For years, Ultra-Orthodox women have been overlooked by their political parties. But a new movement may finally bring female Haredi representation to the Knesset, sparking a revolution in Israeli politics.
The upcoming Israeli elections include a new political party whose members are doing something utterly radical. They are running for office in order to represent the rights of a group that has never enjoyed elected political representation before. And they are doing so by forming a party organized by and comprised solely of ultra-Orthodox women.
The new party, Biz’chutan—which means “on their own merit”—was established because its members believe that the existing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties do not represent Haredi women’s concerns. No women are present on their party lists, nor are women permitted to hold leadership positions. To the founders and members of Biz’chutan, this is both unacceptable and, more importantly, obsolete. Times have changed, and Haredi women now hold positions in Israeli society that must be reflected in politics as well.
While it is still small, Biz’chutan has enormous potential. The current Haredi parties hold 18 Knesset seats. One recent poll projects that they will win 16 in the upcoming elections—eight for the Ashkenazi-led United Torah Judaism party and eight for the Sephardi-led Shas party. If these parties reflected the proportion of women in the Israeli population, eight of those seats would be in female hands.
It is unlikely, of course, that Biz’chutan will take those eight seats. In fact, it is an open question as to whether the party will receive any seats in the next election. Nonetheless, its very existence reflects and represents an enormous change in the fabric of life in Israel. That change is personified in the three remarkable women on the party list: Ruth Colian, Noa Erez, and Gila Yashar.
Ruth Colian, 33, who leads the party, represents one of the most important forces behind the rise of Haredi women in public life: Education.
Why specifically education? Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum, said it simply and well: “With knowledge comes empowerment.”
Colian holds a law degree from the Ono Academic College Haredi campus, and in this, she is less and less unusual. In recent years, the number of Haredi women holding advanced degrees has grown considerably. As a result, specific schools and other institutions of higher learning are being established for Haredi women. Two of the three women on the Biz’chutan list are studying to be lawyers, and for them, the newly formed Haredi women’s school founded by Adina Bar-Shalom—daughter of the Shas party’s former spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef—has made a big difference. Bar-Shalom has said that she “believes Jewish law is in favor of gender equality” and has acted accordingly. Bar-Shalom’s Michlala Haredit (Haredi College) has been in existence since 2001. It trains women for secular and religious careers without exposing them to what the Haredi community perceives as the “dangers” of secular learning, since everything takes place in an ultra-Orthodox environment. Other institutions have followed suit.
In a statement on the website of Ashoka, a foundation for social entrepreneurs, Bar-Shalom wrote,
I don’t know if this is a revolution. But it is possible to talk about a significant change in the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox community toward education. The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community realize that it’s impossible to sit on the fence if they don’t want this community to wallow in poverty all its life. I entered this field in order to open a door to masses of girls. This is my aim.
Her school has 540 graduates a year and a 94 percent employment rate. These numbers might seem small, but given that Haredi women have traditionally been excluded from higher education entirely, they are hugely impressive.
In a phone interview, Bar-Shalom told me that the increased self-confidence women gain from higher education gives them faith in themselves. While that faith may not have led directly to such things as forming a Haredi women’s party, she continued, such a party is certainly a byproduct. When asked about her own political life, she said that she expects women will eventually serve with the traditional Haredi parties. “I think it will happen,” she said. “Not so fast, but it will happen.” She wants it to happen, however, by consensus. It should be done, she said, with the agreement of the rabbinical leadership, because they “should see” that Haredi women “are not against but for.”
Accordingly, Bar-Shalom declined to campaign for a place on the list of any political party in this election cycle. Many observers were disappointed, with Sima Kadmon writing in the Times of Israel, “Bar-Shalom gave up the chance to be the first ultra-Orthodox woman to break all the conventions.” Bar-Shalom told me her rationale is that “to be a member of Knesset is not the only way to have influence.” Indeed, Bar-Shalom sits at the head of a women’s advisory council that, according to Shas party spokesman Yakov Betzalel, will grant her authority “just like a member of parliament.”
