Last week’s municipal elections in Israel could have been historic for women. Thousands of hours of hard work, mostly by women, many by volunteers, were spent in efforts to make women’s voices heard in different ways. Yet, a look at the results is undoubtedly leaves us disappointed. But if we look a bit beyond the numbers, we can detect a groundswell of change, especially when it comes to religious women.
In Jerusalem, the secular party Jerusalemites led by Orthodox feminist Rachel Azaria, which was running on a campaign of bringing women’s faces back to the streets of Jerusalem, won an encouraging two seats. This is certainly one of the most optimistic pieces of news of these elections. However, Naomi Tzur’s all-women party Ometz Lev did not win any seats. Although Tzur’s loss is upsetting, I think that her campaign opened up many people’s minds to the idea of a party dedicated to women’s issues. I certainly would like to see a party like that in Modi’in, where I live. In any case, Jerusalem residents seeking moderation against growing religious extremist misogyny, breathed a sigh of relief with the victory of secularist Nir Barkat against Moshe Lion. Barkat has a mixed record of support for gender equality in the city, but he seems to have come around over the past year. And Azaria’s active presence on the city council will hopefully ensure that Jerusalem women are protected from forces of extremism. Hopefully.
Another source of encouragement comes from Safed where Shira Georgi, an Orthodox woman, was elected to the municipal council, marking the first time in twenty years that a woman has been on that council. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around how women-free the council has been until now – and I can’t help wondering how many all-male locations of power like that exist in Israel. Still, Georgi’s election marks an important moment for women breaking down gender barriers in Israeli politics, even the most resilient ones.
In Beit Shemesh, where haredi violence against women has caused enormous tension and created a major fault line in the city’s everyday life as well as in these elections, moderation lost and ultra-Orthodoxy won. The mayoral campaign of Eli Cohen was fueled by modern Orthodox and secular residents interested in tempering forces of extremism in the city, forces that are seemingly supported by incumbent Moshe Abutbul. Although the election was relatively close – 53% for Abutbul and 46% for Cohen – the election has unnerved many residents who are rightfully nervous about the future of their town. Signs are alarming: Not only was voting gender-segregated, like an increasing number of places in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere, but over 200 fake voting IDs were discovered, and eight haredi men were arrested for voter fraud. If I lived in Beit Shemesh, I would be worried, too. And actually, Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote, the rest of Israel should be concerned about what’s happening in Beit Shemesh as well.
In Elad, a small, 13-year-old ultra-Orthodox town where, like Beit Shemesh, forces of religious extremism are imposing increasing practices of gender segregation and repression of women, there were some hopeful signs leading into the election. The first ever all-women’s haredi party was formed there in this election, led by the indomitable Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old haredi feminist who is tired of being told where women are not allowed to be. What’s more, Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Shas founder the late Rav Ovadia Yosef, took the astounding step of supporting the women’s party in Elad rather than Shas. These are all remarkable indications of a feminist groundswell even in the haredi world. Unfortunately, the women’s party did not receive enough votes for a mandate, but the 260 people who voted for them are not likely to go crawling back to a corner. This, I believe, may be just the beginning of a larger gender shift. Ruth Colian is a woman to watch.
Still, despite all this activism and public discourse around women’s issues in politics, overall the results for women were very disappointing. Forty-two women ran for mayor around the country – double the number in the past, bolstered by the phenomenal work of We-Power – and yet only two women won. TWO! The previous elections resulted in five women mayors out of some 246 municipalities, paltry figures by any standard. But who would have thought they could get any worse. Only one female incumbent won, Miriam Feirberg in Netanya, and Lizzy Delaricha became the mayor of Ganei Tikva. Otherwise, the rest of the women lost. There is no way to sugar coat these results. They are very bad for women. Some feminists argue that women in the “pipeline” – that is, women in municipal government – are even more important than pushing for women in national government. Perhaps they are equally important. In any case, those of us who were hoping for something historic to report about women in Israeli government are left dissatisfied and concerned.
So what are the lessons to be learned from this? Perhaps this is all because women are socialized to be great doers but not such great politicians. Self-promotion by women is seen as arrogant and uncomely, whereas in men it is unremarkable. Women are in a double-bind of likeability, in which the more we excel the less “likeable” we are, whereas the more men excel the more likeable they are. All of these factors make it difficult for women to politick. Add to this the very old-boys’-club nature of Israeli politics, where men get elected based on how many personal favors they exchange with people, and women are at a disadvantage because they are outside of the club from the beginning.
And then there’s the burn-out factor. Women in government tend to actually work more than seek publicity, and thus they get more easily worn. In Modi’in, for example, all three women who were on the municipal council for the past five years (out of 15 members) dropped out in this race, which is a real shame. Levana Shiffman, an outstanding councilwoman, described her decision in terms of how much time the (voluntary) position cost her. She worked harder than most of the other councilmen put together, some of whom are notorious for skipping meetings and important decisions. It’s possible that women are at a disadvantage because they actually tend to take their jobs seriously, and that can be exhausting and not necessarily valued by voters drawn by public displays more than hard work. It’s telling that one of Azaria’s campaign slogans was “It’s time to value real work”. Maybe she finally turned that disadvantage into an advantage.
Still, despite these difficult outcomes, I don’t think that this is the end; I think it is just the beginning. Women are starting to see how important it is to push forward and seek leadership and influence. Women are also learning how to break down some of the cultural norms that keep us lagging behind. Now it’s time for the rest of society to catch up and understand how important it is to support and advance women’s leadership. Women’s active participation in government and leadership is vital not just for women but for the health and well-being of the entire nation.