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A Political Tipping Point for Ultra-Orthodox Women?

A poster for the group promoting haredi women political candidates, ‘Lo nivcharot; lo bocharot,’ which means, if we can’t be elected, we will not vote for you.

There is a new feminist revolution happening in Israel, and it is emerging from one of the most surprising places: Ultra-Orthodoxy.

Over the past two years, ultra-Orthodox or haredi women have been organizing around feminist issues. They began with a campaign during the 2012 national elections, when a small group of women led by haredi journalist Esti Shushan and others formed a group called “Lo nivcharot; lo bocharot” (LoNiLoBo), which means, if we can’t be elected, we will not vote for you. It was a call to the haredi political parties to allow women to run on their lists. The LoNiLoBo group petitioned the High Court of Justice to declare it illegal for a political party to prohibit women from running — but unfortunately they lost, and the religious parties seemed no worse for wear, considering their election results.

The LoNiLoBo group gained traction during the 2013 municipal elections when four haredi women ran for spots on municipal councils in four different cities — Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Elad and Safed. This time, the women were noticed. They received threats and curses from rabbis and haredi political leaders, and one — Racheli Ibenboim, who ran in Jerusalem on the Bayit Yehudi party list — had to pull out because of the threats. Nevertheless, one of the women, Shira Gergi of Safed, won and became the first haredi woman to sit on a municipal council. In fact, she became the first woman to sit on the Safed council in over 20 years.

Since then, the LoNiLoBo group has been growing and expanding, with over 5,000 likes on its Facebook page and coverage on every major news outlet in Israel. The impressive young powerhouse Racheli Ibenboim even quit her job as Executive Director of a major NGO in Israel to work on what she called taking care of her feminist identity.

This week, the haredi feminist movement reached a new milestone with the formation of the first ever religious women’s political party. Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old activist and mother of four who had run for a seat in the Petach Tikva municipality, held a press conference on Sunday in which she announced the formation of “U’Bezchutan” — literally, “in their [women’s] merit” — to run in the coming elections. Even the secular feminist movement does not currently have its own party. (There have been three attempts in Israel to advance a Women’s Party in Israel: in 1979, led by former MK Marcia Freedman; in 1992 led by Ruth Reznik, and in 1999 led by Esther Herzog. All times, they failed to meet the electoral threshold, but impacted the elections in different ways ).

The formation of a women’s party is a very different political strategy than forming an advocacy group to get religious parties to allow women on the lists. This approach takes the movement for social change outside of the existing systems and suggests that change for women can only come when women have a “room of their own.” If the LoNiLoBo movement says that haredi women have faith in the parties of their religious sector but just want to have a voice, the U’Bezchutan movement says that such faith is waning.

Some of the religious political leaders are definitely taking notice of these shifts. Before the announcement of the new political party, religious men began making definitive pronouncements about why women cannot be in politics (“It’s dirty work”; “It’s against Torah”; “Men represent women”, etc.) In this case, even a negative response is a response. Moreover, the Shas party responded with a kind of mild action by forming a “Women’s Council” to be led by Adina Bar Shalom and Yaffa Deri. To be sure, the “Women’s Council” will likely be mostly powerless and ultimately meaningless. But the fact that Shas found it necessary to create it suggests that something is shifting on the ground. And it is possible that the rabbis’ grandiose threatening declarations may actually have a boomerang effect, empowering women even more to go their own way. And if women are ready to ignore the rabbis in this instance, the implications are huge.

And this week, Eli Yishai, who formed his own party in direct competition with Shas, actually met with the women of LoNiLoBo and apparently said that, despite earlier pronouncements that he will not have women on his list, he will now reconsider adding women to his list. Clearly he realizes that adding women to the list may be the only way to keep women as voters. Otherwise, they may head for the door — and then the religious parties may really be in trouble.

Realistically, it’s hard to know what kind of chance the U’Bezchutan women have in getting Knesset seats. The secular women’s parties needed some 30-40,000 votes and were unable to reach those thresholds. Today, U’Bezchutan needs approximately 120,000 votes to cross the threshold. Certainly the feminist movement has a lot more support now than it did even in 1999, but that’s a lot of votes. Nevertheless, the party has the potential to significantly weaken the religious parties, which are already suffering from the aftermath of the Yishai-Deri split. The fact that politicians are even talking about women progress. That’s already something, and we have yet to see how that will find expression. Perhaps in the next Knesset haredi MKs will be less likely to oppose feminist legislation as they have done adamantly in the past. Or perhaps they will find other ways to give women a say. It will be interesting to see. 

Clearly we are witnessing a turning point for haredi women, one that may be a result of a confluence of factors. One factor is that haredi women have been working and advancing careers and integrating with secular society in ways that men have not, and are thus being exposed to modern ideas and practices around gender. Another factor may be growing frustration with increasing gender-based radicalism that is sweeping through their communities, where rabbis are constantly coming up with new ways to keep women down. (E.g., last week there was a new outrageous bus ad campaign that reads, “Shorter dress = shorter life”.) This movement could be a backlash against that, where women are saying, “Enough!” Or it could be part of a larger trend in Israel and around the world where feminist ideology is gaining traction among women everywhere — even in the most traditional societies. Maybe it was just a matter of time before the feminist revolution reached even haredi society. 

Meanwhile, the party has to clarify its platform a little more, especially on contentious haredi issues like encouraging haredi men to work and enlist in the army. I, for one, am very eager to hear what the women have to say on those topics. I’m curious as to whether the haredi feminist movement will adopt the same policies as the male-led parties or will bring in some new, fresh thinking on all these issues.

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