by Tali Farkash
I f you followed the recent elections in Israel, you could not have missed the “No Voice, No Vote” campaign. The campaign started as part of the efforts of a group of hareidi feminists to put the lack of representation of hareidi women in the Israeli Knesset on the national agenda.
In fact, the “No Voice, No Vote” campaign began during the previous Knesset elections, which took place two years ago, through a Facebook initiative undertaken by my friend and colleague Esti Shoshan. Esti and I, together with several other hareidi women, came together to try to raise public awareness of the lack of representation of hareidi women in the Knesset. Regretfully, the topic did not receive the public attention that we sought.
In the run-up to the recent elections, when the decision was announced to dissolve the Knesset and to call for new elections, Esti asked me whether I thought it would be worthwhile to try to bring the subject up for discussion again. My response was, of course, positive, so what began as a Facebook initiative, with a message directed at hareidi women, turned into an agenda for the entire nation.
Very quickly we found ourselves called into every television studio and interviewed on radio programs. Even the hareidi media did not remain indifferent. Our articles were published and republished with great frequency on hareidi websites and elsewhere. Even the partisan, conservative newspapers, such as Yated Ne’eman, could not ignore the outcry, though of course their columnists had rather less complimentary things to say about us.
Who Are We?
The core group of leaders of the campaign comprises five women—four women in addition to myself.
- Esti Shoshan, married with four children, is a director and filmmaker. She is the creator of the film Akarah (Barren), the story of a newly married hareidi woman who has no interest in children. Esti is a publicist and a social activist.
- Michal Chernovitsky, married with three children, is Lithuanian hareidi (i.e., not hasidic). She is a social activist, an active member of the professional organization Koah La’Ovdim (the Democratic Workers’ Organization), a volunteer in a shelter for abused Orthodox and hareidi women, and a promoter of social activism in hareidi towns. Michal stood for election in the recent elections for the city council in Elad. Even though she won hundreds of votes, she did not win a seat on the council.
- Racheli Ibenboim, from the Gerer hasidic group, is married with two children and lives in Meah Shearim. She has served as the executive director of the charitable organization Meir Panim, and currently runs the Movilot (Leaders) program, a social project for the advancement of high-quality employment for hareidi women.
- Esty Reider-Indorsky, a former journalist, is an academic researcher and is currently completing her thesis on the subject of hareidi women.
These are my partners on this journey; we are all the products of hareidi society. We have all studied, grown up, and been educated in its institutions. In my role as a journalist, I have written for the last decade about hareidi matters and social phenomena taking place in our society. Finally, after no small number of articles and columns, I have come to the conclusion that I also have to do something.
I am not alone. Each of my friends has come to the same conclusion as a result of her own life experience, and the problems and difficulties that each has experienced or witnessed in her job. If we talk about a “glass ceiling” that prevents women from realizing their full potential, in hareidi society this should be called a “concrete ceiling.” The discrimination and exclusion are not hidden, but rather are present in every aspect of a hareidi woman’s life: her work, her promotions, and her acceptance into decision-making forums and positions of influence.
What Are We Talking About?
Some statistics: The chief hareidi parties in Israel, Shas and United Torah Judaism, currently hold thirteen seats in the Knesset. Women vote for these parties in equal measure to men. Therefore, we are talking about six and a half Knesset seats that hareidi women vote for, while not actually being represented within the Knesset itself. Of the citizens of the democratic State of Israel, 5.5 percent are unrepresented in the Knesset.
Obviously, the Knesset is not supposed to be a perfect reflection of Israeli society, but the fact is that hareidi women have no presence at all in the Israeli parliament, and therefore no real ability to promote legislation and budgets for matters that are important to them, whereas every other sector is able to fight for the issues that they care about. The voices and desires of hareidi women remain out of the equation.
This statistic is particularly worrying when we look at the heavy price paid in the area of employment. According to statistics from the Ministry of the Economy, a hareidi woman earns 35 percent less than the average Israeli woman. She has difficulty exercising her basic employment rights and is susceptible to exploitation by her employers. Instead of outsourcing to India, Israeli companies can simply give the low-paid work to hareidi women, as happened in Modi’in Illit. Similarly, a hareidi kindergarten teacher may be asked to pay part of her salary back to her employer as a “tithe.”
