“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
That was the tagline of a classic 1980’s shampoo commercial in the United States. A tweaked version of the slogan can be applied to Israel’s newly appointed Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked - she’s not hated because she’s beautiful. But the intensity with which she’s hated - and feared - by many of her ideological opponents make her hated and beautiful - with her looks offering a tempting target for those who dislike what she stands for.
The rise of Ayelet Shaked, and the sexist reactions to a young attractive female in a position of national prominence challenges the Israeli feminist left (and, let’s face it, in Israel, as elsewhere, the majority of feminists align with the left) in a way that is reminiscent of Alaska governor Sarah Palin presented when she was chosen by John McCain as his vice-presidential running mate for the U.S. presidency in 2008.
Shaked, like Palin, is so tightly allied with the hard-core politically conservative and religious forces in Israel - forces that they fear are gaining more power - that such a woman’s individual achievement has been hard for them to celebrate in the way that American feminists embrace Hillary Clinton or Israelis have when politicians such as Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yacimovich or Zehava Galon smashed glass ceilings.
Just as Palin attracted her share of sexist remarks in her time, so has Shaked now - forcing feminists who are clearly her ideological enemies onto a tightrope of attacking her political positions while defending her honor.
A major difference between the two is that that Palin never actually ended up holding national office, and thus never really ended up being able to influence over the future of Americans. Shaked, on the other hand, now is poised to hold a job in which she will wield real power.
And there is plenty of legitimate concern as to what she will do with that power, based on her record. In the past, Shaked has publicly stated that she would like to reduce the power of the Supreme Court, promoted the controversial “Jewish state” law, which would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state into legislation as well as a law which would financially punish leftist non-profit organizations, was the driving force behind an effort to pass a bill that would allow judges to close off the option of a presidential pardon for terrorists, designed to prevent the early release of Israeli Arab and Palestinian murderers as part of negotiations with Palestinian entities, as well as legislation that would bypass Supreme Court human rights objections to the detention and deportation of African asylum-seekers.
But the substantive criticism of her politics has undeniably been laced with a healthy dose of sexism. Shortly after her appointment was announced, former cabinet minister and Knesset member Joseph Paritsky sneered on Facebook that, “finally, we have a justice minister worthy of being featured on a calendar in an auto repair shop.” When criticized for the remark, Paritsky’s reportedly dug himself in deeper in a radio interview, arguing that the fact that she has posed for fashion photos in the past justified his observation - capping it off with a Nazi comparison, saying, “I mean, this is not a person who avoids presenting herself before the camera. It's not like I took someone who had never struck a model's pose to exhibit her beauty, and she is very beautiful – like many of the Reich's women.”
Such comments caused at least one feminist activist, Peggy Cidor from the group Women of the Wall, to post plaintively on that Facebook “Paritzsky’s sexist comments are going to force me to defend Ayelet Shaked!!”
In fact, Shaked’s left-wing feminist counterparts in the Knesset were already coming to her defense. Meretz MK Rozin said that remarks like Paritzsky’s “show contempt for women, but also hurt the legitimacy of the important criticism being leveled against Shaked’s appointment."
A day later, leader of the Meretz party Zehava Galon joined the protest after an item was published in a newspaper gossip column reporting on weekend celebration of Shaked’s 39th birthday at a luxury hotel, noting that “on Friday morning, Shaked showed up at the pool, but to the disappointment of hotel guests, she kept her clothes on.”
Galon declared on Facebook that she was officially “fed up with all of the sexist and misogynist comments regarding Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is an intelligent and hard-working politician with nationalist anti-democratic views. I won’t spare her tough criticism when and where she takes advantage of her position to damage our legal system, but I have no intention of remaining silent when every few days someone pollutes the public arena with these miserable statements about her.”
It all “sends a message to women and girls that it doesn’t matter how much they succeed, even when they receive a top ministerial post in the government - they will be judged first and foremost on their physical appearance … I intend to stand against Ayelet Shaked in every effort she makes to weaken the Supreme court and harm Israeli democracy. But when it comes to how she is treated as a woman and when it comes to remarks that diminish and insult her that she is forced to endure, I will stand beside her.”
Galon’s post received more than 18,000 “likes.”
Being defended so vehemently - by left-wing Meretz, no less - is much more of a novelty for Shaked than being attacked.
Resentment is regularly aimed at her, and not only by the secular left - she has no shortage of it from across the political spectrum, starting at the very top. Shaked famously served as office director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was opposition leader, where she met her ally Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.
The pair are sworn enemies of both Netanyahu and his wife Sara, leaving their jobs under a cloud in 2008, that start of a personal loathing that continues to this day, which both sides refuse to discuss, but is undeniable. At the ceremonial announcement of the agreement that included Shaked’s appointment as Justice Minister, Netanyahu pointedly refrained from shaking her hand.
Rounding out her enemies list now are embittered Likud members who coveted the post - as well as ultra-Orthodox party members who won’t let her forget the fact that she spearheaded the legislative effort to force yeshiva students into army service and have ideological religious objections to the Jewish State bill that she promotes.
Neither is the attention that is paid to her good looks particularly new. In what probably qualifies as the stupidest poll ever, the Israeli Society of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery quizzed 300 women, asking them to rank Knesset lawmakers according to their attractiveness. Shaked came out on top for the female lawmakers (Yair Lapid topped the male list.)
But Shaked has proven time and time again that she is no shrinking violet and knows how to fire back in her own defense, whether the topic is her political positions or her image.
Last year, Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht opened a column about Shaked with: “She first appeared as a curiosity – a young and pretty secular woman from an upscale north Tel Aviv neighborhood … much more attractive and elegant than the caricatures of crazed right-wingers with their bushy beards, skullcaps askew and Uzis dangling from their shoulders.” and concluded the piece: “The riddle of Shaked remains unsolved. Is it unbridled teenage-style enthusiasm, limited binary thinking that includes childish worship of one-dimensional nationalist ideas, or are we witnessing a sophisticated, mathematical talent for harnessing the soul of the nation for the benefit of the settlers?”
The column, headlined “A Knesset member whose irresponsible violence belies her appearance” drew an angry response from Shaked, who criticized what she called Hecht’s cheap shot against her. Shaked wrote: “I’ve had it with those women – women! – who seek to undermine the serious work of women in Israeli politics by describing them as “attractive and elegant” but utterly vacant.”
In her column, Shaked defended her political positions against what she called “the delusional left, which has lost every vestige of self-control.”
Her combative - and often aggressive - style on the Knesset floor, in media appearances has demonstrated that while she may enjoy having defenders - she certainly doesn’t need them. She has shown in her legislative career that she can can hold her own - and has even indulged in some of her own gender-based trash talking. Last December, disgusted in the middle of a heated budget debate, she scornfully turned to a Labor Party member and complained that "you people are doing nothing, just sitting there scratching your balls."
The remark might have played better as sexism payback, however, if she’d said it to a male legislator, instead of to MK Stav Shaffir - who is just as tough and combative and - (dare one say it?) - attractive as Shaked herself.