Israel has just held elections and the president has made up his mind to ask the leader of the party with the most seats to form the next government. And she – no, that is not a typo – has accepted.
Fifty-two years ago, Israel welcomed its fourth prime minister into office, the tough-talking, take-no-prisoners Golda Meir. Russian-born and American-educated, she had served a long apprenticeship in the smoky backrooms of Labor Party politics, learning how to wheel and deal with the best of them.
Of course, she was not a perfect prime minister – there is no such thing. But in her five years leading Israel, between 1969 and 1974, the state presented a proud face to the international community, as a country that welcomed women playing an equal part in its society.
It is almost unimaginable today that there could be a Golda waiting in the wings of the political stage. Tzipi Livni, like Golda, served as Israel’s foreign minister, but her career ended in disappointment in 2019 when her new party, Hatnua, failed to broker a deal with Labor and was unable to cross the required threshold to enter the Knesset. Livni, once the most powerful woman in Israeli political life, retired and has lived under the radar since.
Labor’s latest leader, Merav Michaeli, is now the sole woman party leader in the new Knesset. Her list consists of alternate men and women – but, despite being in the straight-talking tradition of Golda Meir, she has not been able to acquire a critical mass of seats, and must join forces with other smaller parties in order to have any hope of power or leverage with the next government.
It seems extraordinary that in 2021 a party leader such as Shas’ Aryeh Deri can get away with not only having no women on his list, but can actually claim that politics “is not women’s natural place”, and that political activism “runs counter to their worldview”.
Deri is currently interior minister, a post he is likely to retain if Netanyahu succeeds in cobbling together a right-leaning coalition. It was cheering, therefore, to hear the blunt assessment of the head of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman. Deri, he snarled, was actually “minister for the exclusion of women”. It’s not just Shas that has no women on its slate: nor does United Torah Judaism. Both the Arab parties – even the Islamist Ra’am – have women politicians.
So what has become of the climate in Israeli society, in which a modern-day Golda Meir is an impossible dream?
I think there is a clue in what has happened at the entrance to Jerusalem, in which two huge posters, bearing defaced images of women, remained hanging in place this week, a full two weeks after they were vandalised.
The posters were adverts for a photographic exhibition called Making music out of trauma and depicted singer Achinoam Nini and musician Ofra Yitzhaki. The exhibition is a fund-raiser for male and female soldiers who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Someone – or several someones – blacked out the women’s faces on these posters. It’s not a new thing – it’s happened repeatedly on other posters showing women. Neither the police nor the Jerusalem municipality appear to have been able to do much except wring their hands.
If society says by omission or default that such actions are acceptable, where will it end? Complete segregation?
Half a century after Golda became premier, it seems that lessons still need to be learned.