December 10, 2018

Women in Israeli politics: Seven comments

1. Clearing the table is the first order of business when writing for American Jews about women in Israeli politics. 

That is, clearing Golda from the table. 

Golda Meir was the first and, so far, only woman to serve as Israel’s prime minister. A legend – in America. An object of scorn – in Israel.

Meir’s legacy has a disruptive quality in all Israeli-American conversations about Israeli politics. I still remember how at one of the first dinners I shared with North American Jews (this was in Canada, a long, long time ago), my wife and I were stunned by our host’s first question of the evening: “So what do you think about Golda?” We were young back then and did not quite understand what he wanted from us. Well, we responded, we don’t think about Golda that much. She was a prime minister many Israelis do not remember, and those who do, want to forget. She was in charge in 1973, when Israel suffered a severe blow. She was forced out of office and was replaced by male successors.

So, yes, it was remarkable for a young democracy in the Middle East to have a woman at the top for a short while. But she was not a great success. The people did not elect Meir — her party elected her (because she wanted the job more than anyone else, as one witness later testified). She was subsequently rejected by the people for her failure to prevent or properly respond to the Yom Kippur War. It took Israel more than 30 years for another woman to become a serious candidate for the top job. It will take Israel even longer to have another female prime minister. Meir was an outlier — not the Israeli norm.

2. Today, a new generation of women has risen in Israeli politics. They are relatively young, fashionable, verbal and provocative. They are the opposite of Golda Meir. They make names for themselves by being active and communicative. They make names for themselves — well, those who make names for themselves — by being confrontational.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right wing-religious Habayit Hayehudi [Jewish Home] Party is a secular hawk who wants to shake up the legal system.

Culture Minister Miri Regev of the Likud Party finds ways to make waves at least once a month. If female politicians bring something to the table that men do not, it is certainly not a less-aggressive style. Regev is arguably the most aggressive minister of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current cabinet.

Knesset Member Stav Shaffir of the Labor Party is a social revolutionary. Centrist Orthodox Knesset Member Aliza Lavie, while not as young, is a religious revolutionary. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is a notable speaker for right-wing policies and the settlements.

The number of women in the Knesset has been rising for quite some time now: From nine in 1996; to 14 in 1999; to 18 in 2003; to 21 in 2009; to 27 in 2013; to the current number: A quarter of the Knesset — 29 — in 2015. A record. 

In 2006, according to Israel’s Democracy Institute, Israel was ranked 90th among all nations in women’s representation in the parliament. In 2013, it was 64th. So there definitely remains room for improvement, but Israel is improving. It is improving in numbers, and it is improving in the visibility of female politicians.

3. In Israel, the people do not elect their politicians. The parties do. Some have primaries and voters; others have a leader, or a group of leaders, who have the final word. In parties with voters, the voters decide how many women they want. Usually, it is not enough, so the parties compensate by keeping open slots designated for women. That is to say: Israel still needs more women in politics. 

In some parties – the Charedi parties — a woman cannot become a political representative. In the most recent election, for a brief moment,  Charedi women attempted to organize to change this. Alas, that moment has passed. Equal representation for women in the Knesset depends on many factors, one of which is for the conservative sectors within Israel’s society to want women to represent them. For many years, Charedis argued that “their” women feel no need to represent themselves and that they are happy to see Charedi men representing them. Perhaps they were once happy. Perhaps many still are. But there’s also a possibility that things are changing, and that even Charedi parties could soon see a benefit from including women on the ticket.

4. So, what is the benefit of women playing a role in politics? The answer is, in part, symbolic: Women make up half the population — they should be represented accordingly. 

But there is also the theory that women in politics behave differently from men. And there is the “women’s issues” component. Women — some argue — are more capable of bringing a women’s perspective to the table and representing their interests.

And, of course, this may well be true. But concerning the current wave of visible female members of Knesset, it is worth noting that many of them are pretty far from being able to identify with the needs and sentiments of “average” Israeli women. Israeli women tend to marry fairly early (compared with other Western societies) and to have many children (compared with other Western societies). None of which is true of Israeli women in the Knesset. Not all of them are married. Not all of them have children — in fact, some of the most visible female MKs are not married and have no children. They can still represent “women’s issues” (and they do, according to studies, more so than their male colleagues), but for understandable reasons, they do not always possess an exclusive knowledge of what Israeli women really need.

