Good enough to vote; not good enough to run for office

Recent elections show that the 'cultural norms' of ultra-Orthodox women should stop getting in their way on the Israeli political scene
Illustrative. The first lobby of ultra-Orthodox women, initiated by Nivcharot, at the Knesset. May 2018. (courtesy, Nancy Strichman)
Illustrative. The first lobby of ultra-Orthodox women, initiated by Nivcharot, at the Knesset. May 2018. (courtesy, Nancy Strichman)

The recent regional council and municipal elections have highlighted a new trend in the participation of women in politics. Two electoral victories in particular require special attention: that of the female religious candidate in Beit Shemesh who ousted the incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor, and that of Dr. Einat Kalish, who toppled the longstanding incumbent mayor of Haifa.

Both victories bear much significance for the status of women.

With regard to Beit Shemesh, we are dealing with a city that has, over the past decade or so, undergone an immense demographic change, with a substantial increase in the ultra-Orthodox community. This change has resulted in extreme tensions between the ultra-Orthodox community and the city’s other religious and secular communities. Not only did a female candidate defeat an ultra-Orthodox mayor, but this victory also sends a clear message to the ultra-Orthodox community that their attempts to prevent women from participating in politics are not acceptable.

As for Haifa, this is the first time that a woman has been elected as mayor of any of the three major cities of Israel. The new secular female mayor was welcomed by ultra-Orthodox activists in Haifa with dancing and singing, and a very emotional blessing from Moshe Gafni, the head of  “Degel Hatorah” – one of the three ultra-Orthodox political parties, and today part of the coalition that officially denounced the involvement of women in politics.

Three and a half years ago, I filed a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court claiming that the bylaws of the ultra-Orthodox “Agudat Israel” political party, which prevent women from being members of the party, are unconstitutional. My argument is that, via the bylaws that prevent women from being members of the party, Agudat Israel is denying women their most fundamental civil rights – the right to vote and be elected, and the right to equality, both recognized as constitutional rights.

As a secular lawyer, I heard about this breach of civil rights by coincidence from an ultra-Orthodox feminist organization named “Nivcharot,” headed by Estee Rider and Esty Shoshan. Nivcharot ran a campaign within their ultra-Orthodox community to allow women to take a substantive role in political matters. And yet, they are consistently rejected by the men who control all major political roles in the community. Another 10 women rights organizations, led by “Itach Maaki” — Women Lawyers for Social Justice, have joined the petition.

In its response to the petition, Agudat Israel claimed that their objection to the involvement of women in politics is based on religious argument. However, after failing to provide supporting evidence of the alleged “religious argument,” the political party now claims that the prohibition is based on the customary norms of the ultra-Orthodox community, relating to the role of women. Or, as I interpret it, the women are good enough to vote in order to allow the party to gain its political power, yet they are not good enough to impact major decision-making that affects ultra-Orthodox community life. These supposedly customary norms regarding the role of women, obviously dictated by men, were not supported by any conclusive evidence.

Moreover, none of this bothered the ultra-Orthodox politicians from going out of their way to congratulate Dr. Einat Kalish for winning the Haifa municipal election and becoming the first woman mayor of a major city in Israel. It is also worth mentioning that in these 2018 elections, we saw, for the first time, a few female ultra-Orthodox candidates.

Now, three and a half years after filing the petition, we hope that the Israeli High Court of Justice will do justice and protect the most basic civil rights of the ultra-Orthodox women, who are a minority within their ultra-Orthodox community. Doing so will allow them to become full members of the political party, thereby enabling them to take part in the discourse and to impact major decisions relating to their community, such as education, women’s health, sexual harassment, and other issues.

I believe that a Supreme Court ruling in this case will have far-reaching import on women’s struggle for equality, far beyond the specific case of ultra-Orthodox women. The Supreme Court should send a clear message to every community, that the right to equality cannot be overcome by a vague argument claiming “a way of life.” If we allow just one community to breach the right to equality in the name of  “cultural norms,” we will not be able to prevent discrimination.

About the Author
Adv. Tamar Ben Porath was the primary petitioner in the HCJ petition filed against Agudat Israel for gender discrimination.
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