On October 30th, Israeli citizens will be going to the polls to select their mayors and to vote for their representatives on municipal, local and regional councils. Besides determining the identity of those who will be responsible for the quality of life (including education, welfare, health, affordable housing, employment opportunities, transportation, sanitation and the environment) in over 250 communities, these elections provide an opportunity for previously excluded voices to be heard and for currently underrepresented groups to have a say in the management of their daily affairs.
This is particularly true for women, who constitute barely 13.5 percent of elected officials at the local level (among the lowest percentage in the democratic world). The expansion of representation of heretofore disenfranchised groups — and especially the rectification of the gross gender imbalance which persists to this very day — is critical both for the fortification of local government in Israel and for the resilience of its democratic base. Every voter can make a difference in this respect — irrespective of specific concerns or particular political predispositions — by making sure that the lists they support and the candidates they back have provided for adequate representation of women in realistic slots. If they do so, the elections next Tuesday can truly be transformative.
At present, the gender imbalance in local government is unsupportable. Until the beginning of the present millennium, gender representation at the local level in Israel actually outdistanced that at the national level. But the number of women in the Knesset has risen steadily during the past 15 years, in no small measure due to a growing demand for greater gender parity in elected positions and the emergence of a gender gap in voting which has favored those parties which promote women on their lists. Today, a record-high 34 women serve in the Knesset (28.4%), over double the percentage of those at the local level.
According to a comprehensive study conducted by the Center for Research and Information of the Knesset in March of this year, the picture behind these raw figures is even gloomier. Of the 257 municipal, local and regional councils in Israel, only six (barely 2%!) are headed by women — among them the mayors of Netanya, Yahud-Monoson, Or Yehuda and Ganei Tikva. Only 12% of deputy mayors (paid and unpaid alike) are female. In fact, women are almost totally marginalized from leadership positions in local government.
To make matters worse, in 98 of the 201 municipal and local councils surveyed, no women at all serve in elected office. Of the 3,557 women who stood in the last elections in 2013, only 327 won seats (roughly 9%), whereas 2,093 men were voted in (14.8% of the 14,116 who stood for election). There is a clear correlation between socioeconomic standing and the extent of inequality in gender representation. Thirty-three percent of women standing in the most privileged communities were elected in the last polls; 24 % in the next group; 16% in lower income communities; and barely 4% in the poorest areas. Indeed, only six women were elected to local councils in the Arab community in Israel; not a single woman was selected in ultra-Orthodox locales.
This situation cannot but arouse profound consternation. In theory, given the issues involved, the political participation of women at the local level is expected to be at least equal — if not higher — than that of their male counterparts. Their possible contribution to municipal affairs, which revolve around the physical and human security of their residents, is enormous. But unlike in most other countries, in Israel this potential is not realized. Part of the problem may lie in the highly competitive nature of local politics (in many respects more intense and personal than at the national level). Part may be attributed to the structure of the labor market, which prevents many women — who are already carrying a double burden in the workplace and at home — from adding the mostly voluntary onus of serving in local office. And part may be a function of ingrained cultural and historical conventions that continue to dissuade women from seeking public positions.
None of these explanations, however, is compelling. None explains the gap between advances at the national level and stagnation at the local level. None accounts for this ongoing discrepancy, given the fairly non-ideological character of many issues on the agenda of local councils. And none makes the prevailing picture any more satisfactory. For these reasons, a special effort has been made to narrow the gender gap in local elected positions. In 2014, the Knesset passed an amendment to “The Local Government Law (Funding of Elections) which provides an additional 15% to all lists which have successfully included women among those elected on their slates.
This formal incentive has given a push to a countrywide campaign to encourage women to stand for office in the forthcoming local elections. Some two years ago, a coalition of 28 diverse women’s organizations was formed to encourage, accompany and promote the candidacy of women in local government. Under the title of “Mekomiot” (roughly translated as “locals” in the feminine), this group has scoured the country to identify suitable contestants, mounted several press and social network campaigns to sensitize the public to the importance of narrowing the gender gap in elected positions, and accompanied candidates in the initial stages of their run for office. The National Authority for the Advancement of Women gave these initiatives a boost by conducting a parallel campaign to increase the number of women in the forthcoming elections. And the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality has consistently offered advice and support.
The results of these efforts can be seen in the official figures on candidates for local office published last week by the Ministry of Interior. Although the gender breakdown in the forthcoming elections is much the same as in 2013 (roughly 20% of the candidates are women), there are some 750 more women running today than in the previous elections. Fifty-eight women are contesting the job of head of the local authority (as opposed to 40 in 2013); 14 women are vying for the position of head of one of the 119 regional councils, and fully 30% of candidates for places on these bodies are now women. The number of candidates in Arab local councils has grown exponentially — in part as a result of a concerted campaign conducted by an alliance of 11 organizations in the Arab community. Only the Haredi sector has yet to record any palpable improvement — despite attempts to challenge the male hegemony of these parties both publically and in the courts.
The campaign that is now coming to a close, while scoring significant gains in sensitizing voters to the need to rectify the gender imbalance, has not been problem-free. Leading women candidates have been subject to numerous threats and many have suffered incredible verbal abuse. Their posters have been defaced and their campaign materials have been trashed. In a few cases, their privacy has been invaded and their probity questioned. In other instances, they have become vulnerable to the backlash against the #MeToo phenomenon and the recent spurt of accusations against high profile figures on charges of sexual impropriety. Nevertheless, with but few exceptions, they remain determined to challenge the status quo and to inject new perspectives into the corridors of local government.
Whether they will succeed in significantly changing the gender imbalance is nevertheless still open to question. The outcome rests on whether the 80% of the public who claimed in a recent survey that they want to see more elected women in local and municipal councils put their ballots where their mouth is and whether the 41% who stated that they would not support a list which does not contain women actually stick to their word.
Rarely does the electorate in all its diversity have the chance to make a real difference. Next week’s poll therefore offers a rare opportunity to set in motion a veritable social upheaval. This year, more than ever before (for the first time in Israel’s history, the forthcoming local elections have been declared a national holiday), it may be possible to rectify some of the most untenable gender inequities and, in the process, perhaps enjoy more fully the advantages of a broader and more nuanced representation in municipal affairs. Ultimately, the result depends on each and every one of you; the benefits will be reaped by all.