The story of Israel’s founding usually goes something like this: Sun-kissed male and female pioneers plowed the fields by day, danced the hora by night, did guard duty until dawn and together built an egalitarian utopia.
The equality of men and women, the narrative continues, was enshrined into law upon independence in 1948 when women were given full equal social and political rights. Three years later, gender discrimination was outlawed. Meanwhile, as part of universal conscription, women also fought alongside men. To top the story off, Israel was the third country in the post-World War II world to be led by a female prime minister, following Ceylon and India: Golda Meir was elected Israel’s fourth prime minister in 1969 after long stints as labor minister and foreign minister.
Although some of this is true, Israel is not an egalitarian utopia, least of all in the political field. No woman since Meir has served as the country’s head of state; no woman besides Meir and current Knesset member Tzipi Livni has served as foreign minister, and no woman has ever led the ministries of defense or finance. Only four members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current cabinet are women, and just one, Ayelet Shaked, holds an influential position—minister of justice.
Women are better represented in the Knesset, making up 28 percent of members, the highest proportion ever. Although this is higher than in the U.S. Congress, it’s lower than in many European countries, and women head only two of the 12 permanent parliamentary committees—the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality and the State Control Committee.
The worst disparity is in local government, where the political issues are closer to home, which should, at least in theory, make politics more attractive to women candidates. Of Israel’s 50 largest cities, only one has a female mayor, Netanya’s Miriam Feirberg. (In March 2017, the police recommended that Feirberg be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust; the decision is still pending.) Just 17 percent of city council members nationwide are women. And although 65 percent of civil servants are female, only 12 percent hold executive positions, according to WePower, an Israeli group working toward a goal of 50 percent political representation for women in Israel.
There are many reasons for these abysmal numbers. For one, it is not true that women ever were considered political equals in Israel, says Sharon Geva, a lecturer in the History Department at Tel Aviv University specializing in women’s history. “While the early women pioneers did believe in creating a gender revolution, their male compatriots were less excited about that part of the state-building effort,” she says. Theoretically, day care on the kibbutz freed women up to join men in this work, but in practice, most women were relegated to traditional female roles such as cooking and child care.
And despite the legal rights granted women, issues of personal status such as marriage and divorce were left under the control of the chief rabbis and the rabbinical courts. In 1947, soon-to-be Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, believing he was paying a comparatively small price for Orthodox support of the state, “sold out women in exchange for political gain,” says Frances Raday, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University, whose work focuses on human rights and gender equality. “The religious institutions are patriarchal,” she says. “When their personal lives are controlled by the male-centric rabbis, women cannot advance.”
Women’s political advancement is also stymied by Israel’s long-standing security situation. “It has always been easy to make women’s or any other particular group’s needs seem so much less important than our very survival,” says Raday.That women have never really had equal standing in the military, Israel’s most influential and respected institution, is a related problem. Throughout Israel’s history, says Geva, women have been assigned to support jobs such as communications and transportation. And although the military has opened many positions to women, including those in intelligence, most remain in support roles. “Former generals, chiefs of staff and other security experts have ‘old boys’ networks’ and are close to the political establishment,” says Hanna Herzog, co-director of the Center for Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Plus “they are considered the experts in security.” As a result, Herzog continues, when women try to enter the political arena, “they are often perceived as intruding into territory that ‘isn’t theirs,’ because of their presumed nature and their lack of security experience.”
The security situation also reinforces the distinction between the “private sphere,” which is where women are supposed to be, and the “public sphere,” which is where men make decisions, says Herzog. “The feminist movement has struggled to erase this distinction,” she explains, “because it limits women’s political horizons, but in war situations, where men are portrayed as heroes who are willing to sacrifice their lives for ‘their women,’ it is difficult. It is especially difficult in Israel, because both the Jewish and the Arab traditions emphasize the importance of the family.”
Women who do enter politics are often pigeonholed and expected to represent the needs of families and children, not the needs of “the nation.” This, says Herzog, creates a “vicious circle where women are not seen in positions of power and authority, so the public, including women and girls, do not think that they have the ability or the right to be in those positions.”
This phenomenon was evident when former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party won by a slight margin in the 2009 election, providing her with the chance to form a governing coalition and become prime minister. She was unable to do so, and Livni now believes that her gender was a disadvantage. Even in her own party, she says, it was suggested a woman “would not be able to answer the hotline in the middle of the night” or make military decisions. Livni recalls being taken aback by this. “When I initially entered politics, I didn’t relate to ‘the whole thing’ about women,” she says. “I came to politics because of diplomatic issues and knew that women were strong enough, but as I campaigned, I realized how difficult it is to accept strong women.”
