Since the establishment of Bennett-Lapid’s “Change Government,” this past year has been like a dream come true for organizations dedicated to religion-state issues and to women’s rights, in terms of advocacy work in the Knesset committees.
After years of focusing our efforts reacting to disastrous, harmful bills that sought to diminish women’s rights and status, we were finally afforded the breathing room to stop and think about what progress we wanted to make and what we could improve, rather than defending ourselves from a constant onslaught of problematic legislation. This precious breathing room was made possible by one single factor: that the Haredi and right-wing religious representatives were finally outside the coalition. They could no longer garner an easy majority in support of privately-sponsored bills, nor could they easily pass bills in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, as they used to.
As director of the legal department at the Center for Women’s Justice, a legal advocacy organization defending women’s rights in matters of religion and state, I have participated in countless Knesset committee meetings. My work has provided me with an insider’s view of the way the Knesset’s makeup directly translates into real-life consequences for women in a way that most people never get to experience. It is therefore important for me to share with you what I have seen, and broaden the often narrow voting perspectives that tend to focus on questions of the political right vs. left, or on hypothetical scenarios about what a politician will or will not do regarding settlements in the West Bank, while ignoring key factors that assuredly directly impact our day-to-day lives.
Here are some real examples:
First: In 2016, MK Moshe Gafni and other representatives (Bezalel Smotrich, for one) submitted a bill that sought to subject mikvaot (ritual baths) in Israel to the “directives of the Chief Rabbinical Council of Israel.” The practical impact of such a change in Israeli law would have meant that:
- women would not be allowed to immerse in state mikvaot before ascending the Temple Mount, since the Chief Rabbinate opposes all ascension to the Temple Mount by Jews;
- women would not be allowed to immerse without an attendant present (in effect, the Supreme Court ruling that protected women’s autonomy in the mikveh, allowing women to immerse in accordance with their own customs and without an attendant, would be cancelled);
- the Chief Rabbinate could enforce its own halakhic standards for women’s immersion, however it saw fit (they could, for example, impose mandatory body checks by the mikveh attendant). Rulings by a woman’s own halakhic authority would carry no weight or relevance, as they would be overridden by the authority of the state (this is currently the case in Israel’s state-run rabbinic courts, where the halakhot of Jewish marriage and divorce are subject to the exclusive authority of specific state-appointed rabbis);
- women who marry in a private ceremony, outside the purview of the state rabbinate, would be barred from immersing (in certain mikvaot today, there are already those who attempt to do this — unsuccessfully, because there is no law giving them such authority. Gafni and Smotrich’s proposed law would have given them precisely that).
More recently, in 2020, MK Moshe Arbel introduced a bill to amend the Women’s Equal Rights Law, so that women would not be entitled to equality when it came to any position that the Chief Rabbinate defined as a “religious” role — rabbanit of a school? director of a religious council? CEO of the Ministry of Religious Affairs? director of a branch of the rabbinic courts? rabbinic court stenographer? Who knows what the Rabbinic Council would consider to be “religious”?
Another concern was the original language of the nation-state law, which was passed during Netanyahu’s government, and included a clause that asserted a person’s right to preserve their culture. Constitutional protection of “culture” could pose a real danger to women in Israel, however: gender discrimination, polygamy, enforced modesty codes, and the like can all be justified as cultural norms (I expand on the risks posed by “cultural rights” here). Following a concerted effort by rights advocates, including the Center for Women’s Justice, the clause was successfully stricken from the final draft of the bill.
Perhaps most perniciously, throughout the past decade, the Haredi and religious Knesset members have tried to pass a bill that would give state rabbinic courts jurisdiction by consent (or arbitration) over civil matters that are currently under sole jurisdiction of the civil courts — contracts, corporate law, torts, and the like. Such a law would significantly expand the authority of the state rabbinic court — a judicial body that bars female judges and which adheres to a very stringent interpretation of Jewish law — and would have a devastating effect on the status of women in Israel. This would especially impact women going through the divorce process, during which the risk of extortion is particularly high (i.e., “In exchange for a get, you will agree to give the rabbinic court jurisdiction over dividing the shares of my company”). This bill was a hair’s breadth away from passing into law when Netanyahu’s last government collapsed.
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There are countless other examples, such as the bill introduced by the Haredi and Religious Zionist members of Knesset to expand the powers of the Western Wall rabbi and the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over the Western Wall, a move that would primarily affect religious women who pray in the women’s section (I do not need to elaborate on all of the ways that women’s rights at the Western Wall have gone downhill). There was the bill proposed by the Haredi representatives and Smotrich to limit Israel’s anti-discrimination laws in order to make it legal to discriminate against women if doing so for religious reasons. I could go on.
The flip side of this coin, of course, is all of the progress and positive changes that were made in the past year in the field of religion and state, such as instating kashrut reforms, laying the groundwork for conversion reforms, appointing women to religious councils, and recognizing women’s halakhic scholarship for bureaucratic purposes.
This is not an endorsement or rejection of one political party over the other. I am not one to publicly engage in partisan politics. Rather, this is a plea to be informed about the consequences of your vote. I cannot, in good conscience, say nothing when I see women (and men) voting for people whose policies and platforms, at the end of the day, violate their basic rights and contravene the values they hold sacrosanct. I write this with grave concern about the immediate future of this country, and with a clear vision of what it means to live in a country that is both Jewish and democratic. I have faith that many share this vision.