5. A woman headed one party in the most recent election — the leftist Meretz Party. Zehava Galon, leader of a relatively marginal party, is not likely to become Israel’s prime minister. In the previous election, Tzipi Livni headed the centrist Hatnua Party, another small party, so Livni, too, also was not a real contender for the top job. A third woman, Shelly Yachimovich, was at the head of the Labor Party. These three formed a trio that created the impression, if only for a brief time, that men are from planet government, while women are from planet opposition. 

Tzipi Livni

Livni, however, is different from Yachimovich and Galon. Livni has served in eight different cabinet positions, including Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006-09, and is the most successful  female politician since Golda Meir. She is the only one to have come close — very close — to becoming prime minister. She did so back in 2008, when she headed Kadima. After the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres tasked Livni with forming a new coalition. She failed. Then her party secured the highest number of seats in the Knesset in 2009, but she had no path to a 61 majority coalition. A man — Netanyahu — got the keys. Livni’s fortunes went into decline. She lost Kadima, then formed Hatnuah, then abandoned it and formed the Zionist Camp by becoming Labor’s Isaac Herzog’s No. 2. She is not likely ever to become Israel’s second female prime minister. Currently, no woman seems close to becoming a contender for that job.

6. The issue of chauvinism comes up from time to time when female politicians believe they are not being treated fairly. The latest such incident involved Shaffir and TV talk show host  Erel Segal. In February, Shaffir penned a somewhat dreamy article for the Haaretz newspaper. The right-wing Segal — not always the most subtle commentator — used the article to mock her. She’d written that one of the things that makes her happy is riding a bicycle. Segal donned a red wig — Shaffir is a redhead — and, using a feminine voice, cried that he, too, wants “to be free and ride a bicycle without a seat.”

It was not funny and was in bad taste, as Erel himself admitted the next day. He got carried away. But Shaffir’s reaction was also over the top. She called the caricature sexual harassment and said she was considering filing a complaint with the police. Knesset Member Ksenia Svetlova, her Labor colleague, submitted an official complaint to the regulatory agency in charge of monitoring content on cable and satellite TV channels. Both were furious with Segal, and many of their supporters rushed to condemn the hawkish pundit. 

It was all politics: Segal and his right-wing friends were quick to remind Israelis that leftist shows — such as legendary TV satire show “Eretz Nehederet” — have used even more blatant sexual innuendo in presenting right-wing female politicians such as Shaked and Hotovely. They pointed out that no beacon of the Israeli left rushed to defend the lost honor of those female public servants; no complaints were filed, no cries of sexism heard. 

So the argument was reduced to this: Is this illegitimate sexism — both Segal’s tasteless skit and “Eretz Nehederet’s” depiction of Shaked as a nymphomaniac (because of her love for the country) — or is it legitimate, if tasteless, satire?

7. Two women are signatories on Israel’s Declaration of Independence. One is Meir. The other is Rachel Cohen-Kagan, the only woman ever to enter the Knesset as the head of a women’s party. She declared that she represented “a female perspective” in an interview with Haaretz in 1949. Such a perspective seems natural in today’s Israel, where the head of the Bank of Israel is a woman, the president of the high court is a woman and respected members of Knesset are women. It is natural, although still not in all fields. There are still barriers: No woman has served as minister of defense, for example, mainly because most ministers of defense are former IDF high command officers, and women do not often reach such positions. 

So the military is a barrier. And it will remain so as long as women are not allowed to serve in positions equal to men — and as long as military credentials have value in Israel’s political marketplace. That is to say, for the foreseeable future. 

Yet despite the caveats, Israel has seen the rise of multiple notable Israeli female politicians. Outstanding women represent diverse groups in the Knesset. So, does Israel need even more women in office? Does it want more women in office? The debate about adequate representation never ends. What if the public wants more men than women representing them? What if women want to serve less than men do? What if a bias based on habit is responsible for these preferences? What if insistence on representation by quota distorts our desire to let people choose as they please? 

You won’t get a unified, agreed-upon “women’s perspective” in response to even these questions, which may be a sign that things, generally speaking, are moving in the right direction.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.