This has been an interesting week for Knesset women. And when I say “interesting,” I am possibly referring to the famous Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” These are interesting times for women MKs for sure.
The first bit of news was that the new renegade party of Ehud Barak has two women in it. That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that Barak’s party only has five people (including himself), you realize that the new party holds an all-time Knesset record of 40% women! That’s double the proportion of the rest of the Knesset, which has 23 women out of 120, or 19%.
Of the two women in Barak’s new party, one, MK Orit Noked, the newly appointed Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, has been blasted by her supporters for joining with Barak. Noked is supposed to be representing the kibbutz movement, and kibbutz leaders are understandably fuming at her for not even dropping a hint about her plans, never mind consulting with them about the move. Now, the kibbutz movement, which has historically been the mainstay of the socialist left, is being represented by a member of a self-proclaimed centrist party that is in coalition with some of the most right-wing parties in existence in Israel.
The other woman who joined Barak, MK Dr. Einat Wilf, is a Knesset newby, as well as a scholar, author and feminist activist, who has until now promoted some very good legislation on Jewish pluralism and gender issues. One has to wonder why someone as idealistic, talented and promising as Wilf would join in what so many commentators have called a “stinking maneuver”, perhaps even the worst political maneuver in Israel’s history (which says a lot). Wilf went on national television this week and explained that her reasons for joining Barak were ideological: in order to save the failing and impotent left. But many were not convinced. Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz dedicated an entire column to blasting her: “Named by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s most promising young women, she turned out to be a major phony while still a political rookie … Who needs young people like Wilf, conservative and opportunistic. Their predecessors are enough.”
Personally, I would like to give Wilf the benefit of the doubt and believe that she really has good motives, because I think she can be a great legislator. But I must say that the idea of joining Barak feels slimy and sleazy, no matter what the reasons. Barak, who bowed out of politics presumably in shame but then spent four years making tens of millions of dollars giving away state secrets as perhaps the highest paid consultant in Israeli history, and then slid his way back into Labor party leadership while living in his 10 million dollar Tel Aviv penthouse and hiring illegal Fillipino domestic staff who did not even get social benefits and then preaching to the country about the need for a social agenda — well, he redefines the terms self-serving and opportunistic. Why someone like Wilf would join hands with someone like Barak is hard to fathom. Perhaps she, too, was hoping to become minister overnight. Or perhaps this is just another case of politics making strange bedfellows.
Meanwhile, Barak’s stinking maneuver has potential ramifications for another female Labor MK, Shelly Yachimovich. A new Ha’aretz poll found that Yachimovich is the most promising leader of the Labor party. Under her leadership, the poll reported, the Labor party would receive 10 mandates, two more than its current eight seats. By contrast, Amram Mitzna at the helm would keep Labor at eight seats, and Avishai Braverman would bring Labor down to five seats. If the party decides to go with Yachimovich, the Knesset would see an unprecedented two major parties with women leaders, following MK Tsippi Livni as head of Kadima. Now that would be truly interesting, in the good way.
Finally, not to be undone by other female MKs, Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkowitz grabbed the spotlight this week with an ant-feminist rant at the Knesset podium in which she attacked single mothers, victims of sexual harassment and of course feminists, all of whom she says are ruining the country. No, this isn’t the American Republican party or Sarah Palin (who despite her own anti-feminist policies unfathomably keeps trying to tell people that she’s a feminist). No, this is Israel, the Kadima party and a surname-hyphenated female politician making these outrageous remarks. “Nobody ever tried to sexually harass me”, she exclaimed, attempting to cast doubt against victims of sexual harassment. “And I’m not that ugly”, she added. Well, that’s debatable. Beauty is more than skin deep, dear.
My conclusion from all this news is shared by at least one female MK, Tsippi Livni, who announced this week, “It’s time for new elections.” Yes, it certainly is.