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.
If the government arrives at a peace deal with the Palestinians, many settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and their supporters in the nationalist religious camp, as it is called, are certain to adamantly oppose such an agreement, which will involve Israel ceding significant swaths of West Bank land. But over his decades as the paramount religious leader of Israeli Jews from Arab lands, Bar Shalom’s father, Rabbi Ovadia, as he is popularly known, always agreed in principle to territorial withdrawal. His son Yitzhak Yosef, currently Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, stressed during a February meeting with Dan Shapiro, America’s ambassador to Israel, that he still accepts this idea.
Bar Shalom herself is strongly dovish. Consequently, if she became president, Israel could potentially have two members of the Yosef religious aristocracy in a position to influence the most natural opponents of a peace deal from high office.
“It’s prohibited to sanctify the land more than the lives of people,” Bar Shalom said flatly during an interview in her Jerusalem office, echoing her father’s position.
Still, Rabbi Ovadia stressed that this can happen only if genuine security will follow. Asked about this, Bar Shalom argued that, contrary to what many on the Israeli right say, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine negotiating partner who does offer genuine security.
“Is there quiet at the moment?” she asked, and then answered her own question: “This is because Abu Mazen [Abbas] said: ‘I won’t allow terrorists and terror. I prevent the terror. So for us it’s an opportunity that there’s someone like this who prevents the terror.”
Abbas, she said, is also a “leader who succeeds in connecting all of the Arab world.” A peace deal with him, she believes, would consequently bring peace with other Arab states. She was also positive about the peace-brokering role of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Bar Shalom doesn’t see any contradiction between her dovish views and her respect for her father, a man whose comments on Palestinians, African Americans and other groups of non-Jews were on multiple occasions widely criticized as racist.
“When he called Palestinians ‘snakes’ he didn’t mean that all the Palestinians are snakes,” said Bar Shalom. “He meant that those who get on a bus and blow themselves up with all the people [are snakes].”
According to Bar Shalom, people often missed the distinction Rabbi Ovadia intended between specific individuals or groups and the larger groups of which they were a part.
Still, the very man Bar Shalom singles out for praise was specifically condemned by her father in August 2010.
“Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world,” he said in a sermon in Jerusalem then. “May God smite them with the plague, them and the Palestinians, evil-doers and Israel haters.”
In this case, said Bar Shalom, her father was reacting to what he considered puzzling preconditions that Abbas was setting down ahead of negotiations. “If you want peace why do you need to make conditions?” she asked. “So he mocked him.”
The other issue currently threatening to fracture Israeli society is the declared will of the current government to end the blanket exemption of Haredi men from national military service. The Haredi establishment, including her father’s Shas party, is strongly opposed to a universal draft. But Bar Shalom’s own biography may suggest that she is uniquely positioned to bridge the divide.
After her arranged marriage at age 17, Bar Shalom worked as a seamstress. Her career aspiration to study psychology was aborted by the veto of her father and her husband, Ezra Bar Shalom, a rabbinic judge who has since retired. Nevertheless, in 2000 she established a college to give Haredim in their late teens and early 20s — initially women and now both sexes — secular qualifications that would enable them to enter the workforce. It was a radical idea then; Israel’s Haredi community has traditionally opposed secular higher education. But Bar Shalom pioneered an environment with rabbinic supervision and separate-gender instruction. Following her father’s blessing, it became widely accepted. The college now has 1,000 students, and the idea has been replicated across the country.
For Bar Shalom, this proves a point: If secular education takes place in a controlled setting, it won’t compromise the Haredi lifestyle. Only one of the college’s students has become nonreligious, she said. And the same, she believes, will can be true for army service.
“He who has strong [religious] foundations will not be ruined in the army,” she said. Bar Shalom offered the example of a young man who, after yeshiva study, went to the draft office and proceeded to serve for a decade. It was her brother Avraham Yosef, currently chief rabbi of Holon. Her son also had a stint in uniform.
If she were to seek to promote a national consensus around such views as president of Israel, Haredi opponents might dismiss her as a sell-out. But several important hurdles would confront such opponents. First, there is the status conferred on Bar Shalom by her family background — a factor that looms large in Haredi culture. Second, Bar Shalom’s presidential bid, if she launches one, is likely to be backed by Shas, the largest Haredi party, which has said that it would put the matter to its governing council.
Her status as president, were this to occur, would also create a new reality. Currently, rabbinical leaders don’t want to even negotiate on military service lest they seem to de facto endorse the plan. But if Bar Shalom were to become head of state, Haredim would have a voice already in place at the highest level familiar with their most serious concerns. This could facilitate the presentation of their views in government councils and herald the most favorable possible agreement for Haredim.
Bar Shalom declined to state her position on current draft plans. But she did say that conscripting Haredi boys at 18 like secular boys is unacceptable and criticized advocates of this for indulging in “populism.” “When [Finance Minister] Yair Lapid sees that he is going down in the polls, he puts Haredim into his discourse, and automatically he rises in the polls — it’s politics,” she said.
In Bar Shalom’s view, all Haredi males need the chance to cement their religious identity first in yeshiva. She said that yeshiva for all Haredi boys is particularly important, because “none of us knows which boy will be our next genius or our next leader.” But she believes that a culture of national service among Haredi yeshiva graduates could be created, with Haredi men, once they are married and aged around 22, opting to sign up in consultation with their rabbis.
Over the past 15 years, Bar Shalom has skyrocketed through the glass ceiling that sets the limits for Haredi women. She believes strongly that others will follow. “I have no doubt that Haredi women will be leaders in the future,” she said. “It’s not because of a process of enlightenment, but because in a place where there isn’t a man who’ll be a man, female leadership is needed from us in our society.”
During her interview with the Forward, Bar Shalom offered a rare personal glimpse into how Israel’s most prominent rabbinic family felt when hundreds of thousands of Israelis flocked to her father’s funeral last October. “It was hard,” she said, referring to the public dimension of her mourning. “When mother died, there was a small family funeral…. With him it was rather hard, but what can you do?
“All the time the daughters and daughters-in-law held each other… and said [of the crowds], ‘It’s from love.’”
The ubiquitous memorialization of Rabbi Ovadia doesn’t always please the family. Huge pictures of Bar Shalom’s father adorn the walls of thousands of religious homes, not to mention shops and restaurants. Bar Shalom labeled this “mysticism” and said that the family dislikes the trend. “Why does everyone need to put pictures of rabbis in their house? It’s not desirable,” she said, adding, “My father himself didn’t put a picture of a single rabbi in his house.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org