Livni has come to believe that excluding women from decisions over security can lead to bad decisions. “The monopoly that men have assumed over security issues does not serve us well,” she says, adding that “men define security in a narrow way” by focusing almost exclusively on military issues, while women do a better job of building consensus and finding common ground.
Despite these positives, Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), believes that exclusion of women from the political sphere in Israel is in danger of growing. He points to a campaign by rabbis and some military leaders to stop the integration of women into military combat positions because, they claim, it weakens the army and threatens religiously mandated separation of men and women. This is a troubling phenomenon, he says, and not only for security reasons.
“The under-representation of any social group in decision-making bodies fosters sentiments of exclusion, frustration and alienation,” says Kenig. It’s bad for everyone, he adds, since IDI research has found that female members of Knesset (MKs) are more likely to push bills on issues surrounding children and families. “It means that so-called women’s issues—which are actually of importance to all of us as citizens—are not promoted in the public sphere.”
Some female politicians resent being cornered into women’s or social issues. MK Ksenia Svetlova, 40, notes that while she pays attention to women’s issues, “my academic research has dealt with the Middle East, and I am an expert in Arab affairs.” Justice Minister Shaked also says that her “essence as a feminist” means that she does not have to focus on women’s issues. “I am dealing with issues of democracy and the future of the State of Israel, and I am confident that the public realizes that I am just as capable of doing my job as any man,” she says.
As in the United States, the general public’s attitudes toward women in politics are evolving, says MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, whose father, David Levy, served as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. Levy-Abekasis recently announced that she intends to start a new political party that will participate in the next elections, which have not yet been scheduled. “There are still some, both men and women, who believe that ‘a woman’s place is in the home,’ but their numbers are decreasing,” she says. Her new party, as yet unnamed, will place women high on its slate, “not only out of fairness, but because they realize that this is the right thing to do, and it is what the public expects.”
Even some ultra-Orthodox women are pushing for political office. Esty Shushan and Estee Rieder-Indursky co-direct Nivharot, an NGO dedicated to pressuring the ultra-Orthodox parties to include women on their slates for election to the Knesset, since currently only men are eligible for election in these parties. “Israel is a pluralistic democratic country with progressive legislation, but it has intolerable erasure, silencing and discrimination against women,” says Shushan. “The bylaws of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which include a structural exclusion of women, are in direct violation of democratic principles and the international conventions that Israel has signed. Only in Israel do large political parties, which form an integral part of the government, get to declare themselves to be closed old boys’ clubs.”
There are signs that Israeli women are now taking gender into consideration. According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, there has been a gender gap—a difference in the proportion of women and men voting for the same candidate—in every U.S. presidential election since 1980. Until 2009, most pollsters did not believe that a gender gap would occur in Israel because of security issues. Yet, in the 2009 elections, for the first time, a greater percentage of women voted for women, says Herzog, possibly in response to the chauvinistic attacks on Livni.
As a greater number of women take office, the dynamic will change, says Herzog. “Once more women’s political activity is seen as normal and desirable, it will lead to even more women running for office. And once we reach a critical mass of women who are active in the public sphere, we will be on the road to equality.”
Some of the women on the front line of Israeli politics.
By Eetta Prince-Gibson
Two years after arriving in the Knesset as a member of the right-of-center Jewish Home party, Ayelet Shaked was appointed justice minister, despite, critics said, her lack of legal credentials. (She studied computer engineering in university.) But Shaked learned quickly. Reserved and self-controlled—and nicknamed “ice maiden” by some of her critics—42-year-old Shaked is widely considered to be Israel’s most successful female politician since Golda Meir.
In media interviews, Shaked has repeatedly stated that while she believes in the rule of law, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must be first and foremost Jewish. She supports Israel’s right to annex the West Bank without giving full civil rights to the Palestinians living there. As justice minister, she is a vocal and harsh critic of judicial activism, which, she says, is overly liberal and distorts the wishes of a majority of the people. As a member of Knesset, she sponsored a bill requiring nongovernmental agencies that receive the bulk of their funding from foreign governments—most of which are identified with the left—to be labeled accordingly.
