Esty Shushan, an Israeli mother of four, dutifully cast her ballot for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in every election until two years ago. By then, the 37-year-old Shushan, an advertising and marketing consultant, had had it with voting for a party that won’t put women on its parliamentary ticket. Ahead of March 17 parliamentary elections, Shushan and other like-minded women are campaigning to change that policy by rebelling against ultra- Orthodox parties at the ballot box.
“Not only will I not vote for them, I’m going to try and reach out to as many other women as possible,” Shushan said. “I’m going to explain to them: They can’t ask for your vote without giving you representation.”
This ballot box challenge to parliament’s two ultra- Orthodox, or haredi, factions is another trial for a community seeking to preserve its way of life and grappling with a new law that would force its men to comply with the country’s compulsory military service. Shushan and her backers say they are frustrated by the political sidelining because haredi women often singlehandedly support families of eight and more to let their husbands engage in the full-time religious study the community so prizes.
“Haredi women today are the breadwinners,” said Eitan Regev of the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, describing them as “practically superwomen.” “They are now saying: We are doing everything. We are the providers. We are raising the children. We are better educated. We should have a bigger say.”
Two ultra-Orthodox factions currently hold 18 of parliament’s 120 seats. While party officials won’t publicly explain their opposition to women lawmakers, Dov Halbertal, an ultra-Orthodox attorney specializing in Jewish law, cited modesty restrictions and a woman’s role in the Jewish home.
Champions of the right to run say there’s no contradiction between ultra-Orthodox mores and women in parliament. Shushan has started a Facebook page, “No Representation, No Vote,” which has picked up more than 5,000 likes, though it’s not clear how many came from ultra-Orthodox women. She and about 30 other activists have begun a crowd-funding campaign to get out their message.
“The idea is to enter the center of decision-making,” says Michal Zernowitski, 34, an ultra-Orthodox mother of three who works in software quality assessment. “Knesset members make decisions about our lives. Ultra-Orthodox women ought to be there.”
Satirizing community custom, the group made a campaign pitch in a “pashkavil,” the Yiddish term for posters plastered on walls in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that often dictate what is considered acceptable behavior.
“The women of Israel are modest, and therefore worthy of feeding and supporting their husbands, of becoming lawyers, rabbinical court advocates, strategists, advertisers, journalists, parliamentary aides and secretaries to the envoys of the rabbis,” the poster reads. “It is unthinkable that they will assert for themselves the honor that has been reserved for men from time immemorial.”
Strict observance of modesty is a pillar of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Women wear long sleeves, closed necklines and skirts that fall well below the knee. Married women cover their hair. Modesty rules also separate the sexes outside the home, and keep women out of the public eye, to the extent that haredi newspapers don’t print pictures of women.
At the same time, haredi women are gaining economic muscle. They’re increasingly going to college and entering more lucrative professions. They’re also joining the labor force in rising numbers while men have dropped out in droves.
Employment among ultra-Orthodox men plunged to 45 percent in 2013 from about 85 percent in 1979, when the community’s political influence began to grow, and allocations to their seminaries and large families began to rise. At the same time, women’s employment rose to 69 percent from 42 percent.
That compares with overall Israeli employment of 71 percent for men and 63 percent for women, according to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, to which Israel belongs. In OECD countries, an average 73 percent of men and 58 percent of women work, according to the group’s statistics.
Because women are the haredi community’s economic powerhouse, its leaders haven’t immediately silenced Shushan’s campaign, said Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of sociology at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “The big change is that the ultra-Orthodox economy now rests on women,” Friedman said. “There is no such thing as a free lunch. If you create a society in which men learn and women work, this is the price.”
While no women have represented ultra-Orthodox parties in parliament, or Knesset, a haredi woman, Tzvia Greenfield, represented the dovish, secular Meretz party six years ago. Twenty-seven women were elected to the recently dissolved parliament, including at least three who are religious, though not ultra-Orthodox.
Change will come, but slowly, said Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of Shas’s late founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Putting women on the list would simply leave less space for men, she said.
Clinging to Status
“This is the reason that it won’t happen quickly,” said Bar Shalom, who founded a haredi college in 2000 and is a recipient of the Israel Prize, the state’s highest civilian honor. “No one wants to give up his status, the high position in the hierarchy he enjoys as a Knesset member.”
Bar Shalom says several non-haredi parties asked her to join their ticket. She declined, concerned that such a move would be frowned upon in haredi circles and have damaging repercussions for ultra-Orthodox women.
Although Bar Shalom hasn’t been offered a place on the Shas list, the party has named her to a new advisory council of women. Bar Shalom said she went that route because she thought planting the idea of women in
politics would be more effective than defying party elders and running now.
“When there are not just 50 women who are saying it, but 50,000 who are saying it, then the big change will come,” she said.