Colian herself told me that the most important aspect of the rise of higher education among Haredi women is that these women are now credentialed. When I asked why a Haredi women’s party is needed, her first response was to say that there are now Haredi women with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and they don’t like to see men without any of these credentials appointed to powerful official positions simply because they are men.
She has experienced this firsthand. Higher education and the resulting self-confidence have made a huge difference in her life. In 2010, Colian found herself in debt, and she hired herself out as a surrogate mother in order to make ends meet. In other words, her only means of earning a living was to literally rent out her body. In fact, the Hebrew word for a surrogate mother is pundaka’it; literally, a “woman who makes her body into an inn.” But with an education, she and her family have many more and much less risky and complicated options.
There were many other factors, Colian told me, in her decision to form Biz’chutan. One of them, interestingly enough, was Facebook. Biz’chutan’s Facebook group now has over 2,000 members—both women and men—and greatly empowers the tiny party, helping to get its message out at little cost. Rivka Neriya-Ben-Shahar, an anthropologist and professor at the Sapir Academic College in Sderot, explained to me that, before Biz’chutan was formed, around 80 women took part in a meeting in the Haredi town of Bnei Brak. They were all members of a Facebook group called “Feminists under the Wig,” a reference to Haredi women’s traditional use of wigs to cover their hair. The meeting included Tali Farkash, a journalist for the news website Ynet, as well as Haredi journalist Esti Shushan and organizer Racheli Ibenboim, who lead a group called Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot (the phrase, loosely translated, means “if we can’t be elected, we won’t vote for you”) or LoNiLoBo. LoNiLoBo started as a response to the Haredi parties’ traditional exclusion of women from their party lists, and has over 5,000 likes on its Facebook page.
For many of the women, the meeting was the first time they “shared their feelings” of frustration at not having their needs officially represented. There was also some sharing of their personal lives. Neriya-Ben-Shahar says that not all the women there looked Haredi, and some of them were Mizrahi (Sephardi Jews from Muslim countries). She added that, in Haredi society, being Mizrahi means a “second class” status. For many of these women, it was the first time they had “shared their feelings” of frustration at not having their needs officially represented. As an anthropologist, Neriya-Ben-Shahar sees their presence as part of a process of change. Many women will say quietly, “I would think differently, but I will do what my rabbi will say,” but they need a “real resistance before they say, ‘I do what I think, not what my rabbi says.’” Neriya-Ben-Shahar believes that such change will be an “earthquake,” and “there will be a moment when everything will break and they feel they can’t” remain silent about the treatment of women in Haredi society.
Colian was inspired by the meeting and by LoNiLoBo’s approach. She saw in the women she met a possible base for a Haredi women’s party.
The first tremors of this “earthquake” were already being felt when Colian formed Biz’chutan. One of the leaders of LoNiLoBo, Racheli Ibenboim, who was director of the Meir Panim social service charity at the time, wanted to run in Jerusalem’s 2013 municipal elections as number three on the Jewish Home party list. She was forced to drop out of the race due to threats that her children would be expelled from their schools. Ibenboim wrote at the time,
My goals are to try and change, at least a little bit, the social climate in the haredi sector. To prove that it is also permitted for a woman, that women also have the ability to make a not inconsiderable contribution to haredi and Israeli society. That every person affiliated with any sector has the right to free choice and the ability to fulfill themselves. It seems I was too optimistic too quickly.
Ibenboim was raised in the Haredi Ger Hasid community in Tel Aviv and, according to a recent article, “she became familiar with secular Israel and was inspired by watching activists protest on Rothschild Boulevard.”
Colian took Ibenboim’s desire to run for office as part of an established party a step further; so much further, in fact, that Neriya-Ben-Shahar had serious misgivings about the endeavor.