Although she is an avowedly secular woman in a right-wing, national-religious party, her views have made her tremendously popular with nonreligious and Orthodox Jews alike. “There are chauvinistic men in every society, and in Israel, too, and sometimes they make things very difficult for me as a woman, as if I were less capable,” she has said. “In fact, in many ways, women are more capable—we are able to cross party lines to support each other and to promote issues of importance to everyone. Men are less willing to do this.”
Elected to office in 2013 at the age of 27 on the center-left Zionist Union’s slate, Stav Shaffir is the youngest female Knesset member in Israel’s history. Shaffir brings a young, brash (her critics say arrogant) attitude to politics. Focusing on government corruption and social issues, especially the widening gap between the rich and the poor, she created and heads the Knesset Transparency Committee, which oversees governmental budgets and spending. Shaffir supports progressive legislation, although feminist and social issues are not her primary focus. “My generation and I view it as our main mission to return to a politics that is honest, transparent and truly dedicated to the people of Israel, and to encourage my generation to believe in politics as our way of taking responsibility for our communities and our lives,” she says.
Shaffir never thought of entering politics, she says, until 2011, when she was one of the leaders of Israel’s largest-ever, nonpartisan social justice protest, which brought tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets to demand more equal allocations of public funds and a better standard of living for all. Recruited by the Zionist Union, she agreed to run for Knesset “to prove that young people can get stuff done.” Shaffir believes it is a strength that she didn’t come up through the usual political channels. “I can see things clearly, and I am free to criticize corruption wherever I see it,” she says.
Levy-Abekasis is widely recognized as one of the most effective legislators in the Knesset. She holds a law degree from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya but never practiced law, pursuing instead careers in modeling and television. Levy is the daughter of veteran Likud politician and former Foreign Minister David Levy and says that although she grew up in a political home, she had never intended to pursue politics until invited to join the Israel Home party by its founder, Avigdor Liberman, in 2009. She quickly shed her “model” image and has gained a reputation as a serious and opinionated lawmaker who prepares more than most for Knesset deliberations.
In 2016, she broke from the party, and she recently announced her intention to start a new party, which will run in the next elections. Levy-Abekasis has repeatedly told Israeli media that she hopes to break free of traditional right-left paradigms and to focus on socioeconomic affairs. With a proven track record for her social agenda, supporters say that she may have the ability to draw in a diverse group of supporters, including women, Mizrachim and voters with strong social concerns. Although her party does not have a platform—or even a name—a recent survey predicts that it could win up to eight of the 120 seats in the Knesset. This would mean that she could play a key role in shaping a future coalition, perhaps even holding the balance of power between the right- and left-wing blocs.
Tzipi Livni, 59, was first elected to the Knesset in 1999. Both her parents were officers in the Irgun, the guerrilla group that fought the British in the 1940s, and she was a member of the militant Beitar youth movement. After her army service, she was a Mossad agent in Europe. Livni was a protégé of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the Likud Party but broke with him to support a two-state solution and joined the Kadima party. Under her leadership, Kadima won a plurality of 28 seats—the most of any party—in the 2009 elections, bringing Livni the closest any woman has come to being prime minister since Golda Meir. However, she was unable to form a coalition, in part, she believes, because her detractors focused on her gender.
Livni later formed the Hatnua Party, which, in the 2015 elections, ran with the Labor Party as “the Zionist Union.” Referring to these changes, her critics claim that she is an opportunist who does not hold clear-cut views; her supporters see these moves as proof of her flexibility and willingness to change her mind. Livni has been a top negotiator in some of Israel’s key negotiations, including those led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with the Palestinians in 2014. Other than Meir, Livni is the only woman to have held the position of foreign minister and is considered to be among the most powerful women in Israel. In 2007, Time Magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential men and women in the world.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, 53, is one of the most popular—and most disliked—politicians in Israel. Regev came to the Knesset in 2009 after a 25-year career in the IDF, where she rose to the rank of brigadier general and served as the IDF spokeswoman during the Gaza disengagement and the Second Lebanon War. Regev is brash (her critics say vulgar) and boisterous (her critics call her violent). “In the political world they don’t know how to swallow me because I am a colorful person and different. I am unpredictable,” she told Al Monitor in an interview in 2013. Regev is determined to put an end to what she refers to as a left-wing, Ashkenazi, elitist bias in cultural institutions and to champion the culture of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and African origin. She has worked to take away state funding for any cultural events that glorify or humanize terrorists or that are overly critical of the government’s policies. All agree that she has amassed a significant power base. In a recent interview with the Israeli media, Regev announced that she hopes to be Israel’s next prime minister.
