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The best representation for the ultra-Orthodox: none at all

The new government might just be able to save the ultra-Orthodox from their rabbis

The new Israeli government is being sworn in without representatives of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties. This is not common, but our experience in Jerusalem teaches us that this might actually be good news for the ultra-Orthodox community. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds.

Residents of Jerusalem are constantly struggling over the character of their neighborhoods; is their neighborhood pluralistic, or ultra-Orthodox?

Take Ramot, for example. When I began serving as a councilwoman, the ultra-Orthodox councilmen demanded that the mayor zone Ramot as an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood; this would have had significant ramifications. Needless to say, the secular, traditional, and religious community in Ramot opposed such a move. Together, we embarked on a mission to counter this initiative. We were quite surprised when even the ultra-Orthodox joined our ranks. They explained that they’d left the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods because they didn’t want to live in a ghetto, and they don’t want the ultra-Orthodox ghetto encroaching on them in Ramot. They want to live in mixed neighborhoods, with secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox neighbors. This was their wish.

More examples followed: not only in the struggle over neighborhoods, but also when combating the exclusion of women from the public sphere. In the early days of the struggle against this ugly phenomenon, I was asked why I wasn’t “minding my own business” and insisted on getting involved with the ultra-Orthodox. Couldn’t I just let them live as they wish? But I was shocked to realize that while the ultra-Orthodox representatives favored excluding women, and even claimed that sitting in the back of the bus and using separate streets was convenient (and not humiliating) for the women, ordinary ultra-Orthodox citizens thought otherwise.

Many ultra-Orthodox women called me to voice their support, and ultra-Orthodox men thanked me for my efforts. I was further motivated by a phone call from an ultra-Orthodox woman who said that she “sometimes thinks that G-d created non-ultra-Orthodox women to save the ultra-Orthodox women from the community’s own rabbis and cronies.

The new government can save the ultra-Orthodox men and women from their rabbis and, more importantly, their cronies. Think about it. Ultra-Orthodox society is not democratic. The public cannot speak its mind. Everything is managed and run by a small, tight-knit clique.

In Jerusalem, we live alongside, and are familiar with, the ultra-Orthodox community. Time and time again, and struggle after struggle, we realize that the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members, councilmen, and cronies do not represent the ultra-Orthodox public.

But it’s more than just Jerusalem. The ultra-Orthodox website, Kikar HaShabat, conducted a large survey that showed that half of the ultra-Orthodox public supports army enlistment for anyone not studying in a yeshiva. The same survey reported that a third of the ultra-Orthodox public feels unrepresented by the ultra-Orthodox parties and does not want to vote for them. A quarter of the respondents reported wishing that the ultra-Orthodox parties would prioritize helping their constituents enter the workforce.

As the new government takes the oath of office, leaving the ultra-Orthodox parties far from the nexus of decision making, we have a real chance. Now is the time for the government to speak directly to the ultra-Orthodox public – circumventing their leaders. This is the only way to give the ultra-Orthodox community a future.

You’d be surprised, but ultra-Orthodox men and women want to live a normal, good life, just like everyone else. They want to shoulder their portion of the national burden, work, make a living, and raise their families. Today, more than ever, we have a real chance at making this happen.

About the Author
Rachel Azaria is Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, holding the education portfolio and women's rights portfolio. Azaria earned a BA in psychology and MA in conflict resolution, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An alumna of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, Azaria served as the CEO of Mavoi Satum, a non-profit organization helping women denied a get (Jewish divorce) by their husbands. Azaria was first elected to the city council in 2008, and held the Early Childhood Education and Community Councils portfolios in her first term. In 2013 she was reelected and appointed deputy mayor. The Yerushalmim Party, that she chairs, doubled itself in the recent elections. She is an active leader of the struggle against the exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere, and gained international recognition as a leading orthodox feminist. She lives in the Katamonim (Gonenim) district of Jerusalem with her husband and their four children.