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The Knesset’s Feminist Awakening

Something has changed in Israeli politics. Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich found that out the hard way.

Last month, Shamalov-Berkovich, a Kadima Knesset member, made some outrageous remarks about single mothers, feminists and victims of sexual harassment. Ignorance and callousness regarding mistreatment of women is nothing new — even for elected officials. What made this incident unusual was how swiftly and strongly the reactions came. Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, castigated her colleague, promising the party will “work to prevent any harm to women’s rights, dignity and independence.” Fellow Kadima lawmaker Orit Zuaretz condemned Shamalov-Berkovich and accused her of “cheap populism on an issue that is very important.” Clearly, Shamalov-Berkovich is Kadima’s odd woman out.

In the entire history of Israeli politics, no major party has ever made women’s rights a vocal, central part of its platform. (Meretz’s platform has been strong on these issues, but it has never been in a position to form a government.) In fact, leading women legislators often distanced themselves from women’s groups, so as not to be cast, heaven forbid, as feminists, or even worse, as women. Indeed, some women’s groups are still angry with Livni because when she was justice minister, she was instrumental in blocking key measures to help battered women. Now Livni’s singing a very different tune. Today, she and the leaders of Kadima — Israel’s largest party — want everyone to know that they are stalwart supporters of women’s rights.

“I used to think that my struggles were my own,” Livni told a recent conference on women and power, “but now I understand that I’m part of a wider system, and that some of my struggles are because I’m a woman.” Though she didn’t use the “f word,” Livni is taking on a feminist agenda, and very publicly.

Similarly, female Knesset members rushed to take public ownership of International Women’s Day on March 8, taking part in commemorations across the country. A long list of feminist bills were introduced to mark the day, including one proposed by Kadima’s Dalia Itzik to ensure equal gender representation on state commissions of inquiries (to which women have rarely been appointed), a bill that has since passed its first reading. By all accounts this was the most widely commemorated Women’s Day in Israel’s history, with female legislators playing a key, public, activist role.

Feminism is coming out of the closet in Israeli politics. Whereas feminists had often been marginalized and dismissed, today certain politicians are proactively trying to attract feminist voters. Women’s issues are being touted across party lines in a way that few other issues are. Women from different parties collaborate openly on issues of sex trafficking, agunot, equal pay and more.

This feminist platform has the potential to realign voting blocs. The Haredi parties, which never have women on their lists, are currently the greatest opponents of pro-women legislation. What happens when their obstructionism runs up against increasingly assertive female politicians? Perhaps in the next Israeli elections we will begin to see a shift — instead of the left against the right, the battle lines may increasingly be between religious parties and women. Now that would be very interesting.

Elana Maryles Sztokman writes for the Forward’s Sisterhood blog. She is the author of the forthcoming “Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” due out this year from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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