A member of the Knesset from the Likud Party and deputy minister of foreign affairs since 2015, Tzipi Hotovely, 39, is a lawyer and a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University. She holds some of the strongest right-wing views in the Knesset and has been called “the ideological voice of the Likud.” Her political statements are often filled with biblical references, citations from classical Jewish texts and modern legal interpretations to support her positions in favor of Israel’s right to construct settlements in and maintain control over the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also holds the foreign ministry portfolio, has distanced himself several times from her more extreme comments. Hotovely has served as chairperson of the Committee on the Status of Women and worked on several gender-related laws, including the extension of maternity leave and a law that prevents photographing victims of sexual assault.
Aida Touma-Sliman, 52, entered the Knesset in the 2015 elections as a member of the Joint (Arab) party. Appointed to head the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, she made history twice: as the first Arab woman to head a permanent Knesset committee and as the first member of Knesset to campaign for election on women’s issues. She came to politics after founding two feminist organizations (Women Against Violence and the International Women’s Commission for a Just Palestinian-Israeli Peace) and serving as editor-in-chief of the Israeli Communist Party’s Arabic newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Touma-Sliman has successfully formed ad hoc coalitions across the political spectrum in order to promote her legislative initiatives. “I care about all women,” says Touma-Sliman. “But Palestinian women who are citizens of Israel face multiple layers of discrimination—as Arabs in Jewish society, as women and as women in our own patriarchal society. I very much hope that there will be more feminist voices in the Knesset and not just a higher number of women.”
Recently elected chairwoman of the Meretz party, 42-year-old Tamar Zandberg came to national politics from the Tel Aviv Yaffo City Council. She has been in the Knesset since 2013, one of a group of younger women who recently joined its ranks. Zandberg promotes a clearly feminist agenda. “If there were more women in the Knesset, the decision-making would be totally different,” she says. “There are a whole set of issues men don’t take into consideration.” Still, while holding left-wing views on social and security issues, Zandberg has also made it clear that she believes in realpolitik and is willing to join a coalition that could potentially include right-wing parties. “You can accomplish more from inside,” she says, “as long as you don’t sacrifice your core beliefs.”
Esty Shushan & Estee Rieder-Indursky
Esty Shushan (top), 40, and Estee Rieder-Indursky, 45, aren’t members of the Knesset, but they intend to be. Ultra-Orthodox feminists who are fighting for women’s rights within the conservative ultra-Orthodox community, together, the “Estys,” as they are known, founded Nivharot, Hebrew for “the elected women,” an NGO that demands that ultra-Orthodox parties change their bylaws to allow women to hold a place on the party slate for elections. In 2015, they petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to instruct the parties to change these bylaws. The parties argued that the justices shouldn’t intervene because it would disrespect a minority’s cultural differences. Given the precedent-setting national importance of the case, the Court referred the petition to a larger panel, which has not yet heard arguments
During the 2015 elections, Nivharot called on women to refrain from voting until they are represented, plastering broadsheets on billboards in the most religious neighborhoods with the slogan, “If you won’t choose us, we won’t vote for you.” Rieder-Indursky and Shushan argue that the exclusion of women—from decision-making institutions and, increasingly, from public space—within the ultra-Orthodox community has nothing to do with religious law and everything to do with increasingly misogynist ideologies and practices. No prominent rabbi from the community has denounced them, but none has expressed support, either. They do, however, encounter pushback from within the community, including from women. “The place of women within Orthodoxy is not only an issue for Orthodox women but for all Israeli women due to the Orthodox monopoly on religious life,” says Rieder-Indursky. “Furthermore, if the state allows the Orthodox parties to exclude women, then there is no guarantee that other parties won’t do so, and that other forms of exclusion won’t occur in the future.”
By Ellen Wexler
Golda Meir (1898-1978)
Meir was born in Kiev and moved with her family to Milwaukee in 1906, where she was exposed to socialism and Zionism. She persuaded her husband to move to Palestine in 1921, and after a brief stint on a kibbutz, she began her career in Israeli public life. She served as minister of labor and national insurance from 1949 to 1956, minister of foreign affairs from 1956 to 1966 and became the modern world’s third female prime minister in 1969. David Ben-Gurion once called her “the only man in the cabinet.” Popular until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she resigned her position in 1974.
