clear is illegal.

But the municipality did not back down - and the community center then threatened to shut down the polls and put a stop to voting if the Likud failed to abide by the municipality orders and take down the signs. Shouting broke out between the municipal representatives and the Likud voters, furious that Bnai Brak municipality officials were intervening in the election process.

The police were summoned to intervene. At first, they said the municipality had a right to remove the signs. When Vider told them they were wrong - that taking down the signs violated the law - the police on the scene consulted with Ramat Gan police headquarters and were told that in fact, that the municipality did not have the right have the right to interfere in the Likud primaries in any way, and absolutely not to remove the signs with women on them. 

The signs stayed up, much to the Bnai Brak municipality’s dismay. They grumbled to the newspaper that they were only trying to protect the sensitivities of more strictly religious residents of the neighborhood, who, unlike the ultra-Orthodox Likudniks, don’t mix freely with women. 

It was a local story that wasn’t reported outside of the sectoral press, but for Orly Erez-Likhovski, who heads of the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center, such an event represented a victory.

To her, the incident clearly signaled that “we’ve come a long way and we are in a very different place than we were two or three years ago.”

Before the legal battles over the past several years, she said it is very likely the signs would have been taken down without protest from the Likud, and without the a stand being made by senior police officials. What caused the change were the explicit orders from the attorney general to leaders that policies against exclusion of women from the public sphere must be implemented. 

“I am very happy that the officials from the Likud didn’t give up, fought the municipality and the police who first arrived on the scene. It shows that the message is starting to penetrate on every level that exclusion of women is illegal and unacceptable. It doesn't always translate to the people on the ground but we see that great progress is being made - even in Bnei Brak, even in the ultra-Orthodox sector. This is an important message.”