After the meeting in Bnai Brak, Colian called Neriya-Ben-Shahar and asked whether she knew any Ashkenazi Haredi women who might join such a party. Neriya-Ben-Shahar told Colian, “I’m not sure this is the smart thing to do.” She knew that opposition to such a party would be ferocious and was “not sure this is smart in terms of price to children and the family,” wondering over “the price that family and children need to pay for the parents’ ideology.” The price paid by a family is a very personal matter for her, as her parents raised her in the Gaza settlement of Gush Katif. Though the family was not living there at the time, all of their former neighbors were forced to leave in the 2006 Gaza disengagement. Nonetheless, Neriya-Ben-Shahar reconsidered, thinking, “Look, she is a real feminist and you tried to block her.”
Colian is well aware of the risks involved in what she is doing. One prominent Haredi figure has already hinted ominously that she could be excommunicated for her political activities. When asked about the threats against her and the fear that her children will be asked to leave their schools, Colian says, “I am very worried about it—how it will impact my children. I’m afraid, I am terrified. But I don’t have any choice.” For Colian, Biz’chutan is not just a political party, but a moral imperative. She is frustrated at a Haredi society where a woman’s name is written in the Bible, but a Haredi newspaper will only write her name as R. Colian, because it is presumed to be immodest to write out women’s given names. She feels that such things are fundamentally wrong. Having women in Haredi parties is, to her, an issue of equal justice. “These parties get money from my taxes as a woman,” she says, but they won’t let her or other women run for office. To her, Biz’chutan is “asking only the right to assert and to impact our lives and our children’s lives.” She feels that the process has now taken on a life of its own, and “thousands and hundreds of thousands of women want my process to be completed and successful.”
And one must never forget that, whatever her misgivings about Haredi society, Colian is a religious woman. Indeed, her faith encourages her to believe that she can complete her “process.” “You need to believe in God to do the right thing,” she says. “If God is with you, there is no chance you will not get help if you are doing the right thing.”
Two of Colian’s “thousands and hundreds of thousands of women” are number two and three on her party list—Noa Erez and Gila Yashar. Erez, 31, is a Sephardi woman from a Tunisian family who grew up in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and is currently a law student at the Kiryat Ono Haredi College. She first met Colian two-and-a-half years ago when Colian came to speak at her school. Colian was trying to become head of a student group, and Erez was her class representative, so she went up to Colian during the break and spoke to her. “It was,” Erez says, “a match from heaven.” When Colian first proposed Biz’chutan, Erez’s response was that she needed to think. She could not give her answer over the phone. Once they were face to face, Erez told Colian, “I am with you in fire and water. I am with you.”
Unlike Colian and Neriya-Ben-Shahar, Erez had no misgivings. “I am more afraid not to have Haredi women represented,” she says, “so I am not afraid” to run for political office. She does not mind, for example, that her family’s reaction has been decidedly mixed. She told me that some think “it’s not appropriate. Politics are dirty and it is not good to get dirty, to go there.” The others believe what she is doing is “blessed, praiseworthy” and “thank God women like me are doing it.”
Erez believes very strongly that the political empowerment of Haredi women will strengthen, not violate, Jewish law. She thinks, for example, that the Shas party is making a mistake by not including women, because Haredi women will be dressed modestly, unlike the secular female politicians with whom Shas members must sit in the Knesset. “Better for us to sit with them,” she says. “We won’t do anything against the will of God.”
She hopes to be a “listening ear” for Haredi women, so their needs are given a fair hearing. Some of the issues she mentioned to me are the high death rates from breast cancer among Haredi women, the lack of spaces for girls from Mizrahi backgrounds in Haredi schools (there is an illegal quota system in place), and divorced women who have been victims of domestic violence or are having difficulty receiving their alimony payments.
The very existence of Biz’chutan reflects and represents an enormous change in the fabric of life in Israel.
Those Erez hopes to aid are women like the third member on Biz’chutan’s list—Gila Yashar. A 48-year-old Mizrahi woman who came to Israel from Iran in 1969, Yashar only went public with her identity last month. It was “not an easy decision,” because it forced her into the public eye despite a troubled past: She was a battered woman who had been abused not only by her husband, but also the Israeli justice system. Her decision was finally made with the assistance of her oldest brother, Rabbi Menashe Baal Hanes, who has assisted other victims of domestic abuse.
