Jerusalem — When Israel’s most revered rabbi died last October, there was much talk about who would be the main figure to perpetuate his legacy and how he would do it. Nobody suggested that it would be a woman, or that her instrument of influence would be the state’s highest office.
But Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s daughter, Adina Bar Shalom, has told the Forward that she is considering running as president of Israel this spring, when members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, are expected to select someone to succeed Israel’s current head of state, Shimon Peres. If she does compete and win, she will be the country’s first female president and its first Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, president.
Rumors of Bar Shalom’s candidacy began spreading on January 22, when an un-sourced report in the daily newspaper Ma’ariv suggested that she was considering running. Her response then was that she wasn’t dismissing the idea but had “still not talked with anyone.”
Speaking with the Forward on February 10, Bar Shalom stopped short of a definitive declaration. But her earlier diffidence had dissipated. For the first time, she indicated that she is seriously considering a run.
Bar Shalom said that she is now in regular contact with people who want her to declare her candidacy. The 69-year-old Tel Aviv mother-of-three described the possibility of doing so as “very exciting,” adding that her supporters believe she can be a “bridge between religion and the state.”
The main factor delaying her final decision, said Bar Shalom, is the question of who else will put their hat in the ring. She plans to “see who are the candidates, and then decide.”
If Bar Shalom takes the plunge, she will be up against at least one other non-politician. Dan Shechtman, a scientist at Haifa’s Technion University who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011, declared his intention to run last January. The other declared candidates are two respected veteran Knesset members: Reuven Rivlin of Likud and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer of the Labor party.
The prospect of a president from outside of politics is popular in Israel. An early February poll limited (for technical reasons) to Jewish citizens of Israel by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 40% of respondents preferred a president from the world of “science and humanities” versus 30% who preferred an experienced politician.
The position of president is largely a ceremonial one in Israel, where actual political power resides with the government, and with the prime minister most of all. But the presidency, which represents the state above and beyond the daily struggles of politics, is an office that still carries substantial symbolic and even moral weight. The president also is charged with choosing who is to be given the chance to seek to assemble a governing coalition after an election — a not insubstantial power in a fractious multiparty country that produces close election results regularly. For Peres, one of Israel’s most practiced and experienced politicians, the presidency has even proved be a perch from which he could exert real, if quiet, political influence.
Bar Shalom, of course, lacks Peres’s practical political experience. But if she were to become head of state, she would be strategically positioned to see Israel through two of the most serious challenges now looming ahead for the country: the peace process with the Palestinians and the integration of Haredim into the Israeli Army and, more broadly, into society.