Things are no better in the women’s health arena. There are numerous health-related issues for which hareidi women do not receive the medical treatment to which they are entitled. The Health Ministry does not gather statistics specifically related to hareidi women, even though these statistics do actually exist. These statistics would help the ministry set out a policy for dealing with the issue and monitor the effectiveness of the programs already in operation by private organizations in the field. There are some disturbing statistics of morbidity and mortality rates. For instance, according to the Israel Cancer Association, the cancer mortality rate for hareidi women is three times the rate for the average Israeli woman.
Rabbinic Guidance Sought
It is important to mention that before we embarked on our political activities, each of us met individually with a learned rabbi to hear his opinion on the campaign and its goals. The rabbi with whom I consulted told me that there is not enough halakhic discussion on the subject for him to be able to provide a clear, definitive ruling, but that he believes that there is a strong, firm basis on which to permit it.
He came to the conclusion on the basis that there was no issue of serarah, rulership (which is apparently the source of the halakhic prohibition, according to Rambam), as these are democratic elections that do not call for special honors, nor are these positions conferred by inheritance, such as a monarchy. He also highlighted the difference between the active election by people who are choosing for themselves to vote for a woman and appointment from above. This is something that we learn from the example of the prophet and judge Devorah.
Another point that one of the rabbis from a more conservative faction made was if women are voting for their female Knesset members and the male hareidi public vote for their representatives, as far as he is concerned there is no problem because men are not voting to be represented by women
Another rabbi sent us a quotation from Rav Haim Kanievsky, in response to a question about public activity for women (not related to the Knesset), that it was right and appropriate that women should act for and assist women, rather than having hareidi men do so.
The rabbi with whom I consulted told me that he was pleased to hear the opinion of such an eminent rabbi as Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman. However, our attempts, both public and discreet, to obtain answers and guidance on the matter were all blatantly ignored by the hareidi members of the Knesset and the rabbis’ inner circles. To put it simply, they have refused to give a final decision on the matter, perhaps out of concern that they might arrive at an answer that does not “suit” them.
We decided not to try to force any responses from people because it would always be possible for those rabbis to deny the answers, as has happened many times in the past, or to say that their comments had been misunderstood. Also, in our view, this is not actually a halakhic issue, but a cultural one. As long as there is no clear statement from a respected rabbi, from one of the leaders of the hareidi public, against our request, we have no reason to think that there is anything “wrong” with it.
The only one to give his halakhic opinion on the matter, in direct reference to the campaign, was Rabbi Meir Mazoz, the rosh yeshiva of Kisei Rechamim and the spiritual leader of Eli Yishai’s Yachad party. He is of the opinion that there is definitely room to permit it, and he sees no problem with it. However, he noted that he would not be prepared to be the first one to do so, and that he would wait for the opinions of other rabbis on the matter—opinions that have not been received as of the time of this writing.
To tell the truth, there has not been enough concrete debate on the subject. This is a new issue, and it seems that most Orthodox rabbis, and especially hareidi rabbis, have decided not to deal with it, for reasons known only to them. Nonetheless, after in-depth research, we managed to find these and other discussions, which we collected and published in a booklet. The most interesting among them, in my opinion, is that of the Seridei Aish (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg), who, while stating that there are “strong reasons” to forbid it, noted explicitly and frankly that “from a purely legal perspective, there is absolutely no basis on which to forbid the decision” (Part A, Siman 139).
Publication of a Pamphlet
To raise awareness of the halakhic aspect of the issue, we published a short halakhic pamphlet written by two learned rabbis, presenting the approaches of various poskim over several generations. The pamphlet is currently being actively distributed in synagogues and kollels to encourage halakhic debate on the topic.
Ultimately, the awareness campaign has not only forced the heads of the hareidi parties to deal with the issue and the chairman of Shas to set up an advisory “Women’s Council,” in an attempt to mitigate public criticism against him on this issue, but it has also initiated a wave of awareness of the question regarding the woman’s place in modern hareidi society.
In the end, the question of a female hareidi member of the Knesset has transformed into a frank discussion of the “F-word”: feminism. It has provoked a discussion of the place of hareidi career-minded, educated, social activist women in the decision-making process and their influence over areas that need improvement. Hareidi society, like all conservative societies, is progressing toward modernity, albeit slowly, and with diligent efforts to determine the appropriate checks and balances needed to conserve its social-religious identity. Only time will tell whether they succeed. What is for sure is that a female hareidi member of the Knesset is, ultimately, just a matter of time.
Tali Farkash is a journalist at Ynet (Judaism Channel). Raised and educated in an ultra-Orthodox community in B’nai Brak, Israel, she currently lives in Elad and is married and a mother of two. She is studying for her master’s degree in gender studies.