Yashar grew emotional as she told me the moving story of her 23-year marriage to an abusive man. She has now been seeking a divorce for four years. One of her children is wheelchair-bound due to cerebral palsy and needs help to eat and drink. In June, she was summoned to the rabbinical court of Judge Avraham Sheinfeld and told she had to accept a religious divorce. She did not know what the details of the settlement would be and did not have a lawyer with her. She refused to accept any offer without a lawyer and, as a result, was jailed and then handcuffed to a hospital bed. “I can’t imagine,” she told me, “how people act like this when they are supposed to be fearing God.” She says she was treated this way to “make me an example for women—if you don’t listen to the Beit Din [rabbinical court], this is what will happen.”
Now, the tables have turned. Yashar’s presence on Biz’chutan’s list makes her a constant reminder to voters of the abuses made possible by a system of rabbinical judges that only includes men. She says of her new role in politics, “I want to help so much anyone who needs help,” adding, “I hope to be a shlicha tova [‘an emissary for good’]” and she feels this is a “kind of destiny” for her. “This world is a corridor to the next,” she said, and she hopes to “do something with myself, to help others from my position and my experience.” To her, this is “much more important than money or any other thing.” It is this level of determination and faith-based strength that strikes anyone who hears the stories of the three women on Biz’chutan’s list.
By forming their own party, the women of Biz’chutan are trying to make changes in the lives of Haredi women, and there are a plethora of issues on which change is needed. One expert on these issues is a woman who has already been elected to the Knesset. Dr. Aliza Lavie of the Centrist Yesh Atid party is modern Orthodox and, before she embarked on a political career, was working at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University, teaching such courses as “Gender and Mass Communication; Radio as a Social Instrument; Media and Religion; and Advertising Products as Cultural Space.” She was also chairperson of Malka Bina’s institution Matan in her hometown of Netanya from 2002-2005 and is currently a member of Ruti Feuchtwenger’s Kolech organization.
Lavie currently leads the Knesset Committee for the Status of Women and Gender Equality. As such, she has already effected real change in Israeli society. For example, she was able to provide state funding for a program at Matan that trains women to be rabbinical judges. Even though her party has been very active in the campaign to end IDF draft exemptions for Haredi men—something the Haredi community bitterly opposes—she has held meetings with Haredi women in order to hear their concerns and understand their needs, particularly on two major issues: Employment and health.
Although, as she jokingly told me, they knew that “Aliza Lavie is the bad guy,” she spoke with “about 70 women” regarding their problems in the workplace. These Haredi women have no union and—because their husbands study Torah instead of working—are their families’ sole breadwinners. Unfortunately, this makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. As an example, Lavie told me about women who work low-salaried jobs as assistants in a Haredi kindergarten, which is not part of the state system. Thanks to the lack of oversight, the owner of the kindergarten was able to take money out of their salaries with impunity. “I went to the Minister of Education,” Lavie told me, “and asked, ‘How come?’” Lavie then arranged for hearings on the issue. The hearings were closed so that women still employed by the system would be willing to testify. Lavie likened the situation of these women to that of “slaves without any rights.” She told me “these women need help,” but there has been no political assistance from the male-only Haredi parties.
On health issues, the situation is very similar. This is particularly the case in regard to breast cancer. There were no statistics or information on the issue as it relates to Haredi women, so Lavie commissioned a team of Knesset researchers who eventually discovered that Haredi women die of breast cancer at twice the rate of other Israeli women. Lavie says that part of the problem is that women who have many children (as Haredi women almost always do) as well as a job often have no time to go to the doctor. She believes that doctors’ work hours need to be extended in order to make such visits possible. Another issue is cultural. She told me that “in some of the communities the rabbis feel nistar mimekha al tidrosh, ‘if something is hidden from you, don’t seek it out, don’t go and look.’” This makes preventive care for breast cancer very difficult, and many Haredi women are diagnosed only when the disease is already in its later stages.