Beba Idelson (1895-1975)
Idelson grew up in Ukraine, where she became an activist in the Youth of Zion movement. In 1923, she and her husband were arrested and exiled to Siberia. Deported in 1924, the couple and their daughter arrived in Palestine in 1926, and Idelson served in various political positions. She was a member of the pre-State Provisional Council and a member of the first five Knessets, becoming the first woman to serve as deputy speaker. While she was in office, she laid much of the legal groundwork for women’s rights in Israel, fought the religious monopoly on marriage and divorce and tried to define women’s equality in terms of human rights.
Tova Sanhadray-Goldreich (1906-1993)
Born in eastern Galicia, Sanhadray-Goldreich moved to Palestine alone in 1934. The following year she helped found the women workers’ organization of HaPoel HaMizrachi, a religious socialist-Zionist organization. Before the 1949 Knesset elections, HaPoel HaMizrachi joined an alliance of four religious parties, which would not allow women on its list. In protest, Sanhadray-Goldreich formed the Religious Women Worker Party, although she did not win a seat until 1959. During her 15 years in office, she pushed for a number of conservative policies, including curtailing abortion rights and the rights of common-law spouses. In 1961, she helped draft legislation supporting equal pay for men and women.
Zvia Vildstein (1906-2001)
Vildstein managed an orphans’ home in Lithuania’s Vilna Ghetto during the Holocaust. When the ghetto was liquidated, she, like most of the Jews, was shot, but she survived and lived out the war under a false Polish identity. After the war, she returned to Vilna, where she established a school for orphans. Because of her Zionist activities, she was accused of treason, arrested and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag. She was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 1957 and settled in Givatayim, near Tel Aviv, where she taught in an elementary school. In 1965, she was elected to the Givatayim municipal council.
Haika Grosman (1919-1996)
An active member of the Zionist youth movement HaShomer HaTzair in Bialystok, in what is now Poland, Grosman moved to Vilna when World War II broke out. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Grosman returned to Bialystok, where she lived under a false name and became an underground activist. Upon arriving in Israel in 1948, she became secretary of Mapam, the Labor Zionist party. She served in the Knesset from 1969 to 1981 and from 1984 to 1993, advocating for legislation serving women, the elderly and the poor.
Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino (1926-2015)
Born in Iraq, Arbeli-Almozlino joined the Zionist underground movement at age 20. After being arrested and interrogated by the Iraqi police, she made aliyah in 1947. In 1949, she cofounded Kibbutz Neve Or and joined the Ahdut HaAvodah party, an early version of the Labor Party. She served in the Knesset between 1965 and 1992, spearheading social legislation ranging from labor law to insurance reform, and was widely regarded as a supporter of the most vulnerable in Israeli society. As minister of health from 1986 to 1988, she pushed through legislation for organ transplants and government coverage of fertility treatments.
Yael Dayan (1939-)
Dayan, daughter of politician and military leader Moshe Dayan, the defense minister during the Six-Day War, was born in Mandatory Palestine. After serving in the IDF, she spent her early career writing novels and nonfiction, entering public life only after her father’s death in 1981. “I understand that because I went into politics so late in life, I was never able to achieve all that I had hoped,” she told Lilith last year. “But it never seemed right as long as he was still alive.” Dayan served in the Knesset from 1992 to 2003, where she founded and chaired the Committee on the Status of Women. In this role, she advocated for stricter sexual harassment legislation, and she championed affirmative action and LGBT rights. She served on Tel Aviv’s city council from 2008 to 2013.
Dorit Beinisch (1942-)
Beinisch spent her early career in the state attorney’s office, becoming the first woman to serve as attorney general in 1989. She was appointed to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1995, and in 2006 she was sworn in as the first woman president in the court’s history, a role she held until her retirement in 2012. She is known for her focus on government corruption, human rights, sexual harassment and the rights of individuals. In 2000, she wrote one of her most well-known and controversial rulings, banning parents from using corporal punishment. Today there are four women out of 15 justices on the Israeli Supreme Court.
Daniella Weiss (1945-)
Weiss was an early activist in Gush Emunim, a national religious movement dedicated to establishing settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. In 1975, she helped establish Kedumim, a settlement in the West Bank, and was elected its mayor in 1996 and reelected in 2001. She has been arrested numerous times, for obstruction, for assaulting a police officer, rioting against Palestinians and other similar offenses related to her activities against demolition or evacuation of settlements; in most cases she was given a suspended sentence and/or sentenced to probation and a fine. Eight years ago, she founded Nahala, an organization that helps young people move to unrecognized settlements.