Lavie is encouraged by the results of these proceedings, and believes that change is coming. It will take time, but the time is not far away, and this change will include women as members of the traditional Haredi parties. Indeed, though she is not Haredi herself, Lavie embodies the kind of change that may be coming for Haredi women: She is the mother of four and already a grandmother. She is religious, highly educated, professionally accomplished, the author of a Jewish women’s prayer book, and a political figure. Although she is tenth on the Yesh Atid list, and current projections show that the party will likely garner only nine seats, sending her back to her university position come the elections, Lavie is, in many ways, precisely what the women of Biz’chutan aspire to be: A woman who has taken full advantage of the political and educational opportunities available to her.
In a recent column in the Times of Israel, Lavie seemed to sum up the driving forces behind Biz’chutan, its leaders, and its mission.
Does the voice of Judaism in Israel always have to be that of a male? Is there no room for a female voice? In recent years we have seen the emergence of a generation of religious women who are opinionated, traditional, and educated—all at the same time. Religious Zionism, the traditional and reserved part of it, excluded from its ranks—and continues to exclude—thousands of women who have reached the pinnacle of academia and law, society and science, education and research. Despite this, in the public sphere the voice heard is mostly that of the rabbis and teachers.
The question is, can Biz’chutan achieve its goals in the here and now? Or is it still too early for the kind of change it is trying to effect?
One expert is optimistic on the subject. Elana Sztokman is the former head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and author of The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism Is Smothering the Voice of a Nation. She is also part of an 8,000 member Facebook group for religious feminists called, “I am a religious feminist and I have no sense of humor.” She told me that she proposed forming a political party attached to the Facebook group, but the idea went nowhere.
Now, however, Sztokman thinks the time is ripe for a women’s party, even—perhaps especially—a Haredi one. She points out that women from the Israeli Left and Right are now collaborating on feminist legislation and “ideologies can be demarcated on different lines.” To her, the fact that women from the Right-wing, religious Jewish Home and the Centrist, secular Yesh Atid parties can collaborate on feminist legislation related to issues like divorce, domestic violence, and prostitution suggests that “if there has ever been room to mark off a feminist space and a feminist platform” then “there has never been a better time than now.”
Interestingly, she thinks Orthodox feminism may have an advantage, because it is the “only feminist movement in the world that embraces the system, that does not seek to unravel or dismantle the system.” Sztokman added that, to her, the goal of Orthodox feminism is to “rearrange the furniture, make things better for women, move things around but not break down the system.”
She also believes that, surprisingly, Haredi women are going “a step further” than secular women by organizing a party that deals exclusively with women’s issues. Even if it fails, she thinks Biz’chutan will have a major influence. “There have been three attempts in Israel to advance a Women’s Party,” she recently wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward, “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 women of Biz’chutan feel they have no chance to effect change unless they gain political power. It is something they feel they must do, in order to make a change for the better in their lives and the lives of their children. This is not only because of an abstract desire for justice; it has a very real and practical impact on their lives as one of Israel’s least powerful minority groups. Indeed, American-born Haaretz journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer, who covered the Biz’chutan press conference, told me that she sees the women of Biz’chutan as akin to “minority women feminists” in the U.S, who see themselves as the “underdogs of the underdogs.”
At the moment, Biz’chutan’s chances of entering the Knesset appear slim; but, as Sztokman points out, the party has already had a major effect on Israeli politics. Indeed, the very fact of its existence gives public expression to far-reaching changes in the lives of Haredi women in Israel. In effect, the women of Biz’chutan have publicly announced that they are not willing to let someone else—be it a rabbi or a politician—decide whether they should or should not be empowered to make decisions about their lives and the lives of those they represent. Whether they end up in the Knesset or not, it is obvious that their fight for representation is not over.
Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower